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The multifaceted life of Nilam Zubir

A. Kurniawan Ulung

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Thu, October 11, 2018  /  10:27 am
The multifaceted life of Nilam Zubir

Nilam Zubir (-/A. Kurniawan Ulung)

At only 22, Nilam Zubir has proven herself to be versatile in many roles, from being a student to a book writer and recently, a photographer.

Few Indonesian photographers may be really interested in Bali as the Island of Gods is too popular, but Nilam is different.

In late April at the Sultan hotel in Jakarta, she displayed over 50 photographs about the famed resort island in an exhibition titled The Other Spot of Bali: Jejak Sejarah di Pakerisan (Traces of History in Pakerisan), shining a spotlight on Pakerisan village in Gianyar regency.

“My photos tell of 11 historical and sacred temples along the Pakerisan River, which many Balinese surprisingly do not know about. They have stories that are worth knowing, such as the history of Javanese people who migrated to Bali,” she said.

Among the temples, the oldest is Alas Jagasari, which is 3 kilometers north of Tampaksiring Palace built by Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, in 1957.

Nilam said that according to locals, Sukarno understood that the temples were historic. Therefore, he decided that the palace must be in close proximity to the temples.

Through her exhibition, she tries to introduce and promote the lesser known Pakerisan as an alternative to Kuta, Legian and other popular tourist destinations crowded with cafes, restaurants and nightclubs.

Holding an exhibition is an achievement for any photographer and she has done so at her young age.

However, Nilam, who studied photography at Antara School of Journalism in Jakarta in 2012, doesn’t feel like a photographer.

“I do not deserve to be called photographer yet. I am still an amateur,” she said.

Nilam, who is currently studying law at the University of Indonesia (UI) in Depok, West Java, has more experience as a writer. She has published five books.

She is also editor-in-chief and founder of children’s monthly magazine BEST, which is concerned with environmental and educational issues.

“In the magazine, there is a rubric called Lingkungan Kita [Our Environment] that discusses the dangers of plastic waste,” she said. “I want to save the environment.”

In her magazine, many rubrics use the word kita (us), such as Hutan Kita (Our Jungle) and Sungai Kita (Our River). Nilam said that it was part of her strategy to raise children’s sense of belonging over the nature. Therefore, they would have a conscious effort to protect it from an early age.

Since early 2017, BEST has visited elementary schools in Kwitang and Cikini in Central Jakarta and Depok to campaign for the importance of sorting organic, inorganic and toxic waste to end throwaway habits that pose environmental and health risks.

“Being aware of not throwing trash carelessly is also a part of a mental revolution,” she said.

BEST, which will celebrate its second anniversary in July this year, has a pilot project to make school-based trash banks and plastic recycling centers in Jakarta and Bali.

Because she needs a lot of money to carry out the project, Nilam is raising funds by selling her photos.

“After Jakarta, we will hold an exhibition in Bali,” said.

Her deep passion to save the environment has been in her since she was just a child.

When she was little, she liked to play with child scavengers near her house in Depok, an activity that later shocked her mother because she was not aware of many children in her area who were forced to work instead of going to school.

Her mother, who runs publishing company Pustaka Bestari, then set up learning space and reading park Rumah Pena (Pen’s House) at her house, providing free education for child scavengers.

“We sing, dance, read poems,” she said.

“I teach them to write while my friends voluntarily teach mathematics, English and other subjects.”

At Rumah Pena, children also learn that unusable remains could provide economic benefits if they are recycled. Incinerating them could produce a variety of toxic discharges to air, water and ground.

Nilam then shared her experience of empowering child scavengers through her second book, The Diary of Nilam Zubir.

“All of my books are about my personal experiences,” she said.

Her first book, Pengalamanku Mewawancarai Pejabat Tinggi Negara (My Experience of Interviewing High-Ranked Officials), hit stores in 2006 when she was a sixth grader and did a gig as a child presenter for children’s program Suara Anak (Child’s Voice).

Among ministers she has interviewed are state secretary Yusril Ihza Mahendra and vice president Jusuf Kalla during the era of president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

“I also interviewed Ryamizard Ryacudu who is now defense minister,” recalled the former presenter of Selamat Pagi Ceria (Cheerful Morning).

Her experience of working in TV stations motivated her to learn photography seriously because she thought that it would support her career as a writer.

“I want my photos to appear in my books,” she said.

Nilam, who dreams of working in the Constitutional Court after graduating from UI, is now busy completing her sixth book and preparing programs to rebrand BEST.

She is aware of challenges faced by printed newspapers and magazines in this digital era, but that has not stopped her from believing that BEST magazine will have a long life. She said that today, her magazines were still distributed in Jakarta only.

“I hope that if possible, BEST can reach children in the outer islands in the future,” she said.