Preserving Culture Through the Lens of Photography

Photo courtesy of Anton Gautama

Photo courtesy of Anton Gautama

Anton Gautama only began to develop an interest in photography three years ago – but once he held a camera in his hands, there was no turning back. He instantly fell in love. Anton has since published two books and received numerous awards.

The photographer spoke to NOW! Jakarta about his book projects and his desire to preserve Indonesian culture through photography.

Tell us more about yourself and your background?
I was born in Makassar in South Sulawesi and am now based in Surabaya. I’m the fourth child of seven siblings. I first studied in Jakarta and later obtained my master’s degree in Business Administration from Hawaii Pacific University in the US. When I came back to Indonesia, I founded ALFALINK, an overseas education consultancy with branches across the whole country for Indonesians who want to study abroad in countries like the US, Australia, Canada, the UK, Singapore and many more.

When did photography enter the picture? Have you always been interested in photography? 
I discovered photography quite late in my life, in March 2015 to be exact, and have been working professionally as a photographer and artist since, with a focus on documentary photography. I seek unique moments that generate powerful emotional responses and have often been told that my photos have a soul.

In October 2015, I opened a private photo gallery in Malang to share my passion for photography. Combining my interest in exploring and preserving Indonesian culture with my love for photography, I also restored a full set of Javanese gamelan and placed it inside the gallery.

My photographs have been featured in several online and printed magazine platforms since 2016, such as “LensCulture” and “National Geographic Travel.” My works have been exhibited in New York and Texas, USA, the Goethe-Institut Jakarta, Bandung Creative Hub, Institut Seni Indonesia in Yogyakarta, and many others.

You published your first book "Pabean Passage" in 2016. Could you tell us why you chose to photograph this traditional Indonesian spice market?
For over a century, the Pabean Market in Surabaya has been the centre of the spice trade in the agrarian Indonesian province of East Java. It reminds me of my childhood, when I used to visit the market together with my mother: the sweet smell of spices filling the air, workers carrying baskets bursting with produce and seafood, the cluttered shops lining the alleys – it brings back a lot of memories for me.

But more than that, Pabean Market is a melting pot and a testament to Indonesian tolerance and diversity. In the century-old structure, thousands of shopkeepers of diverse ancestries –Javanese, Madurese, and Chinese – conduct business in harmony and mutual cooperation.

Pabean Passage. Photo courtesy of Anton Gautama

Pabean Passage. Photo courtesy of Anton Gautama

I spent a year wandering through the labyrinth of narrow alleyways, seeking the heart and soul of the place I first visited as a young boy. As might be expected, I captured the physical atmosphere of the market: the random goods and produce, alleys with rows of stalls. But I also found the heart of the market: the people. Hidden in the crowded corners of the market, jammed into a twelve-square meter stall (one of hundreds) but living peacefully with their neighbours — sharing life space— it felt like the shopkeepers and labourers were only waiting to be found, to be discovered. My images reveal their emotions and expressions, their various cultural, religious and psychological backgrounds — a mosaic of humanity in peaceful co-existence.

In short, the book depicts the wonderfully dynamic and complex life of this thriving market, the natural beauty of the architecture, and, above all, the faces and traditional attire of the shopkeepers expressing their pride in maintaining a rich cultural heritage.

It didn’t take long for your second book "Home Sweet Home" to be published in October 2017. What did you focus on this time?
When I was working on my first book, I visited many homes of Chinese-Indonesians living in the market. I found it very interesting to get a glimpse of their houses and see how they live.

Growing up in two major cities contributed a lot to this project.What makes this project special is that I tried to capture those places from my experiences of growing up in these two cities.

Built in the early 1900s by Chinese immigrants and based on European design, these buildings show distinct East-Indies characteristics on the outside, while being infused with an assimilation of Chinese and Indonesian culture. This visual story is a reference to living quarters of different fourth generation Chinese-Indonesians.

As I entered those houses, I felt the air of familiarity, a connection with the harmonious combination of two distinctive cultures that I was exposed to myself growing up. Born as a third-generation Chinese-Indonesian, I was raised under the influence of the Chinese culture that my grandparents brought from the old world, while at the same timebeing schooled in a mainly Indonesian setting by my Indonesian-born parents.

Home, Sweet Home. Photo courtesy of Anton Gautama

Home, Sweet Home. Photo courtesy of Anton Gautama

Walking into those historic houses sparked my interest to discover more about the roots of my own cultural heritage. I felt my amazement turn into an aspiration to comprehend the lives of these Chinese-Indonesians, along with the challenges they faced to preserve their own culture while living in a whole new world.

In Indonesia, there is this notion of family home, a place where history, culture, and tradition still live for generations. Just as the proverb says, “A house is built with boards and beams, a home is built with love and dreams,” these family homes have become a testimony of the evolution of Chinese-Indonesian cultures and traditions.

“Home Sweet Home” is a one-year journey into the evolution of the Chinese-Indonesian culture. It is the story of a harmonious marriage of two beautiful cultures, three centuries in-the-making.

I can imagine that Chinese-Indonesian culture is quite a challenging topic to tackle, especially given the complicated history. What were the biggest challenges for you, and how did you overcome them?
It was not easy to enter the Chinese houses, as they tend to be very protective of their privacy, especially after experiencing the political turmoil during and after the 1965 and 1998 tragedies.It was very challenging indeed to document private spaces of people I wasn’t yet acquainted with, especially when I entered private areas, like their bedrooms. Therefore, gaining their trust was the first and most important thing I had to do.

What began as a challenge to obtain the owners’ consent to photograph their homes has later proved tobe a beginning of new friendships. The challenge to find the appropriate houses to shoot had presented me with the privilege of listening to countless stories that offer valuable lessons in life.

When I launched the book in Surabaya, some of the house owners came to the event and cried when they saw the pictures because they felt that I really captured the soul of their homes.

Are you currently working on a new project?
I am still busy promoting “Home Sweet Home” but simultaneously, I am already working on my third book, which will complete my photobook trilogy. While my first two books focused on location and looks of the people, the third project will revolve around their philosophy and psychology.

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This article was first published in the May 2018 issue of NOW! Jakarta magazine.