In March 2012, I assisted a photo workshop with German photographer Wolfgang Bellwinkel. The workshop was held in conjunction with a photo exhibition that he curated titled “Foreign, Familiar”, sponsored by Goethe Institut at Langgeng Art Foundation in Yogyakarta.
Wolfgang Bellwinkel is a freelance photographer, was born in Bochum, Germany, and now divides his time between Berlin and Bangkok. He started to work as a photographer in late 1980s and has done a number of workshops internationally throughout his career. “Foreign, Familiar” is his first curatorial work, putting together work of nine Western photographers who live in or travel frequently all across Asia.
Few weeks before, I was asked by Langgeng Art Foundation to help them select young photographers to participate in the workshop. Grace Samboh, then the executive director of the Foundation, later asked me to also join the workshop. I wanted to, but I couldn’t as I was finishing some work. But finally, I ended up assisting the workshop anyway, not as a participant. Since the beginning the workshop was planned to be held in English, but the participants unfortunately had difficulties in conversing in English. So I helped with the translation.
Out of some 10+ young talents that I contacted to participate in the workshop, few couldn’t make it as they were busy with something else. Six confirmed my invitation, another three were invited by the Foundation’s staff. They are (in no particular order) Riksa Afiaty, Galatia “Galih” Puspa Sani Nugraha, Yudha “Fehung” Kusuma Putera, Aderi Putra “Pungki” Wicaksono, Dito Yuwono, Bari Paramarta Islam, George Cornelis Ferns, Lathif Puspo, and Luqman Hakim “A’im” Adi Negara. The workshop took place from 21 to 25 March 2012 at Langgeng Art Foundation, at one corner of the gallery next to where the exhibition was held.
Wolfgang had earlier decided that the workshop would be based on the theme “Who Am I?” On the first day of the workshop, all participants were asked to come up with an idea of how they would visualize this theme. Each participants presented their ideas after having a portfolio review with Wolfgang. According to Wolfgang, some had already shown an impressive body of work and presented great idea in response to the theme. But on the other hand, to his surprise, some seemed to lack photographic skills and didn’t know what to do with the theme. It made a quite wide gap among the participants themselves.
Wolfgang didn’t want the workshop to discuss technical aspect of photography, so he left anyone who might have difficulties to learn by themselves or they could as well ask their friends to help them out. The workshop would go as planned, that was to discuss how the participants would respond to the theme and how it would become materialized through their works. Throughout the five days workshop, Wolfgang kept stimulating them on how to actually take the theme personally and make some work out of it.
“I don’t necessarily need an answer to this question. I know it is not as easy as it sounds. If you are insecure, you don’t know who you are, or if you are confused with the question, you can as well show me that.”
During the workshop, the participants were asked to produce a series of photographs based on the given theme, using any photographic approach that the participants usually do and any photographic technique that they are familiar with. From the portfolio review, it was clear that the participants have diverse approaches, ranging from documentary to staged/conceptual to dreamy/abstract style. Every afternoon, the participants were required to gather at the Foundation to have a group review with the tutor.
I am going to write a little about the process of the workshop; how each participants struggle to find out who they are and present their quest in a photo series, how they work evolve from an abstract idea into a visual materialization. I will also include an excerpt from each participants’ final series.
In the beginning, Yudha “Fehung” Kusuma Putera presented a wonderful idea. He wanted to make a series of self portrait, each taken of him with a friend. He thought how each person next to him would react towards him in the portrait could mirror who he is, thus answering the question given in the theme. Liking the idea, Wolfgang then told him to give it a try and let us see how it would work. The next day, Fehung came with some portraits he promised us. But Wolfgang didn’t find what he expected to see in the series. The portraits didn’t say much more than just a happy guy and some happy friends against some random backgrounds. Fehung tried to defend his idea, but what he said wasn’t shown in the portraits. Wolfgang thought that Fehung and the person next to him reacted more to the camera than to each other, which made the portraits somehow weak. Couldn’t think of a solution, Fehung later changed his project, still as wonderful as the original idea. He made a series of self portraits, each portrait showing him with people who are close to him: his family, his friends, his collective.
Everyone has their own story when asked who oneself is. To Dito Yuwono, the question led to a journey through his past. Starting when he was just a small kid, Dito already routinely connected with the hospital. He has plenty of x-ray sheets of himself taken all through the years. So responding to the theme “Who Am I?” Dito wanted to make a series of self portraits by superimposing his body with his old x-ray sheets. Wolfgang found this idea to be really brave, as Dito was willing to open his “dark” past with strangers. But it was also really tricky. Though he has many x-ray sheets, those are mainly only of his chest and head, so it would be boring for the viewers to keep seeing his head and chest again and again. So the challenge for him was to make the series visually interesting.
Riksa Afiaty, the only girl among the participants, chose to answer the question by showing her daily life through snapshots. She has been taking snapshots for the past few years using her phone camera. Wolfgang accepted the idea as snapshots taken on a regular basis can reveal one’s habit, environment, daily life, thus one’s identity. At first Riksa showed us snapshots she took during the workshop days. But to Wolfgang, they were just snapshots of things she saw while on her way to and from the workshop. They didn’t quite show who she is.
“I think you are hiding behind these images. I don’t need to see these things you saw on the street. That’s not you. I need to see things that are yours. Your room. Yourself. I need to see more of those.”
In the beginning, Wolfgang wanted Riksa to shoot new pictures. But as it didn’t work the way they both wanted it, Riksa began digging her old pictures and showed us some nice intimate moments: herself after having shower, her bed, even her ex, all taken with her phone camera. The series started to make more sense to us in understanding who she is. Wolfgang then decided to combine those old photos with some newer photos taken during the workshop.
Galatia “Galih” Puspa Sani Nugraha at first didn’t know what to do with the theme; how to present himself, his identity, visually. He then thought to ask his friends to describe his personality, then he would make photographs from the descriptions. But what started as an interesting idea turned out to be visually not as interesting, as Galih found it difficult to translate his friends’ answers into pictures. Wolfgang suggested him to use his imagination. Galih still found it difficult as he didn’t have rich visual reference. He later changed his project, instead of asking his friends, he turned back into his own room and took pictures of his private space and his belongings.
Lathif Puspo is a shy guy. At least he thinks so. He also thinks people don’t pay attention to him. Wolfgang said he couldn’t believe that, as he thought Lathif is actually good looking. “But if you think so, how are you going to visualize that?” Lathif’s idea was to make a series of self portrait with him wearing a paper mask in places where he used to go to. The challenge for him was how to produce visually interesting images when the idea was already obvious. Still not believing what Lathif told him, Wolfgang suggested him to go to crowded places and see if people really don’t pay attention to him.
While his friends thought hard for an idea to work on, Luqman Hakim “A’im” Adi Negara wanted to make it simple. He proposed to document the other participants’ process of working on their project. For him, it can give an idea to the viewer that he is one of them. Wolfgang thought A’im was lazy and pushed him to think of a better idea. After all, there was no clear connection between who he is with pictures of other participants taking pictures. A’im eventually went to try some ideas until one day he came up with one interesting picture of him having a conversation with his friends, except that he wasn’t there. He held his clothes up in a sitting pose as if he was there. He explained that the idea behind the picture was that he thought he is nobody. The picture was so intriguing that all of us almost instantly agreed that he should make more photos of the series.
At first, Aderi Putra “Pungki” Wicaksono proposed to answer the question “Who Am I?” with a statement that he is a Liverpudlian. For those who are not familiar with soccer football, like many of the participants, Liverpudlian is how they call the fans of the English football club Liverpool. The statement raised more questions from Wolfgang, as Pungki simplified himself only as a football club fan. “Isn’t there anything more of you, other than just a football fan?” There was also a day towards the end of the workshop that he didn’t come, which was really a pity, as he missed the chance to get more inputs and critical comments from Wolfgang and other participants. It was a bit surprising that Pungki still insisted to go on with his idea until the end of the workshop, even though already since the beginning Wolfgang pointed out how weak it was in answering the workshop theme. In the end, since he didn’t want to change his idea, all we could do was giving him suggestions on how to make it visually interesting.
While Riksa was the only girl among the participants, Bari Paramarta Islam was the only one who is already married. And he has two kids, to our surprise. I know him as a young student, so I thought he was still single. “We chose to marry young,” he said. Being a father turned out has pretty much influenced how he would respond to the question “Who Am I?” As a concerned father, he wanted to raise issues related to his kids’ education. He told us that he saw at school, how kids would reenact what they saw on TV, such as some action scenes from a wrestling game. He also worries about kids’ snacks and sweets sold at school which are generally unhealthy. But at the same time, his wife earns from selling snacks and sweets at school. It confused him. Since his feeling towards this matter was quite strong, Wolfgang told him to go on and do it.
The problem was when Bari came back, he showed us pictures of what he worries about, while what we wanted to see, in relevance to the workshop theme, was the feeling of worry itself. Wolfgang tried to give him other views on how to look at ourselves, as he thought Bari seemed to be really shy. Bari didn’t want to reveal himself to strangers and kept hiding behind his concerns toward his kids. But after a while he started to be more open, and in the end made a wonderful series of self portraits, with one really strong photo showing his family asleep.
Last but not least is George Cornelis Ferns. Both Wolfgang and I actually felt from the beginning that George was the weakest participant in terms of technical skills. During the portfolio review, he showed some wonderful images, but the rest were really lacking technical comprehension. So we thought maybe the wonderful pictures came out of mere luck. He was also one of those who came up with weak idea in response to the given theme. So we, also the other participants, tried to support him and gave some useful inputs. We were about to reach the point of desperation as days went by and George didn’t show significant improvement. He didn’t know what to do. But on the very last day, he came and surprised us all with a stunning series of self portraits picturing him sleepwalking.
He told us that the idea just suddenly came to him, out of confusion. He has been having this habit of sleepwalking for many years, and only those who really are close to him know about it; only his parents and some close friends.
For me, the aim of the workshop was simply giving the participants a different experience and a chance to learn something new. Maybe those participants were not the best young talents. But I felt they have the potential, and I wanted to give them a chance to develop that potential. A chance that I was also longing to have when I was younger. A chance to show their best and have an experienced foreign professional to review it. That kind of chance didn’t come often, although there are more of those chances nowadays.
I was really hit when I spoke to one participant and he said that somehow he felt Wolfgang didn’t like his work. I tried to explain to him that it was not about like and dislike. To be honest to him, I agreed with Wolfgang that his work was not strong enough and didn’t even give a clue to know who he is. Thus, it was already out of the workshop theme. That was why Wolfgang advised him to find a better idea, or at least work with the visualization, so it would become clearer for the viewers in order to know what he wanted to say.
Then he said that he finally got the point, so he would do as Wolfgang suggested to please him. Again I tried to explain to him that it was not about pleasing anyone, especially Wolfgang. It was about him; how to respond to a given theme, how to work with an idea, how to materialize it, how to clearly visualize it in an interesting way, how to build a strong photo series. And Wolfgang was actually here to help us all on that. I really hope he would finally understand the idea behind this workshop, or any other workshop, if he really wanted to develop his skills.
The day before the last day, Wolfgang showed us his upcoming book. It was more like a diary of his experiences working in different countries all through the years. He was still working with the design and he showed it to us to get a feedback on how to make it better. On the last day of the workshop, everyone was busy with their work. Some were still shooting, some were editing, some others were writing a brief text to accompany their series. After all work was done, we all sat together and enjoyed our work in a slideshow. Then we went to Kedai Kebun to have a closing dinner. On our way down the stairway at the Foundation, some participants yelled in delight, “After five nerve-wracking days, I finally come down this stairway in peace!”
Good job to all participants! Thank you to Wolfgang as the tutor! Also thank you Goethe Institut for sponsoring this workshop and Langgeng Art Foundation to host the workshop. ∎