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Jakarta Post

Activism, expression & art through photobooks

  • Sophie Woodrooffe

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Mon, June 1, 2015   /  11:39 am
Activism, expression & art through photobooks

Pages from Mamuk Ismuntoro'€™s Tanah Yang Hilang (The Lost Lands).

'€œA photobook is an image-based book. It may have one or two essays or an interview, but it'€™s about the photography,'€ according to photo editor Alexa Becker.

'€œIt can be documentary, it can be personal, it can be abstract, it can be concept-based,'€ said the acquisitions editor for German photobook publishing house Kehrer Verlag at a recent talk at the Antara Photojournalism Gallery in Pasar Baru, Central Jakarta. '€œIt can be photography about photography.'€

Becker walked those in the audience through photobooks representative of the European scene, speaking through translator Gunawan Widjaja, a curator at the gallery who met Becker while interning in Germany.

Becker began by defining what made a compelling photobook '€” '€œIt'€™s always about the human being, whether it'€™s a still life or photojournalism'€ '€” before presenting the works of photographers such as Rosmarie Zens'€™ The Sea Remembers '€” a retrospective of refashioned memories from a forgotten childhood, or the atmospheric renderings of war of photojournalist Dima Gaurish.

It'€™s expensive to print a photobook, costing upwards of 15,000 euro for a 1,000-copy print run, according to Becker. It also is not always as lucrative as printing straight texts. For example, she adds, one of Kehrer Verlag'€™s best-selling titles, Christoph Bangert'€™s War Porn, sold 3,000 copies.

Despite their expense, interest in photo books remains high, Becker says, because '€œpeople are still very much interested in the tactile aspect, in the object, in holding the pages in their hands.'€

Becker was in town for Photobook Month, which has been run by the GFJA and the Goethe Institute Indonesia since 2008. The event brings books as well as publishers, specialists and curators to Indonesia for the German Photobook Awards exhibition.

Christel Mahnke, the head of the Information and Library Department at the Goethe Institute in Jakarta, is excited about the burgeoning scene in Indonesia.

'€œThere are excellent photographers here in Indonesia who also have a very keen sense of their social relevance and social consciousness,'€ Mahnke says. '€œSometimes in Germany and Europe things are more artsy, but here people are more conscious about Indonesia.'€

Pages from Christopher Bangert'€™s War PornPages from Christopher Bangert'€™s War Porn

Mahnke echoed Becker, who said that the local Indonesian scene was '€œvery much photojournalistic.'€

For example, one of the Indonesian photobooks on display was Tanah Yang Hilang (The Lost Lands), by Surabaya Post photo editor Mamuk Ismuntoro and published by local high-end publishing house Afterhours.

The photos document the devastation from the ongoing mudflow disaster in Sidoarjo, East Jakarta. The book, designed to resemble an official land certificate, was picked by Gunawan, who curated the Indonesian photobooks for the exhibit.

Gunawan says that photobooks are tools of activism as well as artistic expression for photographers. '€œIt'€™s a work of art,'€ he says. '€œThey are using books as their method of expression, which is freer than using the media.'€

Mahnke says that people should expect to see more good work as local photographers establish themselves.

'€œIn the beginning, there were almost no photobooks in Indonesia, but thanks also to the development of technical possibilities, it gets easier and more affordable for a photographer to publish a photobook'€ Mahnke says.

She continues. '€œI think some of the photographers still want to improve their ability to put together a portfolio and tell a story with a line of photos, and this is why the photobook is so important for them, to give them meaning to photos, to put them in a sequence and to tell a story.'€

Pages from Christopher Bangert'€™s War Porn.Pages from Christopher Bangert'€™s War Porn.

The German Photobook Award exhibition will run in Bandung, West Java, until June 13. For more information, visit


The writer is an intern at The Jakarta Post.

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