Sweat, Pay, Drive
A few days in Bali, Indonesia
One of my favourite things to do is to travel, and the opportunity to immerse myself along with a camera in the rich, exotic and colourful destinations of South East Asia is a pleasure that is hard to beat. So it was with much anticipation and a bag full of camera gear that we headed off to Bali, Indonesia, a deeply spiritual island and of course, popularised in that recent book and movie, Eat, Pray Love, referred to in Bali (and not without good reason) as “that damned book.”
One should never take photography as a given or for granted; don’t assume that your eyes will be open to seeing the image even after years of experience, or that you will find the right places at the right times. I have learnt, and this was an add-on to that learning experience, that photography is a curious and intangible mix of chance, circumstance, skill and magic, and those factors all need to tumble together simultaneously. Sometimes they just don’t.
Our resort was in Legian in the heart of the tourist area, part of a long strip of similar resorts sandwiched between a seemingly endless street of souvenir shops and a stretch of busy beach, packed with surfers, wannabe posers and bikini babes. The hotel grounds afforded few opportunities for photography. Ok, there were some around the pool, which was occupied almost exclusively by Australians tanning, eating burgers and chips, and watching the Ashes on TV at the pool bar with the inevitable large beer mug or three on hand. Some of these people were quite interesting photographically, including one huge fella who was obviously expanding his Tattoo on a daily basis at one of the local ink shops. But none of these folk lent themselves to comfortable photography. I’m not one for lurking paparazzi style behind a palm tree with a long lens, and no one wants their privacy invaded on holiday even if their body does make a definitive social statement. In the internet era, a lot of people in the US and other countries where there is paranoia about security, see photographs of themselves as a gross violation of privacy, something that was never really an issue before 911 and the advent of ubiquitous cheap and cheerful cameras and mobile phones with built in cameras. Photograph someone’s kids nowadays and you’re a paedophile, take an image of the wrong building and you are planning a terror attack. It’s part of the irony of 21st Century photography; there are millions more cameras, but the freedom to use them has diminished considerably.
Street photography in the endless kilometres of souvenir and tourist shops that straddled Legian and Kuta was not a terribly exciting prospect, or if it was, I just wasn’t seeing the images. The people on the street were for the most part foreigners, while the locals huddled deep within the air-conditioned refuge of their shops, except for the more desperate ones, who actively offered you row upon row of fake Ray Bans and Rolex watches on the street. Every now and again, a wonderful doorway, and a glimpse into someone’s home temple would break the visual monotony. I felt the urge to wander into these secret and ancient spaces, but they were private spaces and I would have been intruding in someone’s home. So apart from a few tentative steps, I didn’t.
The wonderful thing about places like Bali, and that in fact applies to most of South East Asia, is that you can safely walk the street, any time of night or day with all your best camera equipment and be totally safe. You may be able to do better street photography in the streets of South Africa, but you stand a good chance of not having your camera with you upon your return home.
Bali is drippingly and unrelentingly hot. Walk ten metres anytime between 10am and 4 pm in summer and you are guaranteed to be sweaty and lethargic in minutes. While your equipment is safe, hotels and shops have their air conditioning set to coldroom levels, so the minute you take your camera outside, you see instant misty condensation forming on the lens and sensor. Internal water staining is not a risk I like to take with my better lenses, so one has to endure the whole exercise of putting your gear into cold air-filled plastic bags and letting them equalise for about half an hour when you walk out into the thick, soupy air of Bali.
After a few days of this intolerable exercise, the sheer weight of my camera bag, and the blood sapping heat, the D700 and lenses got to live pretty much permanently in the hotel safe, and the compact cameras, the Canon S90 and G12 came along for the ride.
By now I must be sounding to my readers like a lazy photographer. I’m not. Far from it, in fact. A month or two ago I spent the afternoon shooting in a township after sustaining a severe fall which required several stitches later than evening.
But if all the elements are not falling into place, then it’s best to let go. Relax. Don’t push yourself to see something you are just not seeing. That will compound the frustration. I’ve learnt that tomorrow, or next week or next month, are filled with new promise and fresh opportunity.
Philosophy aside, we decided to take a road trip inland to attempt to discover the real Bali. So, we got a driver, and a car and explained to our driver what we wanted to see. “The real Bali,” I said, “village life, the coffee plantations, the cool interior and the volcano that is much a mystic part of Balinese culture, rice paddies like green stepping stones rising into the jungle.” Well, I wasn’t quite that poetic, but that’s what I wanted to see.
Our taxi driver was a friendly and affable man who talked continuously, as if he had swallowed a cassette tape. Sometimes we got the gist of what he was saying. And often we didn’t, but we would nod and um and ahh at appropriate places in the monologue because it seemed the polite thing to do. All this time I watched all manner of instant images speed past the passenger window, but by the time one might have been able to find a place to stop, the elements of the jigsaw would long have tumbled out of place. Finding a place to stop in Bali is not easy. There must be more motorbikes and scooters in Bali that any other place on earth. Seriously.
The real difficulty of photography in Bali is trying to find places that are easily accessible and are not being fully exploited for tourism. Almost every country road we travelled on had row upon row of shops, millions of carved parrots, statues, paintings, chairs, tables and so on. How they find customers for these warehouse loads of ornaments is anyone’s guess.
Even the volcano had been harnessed into the service of tourism, with a boom gate and an entrance fee and rows of shack like restaurants and refreshment houses touting for customers and clinging tenaciously like Praying Mantises to the side of the steep banks that overlooked this spiritual mountain.
Most of my images of Bali hint at this underlying commercialism, since it is so pervasive. Even a traffic policeman in the middle of nowhere smilingly and pleasantly extracted a small bribe from our taxi driver. Making a dollar is essential to life, and seems to balance in comfortably with the temples and gods that line every street to serve people’s more spiritual needs.
My only bit of real photographic trickery is the expansively green and stepped image of the rice paddies, a seemingly charming rural scene, unspoilt and peaceful. What you don’t see, is that five feet behind me is a long string of tourist shops, T-shirt vendors, touts and postcard sellers as well as tour buses filled with folk speaking Russian. The deception of imagery. I have been more brutally honest with the rest.
So there it was. Our well-meaning taxi driver’s version of the real Bali. But it was the tourist version, neatly packaged in bite size chunks, a consumable product like French fries. All wallet and no soul.
Ok, so Bali wasn’t going to win me any photographic awards, but I learnt a few valuable lessons. First off, access to the heart of a country varies dramatically from place to place, so do all the research and planning you can before you get there. Secondly, travelling light can be ok. You can do some amazing things with today’s high-end compact cameras. Thirdly, sometimes it just is not meant to be, no matter how hard you try. And finally, if it’s not meant to be this time around, it’s not gone forever. It will return.
I never got into the real soul of Bali. It is there, of that I am sure. I did get to understand a few things about the place, though. It’s a very likeable destination. It’s a place of small details, vignettes, and subtleties. Maybe next time, maybe not…but that’s the essence of the photographic journey.
Cameras Nikon D700/Canon G12/Canon S90