Photographer Stephane Sensey travelled the length and breath of Indonesia to photograph its diverse people and cultures, often focussing on the nation’s men. The Yak spoke to him about what he believes binds them together.
Stephane, you have travelled the length and breadth of Indonesia photographing many aspects of the culture, but we’ve chosen to focus on the nation’s men here … what’s the most interesting aspect of that for you?
What comes across for me looking again at these photos is the immense sense of pride each of the subjects displayed. They were all proud to be Indonesian, that was very obvious to me with each shot. There were national flags floating in front of many of the houses, even though it was weeks before Indonesia’s Independence Day. You have to marvel at the unity of more than 200 million people who somehow stay together under one flag when each of their lives can be so entirely different.
The other thought that occurred to me on looking again at these photos is the incredible sense of kindness that exists in this country. I needed help so many times during my journey when I was exploring Indonesia! It was either a flat tire, or running out of petrol in the middle of nowhere, or getting hopelessly lost in the mountains … each time there was someone there to help me in the best way they could. Indonesians are very kind and helpful people. They have values based on the knowledge that life is not an easy journey, and that if you can help someone in a time of need then you do. It’s very natural for them.
Does Islam play out universally among each cultural group, or do you see a diversity in that too among men in the archipelago?
Indonesians have different ways of following the Islamic religion, and indeed of worshipping God, by which I mean each subculture may have aslightly different approach to interpreting their religion. For example, in Lombok near the Rijani volcano, they celebrate Islam but their clothes are similar to those worn in Bali. The country as a whole is like an encyclopedia in this respect, with so many different ways to celebrate God.
If you put all the men in these photographs together in a room, do you think they would get along?
I think that depends on the context, and of course it’s a hypothetical question. If you put them in a room together to discuss land boundaries, or sharing wealth, it could be chaotic. Everyone wants to protect their own. But if it was in a room to discuss patriotic nationality, I think they would generally get along. They are all citizens of Indonesia. They share this. There would then follow an exchange of thoughts about the differences in each of their lives, and the similarities.
If you gave each of these men a thousand dollars, how do you think they would spend the money?
I imagine they would each buy a motorbike and a handphone, as these are the two things that are basic to life in Indonesia at this time, once you’ve got somewhere to live and something to eat. Cigarettes would be involved … most of them have been smoking since there were 11 or 12 years old.
What stays with you after each of these journeys and photography sessions?
I never come back the same from any of my photography trips. Each of them changes and affects me in a different way, and each sets me up for the next journey. What stays with me is the bond of trust that grows between me, the camera and the subject … without trust there is no honesty or openness, but this often comes easy to Indonesians. Once they see that you have respect and are there to do no harm, people can be very playful.
Stephane, thanks for your time.