I have been in Indonesia for just over a week now and without exaggeration I have likely been in at least 500 photographs with local people. That’s averaging about 70 a day, which is not unlikely. Everywhere we go people are living in the simplest conditions, in wooden shacks over the water, wearing plain, cheap clothes, and buying their food on the streets or in the busy open air markets – but everyone, and I mean everyone – has a cell phone with a camera.
“Foto Miss, Foto Miss,” is the call I’m surrounded by everywhere I go. When the ship comes into port, generally we have elaborate welcome ceremonies with dancing and drums, and that involve the Captain and honored guests from the ship in gift giving and long, drawn out and often translated speeches from local politicians. On the outskirts of these ceremonies are hundreds of local Indonesians who want to see the visitors and welcome them to their city, town, or village.
Most of the people are under 20. The population explosion is blatantly obvious and kids are absolutely everywhere. Usually they are in their school uniforms and waving to us from the schoolyard, but if the town is small enough then our arrival is a full-blown holiday and the kids are let out of school for the big event to escort us through the streets and practice their basic English.
I’ve come to believe that the ubiquitous photo taking is just an excuse – a cover for getting close to us foreigners – to stand next to us and put a tentative arm across your shoulder, or lean our heads in close to one another. Often people want their whole family in the picture with you and I’m being given babies to hold and children to huddle up with – it’s fantastic.
The Indonesians seem to love tactile intimacy and it’s plain as you walk the busy streets and see both men together and woman together with hands on each other’s shoulders and casually holding hands. The sense of touch and closeness to friends and family is clearly very important and prevalent in people’s interactions with each other.
The photo itself is ultimately not that significant, because on the rare occasions when there is no Indonesian camera at the ready, the people in the photo with me are very happy to have someone else take the photo with my camera without sharing it or even seeing the picture. The relevant matter at hand is just the fact that the photo is made; the people came together and the moment was captured.
In my limited Indonesian I can say, “take a photo together” and this is met with smiles and huge enthusiasm and is often repeated right back to me.
“Bikin foto bersama.” Great words to know if you ever find yourself in Indonesia.