The story behind the image

Nikon f100, Nikkor 24mm lens, Fujifilm Press 800

…Having spent the last few days here in Jakarta, I have been thinking a lot about my various trips to Indonesia over the years. I first came here backpacking with friends in my early twenties and I can say quite categorically that the experiences I had here changed the path of my life forever. Photography was just a hobby back then, and although I shot many pictures during those amazing years, none of the photos have ever been digitized and I cannot therefore post them to this blog. It wasn’t until the beginning of this new millennium whilst working for a British newspaper that I visited Indonesia in order to cover an obscure religious civil war happening at that time in Maluku, known commonly as The Spice Islands on account of their historical spice trade with Europe via the Dutch East India Company. This picture was shot in a Christian hospital in Ambon, the capital of the Moluccan archipelago.

The story behind this image is rather long and complicated. Not in so much as how I came about shooting it, but rather by reference to the convoluted chain of events that led to it becoming the unintentional defining image of that documentary.

I originally travelled to Indonesia with the intention of documenting the day-to-day lives of the Maluku’s Mujahidin fighting their religious jihad throughout the islands. At the time, I was interested in investigating the story of a religious war from the perspective of the Islamic laws of jihad, something that I felt rarely happened in the western press at the time. I thought that if people saw the same trials and tribulations affecting the Muslim side of a religious war then it may serve to lessen the growing demonization of those people in the eyes of our predominantly Christian society. As a white European in a paranoid and divided community, it was no easy task gaining access to the Mujahidin, but thanks to a friend from the UK who accompanied me on the trip, we ended up spending one month living and traveling amongst the Muslim population in those conflict zones.

At one point about 3 weeks into the trip we were on an Island that I recall was named Siri Sori. We were sleeping behind sand bags on the front line that divided the island into its respective Christian and Muslim sides. By glancing over the sack pile wall, it was possible to see the opposing soldiers just about 100 metres away over the no man’s land. After hearing so many rumours about the terrible enemy that lay beyond, I remember thinking at that time that I should extend my trip and visit the Christian side of this conflict in order to capture a balanced account of the war, and sure enough, a few days later I said goodbye to our Muslim soldiers and began the 4 day journey back through the Islamic world… to a mixed community… and then finally into Christian territory in order to travel back to Siri Sori, arriving on the other side of that very same front line.

It was a strange feeling crouching on the other side, glimpsing faces just over the way that I was sure that I knew. Needless to say, the tales I brought with me turned out to be largely unfounded and indeed, I heard many of the same stories recounted in reverse about the so-called Muslim tyrants ‘over there’. All in all it served as a stark reminder of the terrible pitfalls that can befall a divided community… that conflict stifles communication and when communication breaks down, rumours become truth all too quickly, fanning the flames of paranoia and war.

During my journey between the two sides, I stopped by our Muslim safe house in Ambon and dropped off about 70 rolls of exposed film from the journey thus far. I had decided that it would be better to store them there rather than run the risk of losing them during my next few weeks of travel in Christian territory.  Three weeks later I got back, collected my stuff and flew back to Jakarta where I visited one of Indonesia’s national newspapers in order to use their equipment to develop my negatives before returning to the UK.

For those of you that have ever worked at a newspaper during the film era, you will be all too familiar with the excitedly expectant feeling you get standing at one end of a developing machine waiting for 2 strips of film to emerge painfully slowly from the rollers, especially when you’re sitting on nearly two months of work gleaned from hard graft and dangerous situations.

Well, on this occasion the first two rolls that came out of the machine were completely jet black.

I was confused and nervous, checking my camera for a possible fault that could have led to the rolls being over exposed. Maybe the chemicals in the machine were out of date? I checked with the technician who showed me some perfectly developed negatives he had put through the machine just minutes before I arrived. I carefully inserted 2 more rolls into the machine, a process that up until now I had been very confident in doing myself, a skill gleaned from my years working for newspapers. The technician watched carefully, giving a reassuring nod of approval. Four minutes later the tips of the film appeared through the rollers. One black, one OK. Now I was really unsettled, racking my brains for any ideas as to how this could have happened.

Time went by and film after film rolled out of the machine. Some black, some exposed correctly. I started examining the correctly exposed rolls. All the photos were shot during my time in Christian territory. Then the penny dropped. I picked up a canister of undeveloped film and examined it closely. There was a small dent in the metal casing at the point where the film passes out through its velvet ‘lips’.

It didn’t take too long to work out what had happened. Somebody had taken it upon themselves to go through every roll of film I had stored in Ambon and pull out the negative strip in its entirety with tweezers, then roll it back in to cover their tracks.

All in all I lost 72 rolls of 36 frame exposed film which represented my entire month with the Mujahidin in Maluku. Up until that point in my career I’d never lost a single frame from negligence because I am very particular about things like that. Funnily enough, when it finally happened to me I was actually far more concerned when I had thought that I’d only lost a couple of rolls to a faulty camera as I initially stood there at the machine in Jakarta. By the time I’d realised the complete extent of the loss I had become quite chilled out about it. It was a fair cop as we say in England. Somebody did what they thought they had to do and I respect their choice in doing that. I’m certainly one for doing things that I believe in.

So, in the end, my documentary showing the life the Jihadis of Far Eastern Indonesia contains only pictures of a Christian struggle. Hence the image at the top of this post, showing two young victims of this religious conflict.

Ironic? Yes, a little of course, but then again, trust is a rare commodity in times of war and something that I have never since taken for granted from anyone I intend to photograph.

Religious crusaders... over 900 years of history and still missing the irony.

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Interested in more stories behind the image? … Click HERE

… other stories from Indonesia? … Click HERE TASEARCHINDONESIA TASEARCHIMAGE

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