Recollecting Memories: The Itinerant Photographer

(versi bahasa Indonesia: klik di sini)

1 / The itinerant photographers in Kaliurang
My initial interest in observing the itinerant photographer in the tourist area around Kaliurang started the first time I met Mr. Dasri; an itinerant photographer who is still working in this tourist area. Kaliurang is a tourist area located at the slope of Mount Merapi,  about 25 KM away from the center of Yogyakarta. Located 900m above the sea level, Kaliurang is famous with its cool mountains air and beautiful scenery. This area was first recognized in the early 19th century when the Dutch built several villas for their geologists’ family retreat. After independence, the ownership of these villas fell into the hand of the natives. Since that time; the royal family, companies, and individuals begin to build their vacation home there.

Kaliurang’s natural beauty often attract many tourists. Family, friends, and couples typically take pictures amidst the nature, at the famous playground, and even by the streets and other beautiful locations. In the early 90s, camera ownership was still considered a luxury and the itinerant photographers often peddle their services at different points of tourist sites in Indonesia.

In 1981, a number of itinerant tourist photographer began to emerge in Kaliurang. It begins with the presence of Polaroid’s distributor in this area: PT. Eresindo Jaya.  A local citizen was designated as an official representative of PT. Eresindo Jaya. He was assigned to distribute Polaroid’s instant film products. He then formed a partnership with some of those who wish to work as an itinerant photographer. The relations between those two parties is the kind of professional relationship between suppliers and consumers. Aside from being a provider of the goods and in his capacity as the coordinator of the region, he also create a strategy to build the economic system  in order to avoid territory conflict between  each itinerant photographers in this area. Yet, even though a good relationship has always existed between the members; this itinerant photographer collective has never become a formal organization nor committed as a community. The good relationship only occur between person to person and were not followed by organizational activities such as identity building, training, and regeneration.

2 / Tourism Photography
In the past, tourism became one of the most important economic commodity for the Indonesian government. Tourism photography was formed and supported by the government through  mass media campaign. Postcards, tourism advertisements, and many photo contests were held in order to support the tourism industry. The main purpose was to promote tourism potential that refers to beautiful and unspoiled nature. These aspect can later be broken down into several points of visual reinforcement, such as: traditional nature, happiness (the relationship between the society and the nature), and tropic exotics (the exotic flora and fauna habitats including the native residence). One of the few government's efforts in developing the tourism potential through photography is by organizing photography competition, which usually accommodates the amateur/ non-commercial photographer to get their photos recognized. This systematic development of tourism potential was undertaken by the government to establish the image identity of Indonesia. In its progress, there are three types of perspectives that are later used to see  and re-read this typical tourism photography:

First, a tourist perspective; is the perspective set out above previous tourism photos. Someone who travel will use images that already exist as a reference to produce similar image. Reference images that already exist can be derived from tourism promotion media (brochures, postcards, etc.) or come from friends and relatives who previously had been photographed at the tourist sites.

Secondly, the media perspective; is the perspective that has promotional purposes. The media’s strong influence can lead to fantasy and wishful thinking that make someone eager  to produce similar photograph. Not surprisingly, this perspective makes tourist no longer sees the location as a tourist spot but as an object of image creation instead.

Third, romantic perspective; is the perspective that uses memory and experiences in its approaches. While travelling, these people will try to bring up the values that already existed in their mind. In this case, the values in question are directly related to the memory and personal experience.

Given these three perspectives, the role of an itinerant photographer is needed to capture a portrait of the tourist’s wish according to their reference, dreams, and poetic side of the locations that have previously existed in their minds. The role of the itinerant photographer then began to grow. Their business were not just purely economic and promotional, but also has a romantic value and purpose to provide ultimate satisfaction for the customer. The satisfaction of an itinerant photographer is also determined by customer’s satisfaction who has successfully created the image of their dreams.

3 / Three Decades of Tourism Photography in Kaliurang
Circa 1990s, the number of itinerant photographer in the Kaliurang started to decline. Post-eruption of Mount Merapi in 1994, the amount of tourist visits to Kaliurang started to drop; followed by the declining consumption of tourist portraits. Even so, they began peddling photos of Mount Merapi eruption and get a pretty good response from that side. Some of them began to expand their services and start selling various photographs of Mount Merapi as a tourist souvenir.

In the beginning of 2000, the Polaroid instant camera products’ sales began to decline. It led to the change of distribution pattern for instant film photography groups in Indonesia tourist area. PT. Eresindo Jaya. They decided not to provide Polaroid products as part of their business effective around 2005. At the same year, the number of itinerant photographer in the Kaliurang plummeted and the photography 'group' that was once unified by the distribution pattern of PT. Eresindo Jaya ended. In 2008, Polaroid announced to public that their instant film production is terminated. In their explanation, the closure is a response due to the decrease in sales by 25 percent each year since 2000 It is also influenced by the presence of a pocket camera technology with a more affordable price. At the same time, mobile phones with cameras are starting to become everyday consumer products. Having  visitors who bring their own image recording device, respectively; the presence of an itinerant photographers is no longer considered relevant, and slowly started to erode.

At the beginning of the Polaroid instant photo for tourist era, there were approximately 13 photographers who were actively working in Kaliurang. At the present time, there are only two people who are still actively working as an itinerant tourist photographer around the slopes of Merapi. One of them worked in the Tlogo Nirmolo (the Japanese Cave), and the other is working in the area of Kali Adem (the eastern slope of Mount Merapi). Both of them are no longer use Polaroid and instead, they use digital camera and portable photo printers that allows them to print the photo directly on the spot. Besides these two, everyone who used to worked as itinerant tourist photographer has switched professions and no longer see the economic potential of these activities.  Some of them still practice photography but more in the form of promotional media, t-shirt, and souvenirs.

4 / Exhibition: In quest of narrative
My first attempt to seek for a narrative of these itinerant photographers was by creating an exhibition for them. In search of physical artifacts and relics on the Kaliurang Photography Group’s heyday, I found the gray area that is similar to their memories: a bit faded and mixed. Photo materials are brittle, the humidity caused loss or damaged photographed, there was no catalogue system, and there was no awareness to properly store the photo to ensure its durability. Meanwhile, a few remaining photographs that I gathered become a narrative on the stories of each photographer. The exhibition, which presented as one of the nine projects in “900mdpl”, features the works of the Kaliurang Photography Group.

I have an affinity to process the non-physical achieves such as personal and collective memory of those who have been part of the itinerant photographer who worked in Kaliurang at that time. I use the term "Kaliurang Photography Group" to refer to those who became itinerant photographer in the Kaliurang between 1981-2005. Their engagement in this 'group' is limited to the form of the distribution pattern of Polaroid products through PT. Eresindo Jaya as well as the division of operating location between each of these photographers. The attachment and connection that unites them were unofficial, voluntary, and organic. Hence, the term 'group' is relevant enough to be used as an easy reference for my next post. In the process of extracting the oral stories based on their memory, I found a gray area that gives a new meaning for this quest; how people believe in memory. It is then indirectly able to demonstrate a relation between the doer and the activities such as immediacy and the level of confidence in its activities.

The first series of work is presented in the form of old Polaroid photographs that belong to Mr. Dasri. These Polaroid prints were taken on several iconic spots in the infamous Kaliurang Park Playground. This park is one of the favorite tourist area with interesting landscape and unique icons that are often used as photo background. At that time, Mr. Dasri was one of the itinerant photographers who works in this area. In order to illustrate the kind of photo that may be created in this location, he made a few samples  with the iconic tourist background; such as, The Dragon Cave and Buto Ijo. The use of special icons proofed that the people in the photograph was there. This is one of the typical behavior in a tourism photography patterns.

The second series was Mr. Tukimun’s old sample Polaroid prints commonly used as promotional tool. The remaining photographs of the time Mr.Tukimun worked as an itinerant photographer were just the photo samples that was once used as sample image that was then duplicated. Unlike Mr.Dasri’s samples, Mr.Tukimun’s photographs were more about the mundane rather than the iconic landscape. It is more about capturing the fleeing moments and typical portrait rather than about the tourist site.  Given that the analog cameras had no preview feature; these sample photographs were very important as a promotional tool. 

On the other hand, another ex-itinerant photographer, Mr.Slamet has his own strategy to rescue the expiring Polaroid photo sheet. Having the tourism photography industry declined, he used his last remaining of Polaroid photo sheet that almost expire to take family photographs for his own use.  Not to let it wasted nor expired, these remnants were used for private purpose and as a memento to remind him of his time working as an itinerant photographer. 

The next work presented is a blank photo with slopes of Merapi tourist label frame created by Mr. Wiji. Mr. Wiji is one of two itinerant photographer who is still actively operating until today. Through the test of time, he makes instant photographs of tourist with customized frame and sell it as a souvenir. This is how he deals with the changes in order to survive in the business. Personally, the stories of how Mr.Wiji who has fallen and stand up again through many test, with big smile and light heart, is pretty inspiring. In this exhibition, the blank customized photo paper is presented with an audio recording of Mr.Wiji’s story in how the 2010 Merapi eruption has destroyed his entire photograph collection and equipment that he owned since the 1980s, how he begin to adapt with technological changes overtime, and how he create business strategies emphasizing the customer satisfaction to the present. 

Compared to his comrades, Mr. Triyanto had different creative practice. When selling Polaroid portrait was not enough, he started creating photo collage with religious symbols mixed with tourism icons. These collaged photographs were made in the 1990s when digital practice and scanner was not yet familiar for him. With his ability to improvise, he manually cut religious photos of Mother Marry or Jesus and paste it on Kaliurang iconic landscape photos before photographing the collage as a whole new photograph. This niche product was his respond to the frequent religious retreats taking place in Kaliurang. 

These entire work series were chosen to be a narrative about a moment in time when the heyday of the itinerant photographers turn into surviving strategies and struggle against change of time. In this exhibition, I positioned myself as an artist cum curator who chose; create narrative, and preparing the group exhibition of these Kaliurang Photographer Group. This exhibition is not the end of my search either about the group nor practice of photography and its relationship with tourism. The final presentation then becomes an important stepping stone for me to see a bigger picture of the rapid technology change and the course of time. 


- Larsen, Jonas. 2006. “Geographies of Tourist Photography: Choreographies and Performances.” Geographies of Communication: The Spatial Turn in Media Studies, ed. Jesper Falkheimer and, Andre Jansson. Goteborg: NORDICOM (p. 243 – 261). 
-Strassler, Karen. 2010. Refracted Vision: Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java. Durham: Duke University Press.