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Through a Glass, Darkly: John Stanmeyer

What is one of the world`s leading documentary photographers doing in a quiet coastal village in Bali? John Douglas meets John Stanmeyer.

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Last Day, Jakarta

A man sits behind a desk, chin resting on one hand, gazing into space. A young woman rests her head against his, embracing him gently. Behind them is a bust of Mahatma Ghandi; the desk is stacked with classical CDs, books and papers.

The look of sadness on the man’s face and the gesture of comfort on the part of the woman are unmistakable even before you read the caption beside the picture and learn that this is none other than Abdurrhaman Wahid, or Gus Dur, Indonesia’s first democratically elected president since Suharto and that he is being consoled by his daughter on the night of his impeachment.

“It’s a very beautiful moment,” says John Stanmeyer of the photograph, which is part of an exhibition at the newly opened Exhibit Gallery in Bali. “It happened very quickly; I was standing outside the room so the door frame is in the photo. It was a private moment between father and daughter.”

Just a day before, he’d shot footage of the Indonesian military turning the turrets of their tanks toward the royal palace, a wholly symbolic gesture that signalled Gus Dur’s imminent fall from power.

Sitting on a Javanese daybed sipping coffee in his studio in rural Bali, such historical upheavals seem a world away. Yet as a freelance photographer under contract with TIME magazine, it is the American’s job to capture such moments, many of which have graced the covers of the global newsweekly, not to mention those of National Geographic, Fortune, Asiaweek and French weekly Courrier. For the last decade, he has trained his lens on Asia, documenting some of the region’s most pivotal events and developments, from something as abrupt and devastating as the tsunami in Aceh to a process as nebulous as the shifting zeitgeist in China, (captured in a photograph of a Chinese teen sporting pink shades and a T-shirt bearing a pop-art image of Mao, against a backdrop of high rises).

The few journalists that occupy this frontline not only report the news, they often make it. Does Stanmeyer see it as a privileged position? “I have a huge responsibility… to deliver things honestly, purely, in a balanced way and without prejudice to either side if it’s a conflict situation. Privileged? I probably see too much; I don’t need to see all of it to understand it.”

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Red Light – Ruly, China 1999

Two decades earlier, Stanmeyer occupied a very different world. Starting his career at a very young age, he found himself working as a fashion photographer in Europe for magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Andy Warhol’s Interview, as part of a burgeoning style elite. “This was at the time before the supermodel era,” he explains. “I’d been to Art School and failed every journalism course I took!”

Just as he was beginning to realise quite how lucrative a career in fashion could be, the young photographer experienced something of an epiphany. “There was a moment in my early 20s…it must have been ‘83 or ‘84, when I realised I was brainwashing people into thinking that who they were was what they wore. I’d been using my hammer and nail to build the wrong piece of furniture.” Far from some kind of celestial radiance, it was the stark light of reality that led him away from fashion and the excessive levels of marketing it was coming to engender. Moving away from Italy, he came across a group of Peace Corps workers in Madrid who’d recently returned from Haiti, and it was on the troubled Caribbean island that he produced his first piece of documentary photography in the early ’90s.

At that time, the people of the island nation were suffering in the aftermath of a military coup that had in turn impelled a debilitating UN embargo – “I was appalled by what was going on… it was hard to believe this was happening just 90 miles away from the richest nation on earth!”

In effect, Stanmeyer had discovered his purpose. He took a job at the Tampa Tribune, a major daily newspaper in Florida, where he set about learning the tools of his trade. While some of his colleagues complained at the pedestrian assignments, Stanmeyer welcomed the opportunity to cover the country fair yet again – he knew he wasn’t going to be there forever. At the same time, he met his wife Anastacia, a writer, and the two began funding their own trips to document the crises of the time.

“We would save coins all year long…we sent ourselves to Sudan by saving coins. We’d come back and they’d give us a front page, a double spread in the middle in colour and another third page. We didn’t get paid, but we had this platform from which to speak about issues and this meant something to us.”

The whole notion of purpose seems to lie at the heart of Stanmeyer’s work. There is little vanity about him and he talks about his photography as first and foremost a tool for making people think, for effecting social change. His personal projects over the years confirm this – he’s spent the last eight years documenting the spread of AIDS throughout Asia and as a founder member of highly respected photography agency vii he’s been at the heart of two major book projects, WAR and RETHINK which he describes as “testimonials of the last five years of humanity.”

This is far from your typical coffee table fare, dealing as it does with the world’s current conflicts and the roots of 9/11. The seminars he holds in New York are invariably sold out, not with journalist colleagues (”what would be the point? They already get it!”) but with people who are less familiar with the issues he’s talking about.

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But what is such a man doing in this tropical island idyll in the heart of Indonesia while his peers rent apartments in New York or London or Hong Kong? His first visit to Indonesia was at the cusp of the economic meltdown in 1998; more than twenty visits and five years would pass before he chose to make it his home. “I fell in love with the country. Until moving here, all the work I’d done in Indonesia had been about very serious social issues…stuff that probably would scare most people when I think about it, yet I’ve invested everything I’ve got in this place.”

Ironically, Bali was for a long time one of the islands Stanmeyer liked the least, always put off by the excessive tourism. It wasn’t until after the first Bali bomb in 2002 that he saw the island in a different light. He’d spent the first week after the attack in Java, trying to understand its dynamics as evidence began to slowly emerge. “I saw a totally different side to the Balinese…this love and compassion brought about by darkness and evil and ill deeds and the suffering that comes from them. They had such enormous humility and compassion. TIME was doing a story about individuals who saved others and through that I met a group of people who let me know there was something very special here. I flew home and said to my wife, what about Bali?”

Something more ambiguous draws him to the archipelago as a whole, however, something that appeals in a very personal way. He describes it as the striking rapidity of Indonesian society, the extremes he’s encountered here, from placidity to anarchy, enormous wealth to abject poverty – “it’s a country that can turn on a dime – I guess everywhere does, but I just love deep immersion cultures, cultures that retain their roots amidst the bombardment of western culture,” he says. There is also the sheer diversity of cultures, peoples and ideas that populate it. “How do you manage and keep united a country that contains such diversity? Imagine five or six African or South American nations all becoming one, spread across three time zones and the size of North America. I respect anyone who’s willing to try and manage that!”

As an emerging – or re-emerging democracy, Stanmeyer sees an intriguing complexity of issues at work in today’s Indonesia. After what he views as an extended period of stagnation, we’re now experiencing the “pulls, contractions and twists of a nation maturing and growing.” It is a growth predicated on such enormous diversity and yet he believes that the country is on a better path than it has ever been. Of course pressing concerns like corruption will take time – “We need at least another generation,” he states emphatically. One of the biggest problems in this light is a simple one.

“Everyone globally and in Indonesia wants and needs proper goods and services – decent education, proper health care, a solid legal system, honest police officials, good roads, etc – but few pay or more so, are able to pay taxes because of such low incomes. These alleged corrupt civil servants likely play the corruption game because many are so poorly paid. How can you pay good salaries (salaries one can actually live on) if no one is contributing, or more so if funds through service taxes or through aids grants are not allocated properly to societies needs? It’s not rocket science, it’s fundamental.”

There is very little finger pointing in any of his discussion about geo-political issues. One could be cynical and suggest this is the simple diplomacy required of a man in his position – though he’s clearly impatient at some of the attitudes he encounters in the country of his birth, especially those who question his decision to live in Indonesia. “There is a form of extreme interpretation of Islam, but it’s a very small percentage of people. We have more lunatics in North America for God’s sake. Indonesia is not a hotbed of radical Islam.”

It doesn’t come across as just diplomacy though, rather a deeper sense of the way in which we are all connected. “My blood can run in your veins and mine in yours,” he says early in the interview. “How are we any different? And yet because we fail to look at that as humans, we perpetuate conflict, war, poverty…it’s all interconnected. We’re all connected, from a rice farmer to a politician.”

From KABAR September 2006

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