Jez O’Hare, adventurous master of aerial photography, has a unique perspective on Indonesia. Avi Hazuria met him at his home in Bandung.
You’ve probably seen his photographs in magazines, perhaps in a coffee-table book on the Wallace Line or the Indonesian archipelago, maybe even in an advertisement for a high-definition television. They are those rare images that capture the essence of a place, showing us an aspect that is unique and rare; images that require not only passion, drive, planning, and courage, but also a piece of equipment that creates its own centrifugal force, called a gyro stabilizer, and a micro light aircraft. Jez O’Hare’s images from above inspire travel, exploration and poetry, offering us an escape into a world that we can’t quite make tangible and triggering a mind, heart and soul reaction of awe at the beauty of Indonesia.
Driving through Bandung to meet Jez, it’s not hard to see why so many artists, architects and intellectuals have made this city their hub in Java. Dotted with ancient evergreens around winding roads wrapping up and down hills, I went past Indonesia’s most esteemed Universities and made my way through a residential neighborhood that ended on the edge of a valley. I could see a slice of the view behind what has been Jez’s home for the last 8 years.
Several dogs welcomed me with barks of varying tone and volume. Slowly a lean, Celtic-looking gentleman made his way through the canine mass and approached the large green wrought iron gate. “Hi Avi, have you had lunch?” he inquired softly as a boyish spark twinkled in his eyes. His accent was unusual; British grammar school mingled with soft hints of Indonesian. “I haven’t been speaking too much English these days, at least not with people who have English as their first language.”
Still in his early forties, Jez has been capturing images of Indonesia for almost 25 years now. His family moved to Indonesia in early 1974, when his father took an expatriate position as a director of a major British safe manufacturer. His specialisation in photographing Indonesia was like a karmic calling when he was on holiday from university in the UK, where he was studying scientific illustration.
“I always thought photography was too difficult,” he said with a smile. “I was still a student and had some time off, that’s when I heard there were still some stone-age people living in Papua – Irian Jaya back then – and I couldn’t believe it.” Grabbing a couple of cameras and lenses, Jez set off on the Pelni at age 19. “I ended up staying for two months!” he grinned. “Then when I got back, my Dad’s secretary invited me to submit my images to a travel magazine, Suasana, now out of print. And I got the cover!” His excitement is still palpable.
At the heart of Jez’s photography is a deep passion for exploration. “It’s about getting that photograph that no one else has taken before.” And this, perhaps, leads me to the best way of describing Jez; an explorer with a desire to go where no one’s gone before.
Things started to move pretty quickly after that first publication. He worked with a film production company – “they threw me in the deep-end, and I was learning a lot,” – and continued developing his photography and exploring Indonesia. This took him on various aerial photography projects: “I figured, the only way to see Indonesia is to go by air.” Then, in 1995, he had a crash in a microlight “and I thought, shit, better I learn to fly myself.”.
Shortly after getting out of the hospital the first thing Jez did was to get flying lessons. Starting with a paramotor, flying with a parachute and a fan strapped to his back, he had to overcome the fear from his recent accident, learn to fly and “learn how to take photographs from the air while strapped to a parachute and motor.” The first two flights were “not so good,” but on the third, “it was at sunset and I was thinking to myself, ‘I’m flying!’” Eventually he moved on to a microlight aircraft, or trike, which he modified to make the seat lower so that he would have the freedom to use his camera.
Jez is meticulous in his planning and self-discipline. “There’s basically three things, three conditions that you need to be sure of,” he explained as I learned what it took to get flying. “First, the condition of your craft; second your own condition and the third; the media – your runway, the weather. Don’t fly unless you’re sure about these three conditions.”
“I’ve got desalination tablets and a lifeboat on my trike, so it’s okay to fly over large expanses of water,” he added in a matter-of-fact tone.
In 2005, Jez took Indonesian citizenship. “I could spend the rest of my life photographing this place,” he told me. “And also, I just got tired of going to Immigration every year.”
And his next adventure? “My dream is to fly throughout Indonesia on my trike, starting from Java.” I’m already beginning to dream of where he’ll take us next.