Category Archives: Bali

Sekala exhibition

My exhibition (Sekala: ritual and ceremony in Bali) continues at PhotoAccess here in Canberra (PhotoAccess Huw Davies Gallery in Manuka, at the corner of Manuka Circle and NSW Crescent) until next Sunday 11 March. The experience of putting on my first solo exhibition has been interesting, and actually (and surprisingly) not too stressful. However I must say that I have been greatly helped by the staff of PhotoAccess in curating and mounting the show, and the quality of the prints produced by Stephen Best at Macquarie Editions has also made a huge difference.


The exhibition has been going really well, with a good flow of visitors, and some great reactions from those who have viewed it so far. I’m very pleased! I had become so accustomed to looking at photos on the screen of computers, that I had almost forgotten how much better they can look when well printed, at good size (A3+ and A2 size) and displayed well in a properly lit environment.

The opening was fantastic. Over 70 in attendance – it was really good to have so many friends and family members there to support me. Proud to have Bill Farmer (Ambassador to Indonesia 2005-10) and his wife Elaine formally open the exhibition. They spoke of the unique nature of Balinese culture, and the often distorted and inaccurate picture that Australians have of Indonesia generally. They stressed the central role that Asian nations will take in the world over coming years, and the need for Australia to genuinely engage with Asian people and cultures – while at the same time bemoaning the decline in Australian interest in our northern neighbours and the decline in Asian language training in our educational institutions. And they said some very nice things about the exhibition photos too…!

You can see the full set of images in the exhibition in this folder on the main Jokar web site.

Here’s a few installation shots of the exhibition.





Sekala: ritual and ceremony in Bali (Exhibition)

My first solo exhibition (‘Sekala: ritual and ceremony in Bali‘) opens at the PhotoAccess Huw Davies Gallery in Manuka ACT (corner of Manuka Circle and NSW Crescent – next to the Manuka Pool) at 6pm on Thursday 23 February. It will continue until 4pm on Sunday March 11 – check the PhotoAccess web site for details of opening hours. I hope you can make it along for a look!

Here’s a draft of my ‘Artist Statement’ for the exhibition:

Generations of western artists and diverse other visitors have been captivated by the Balinese people, their culture and landscape. There are many ways for the visitor to ‘see’ Bali – as a palm-fringed tourist resort, as an exploited third-world economy with a culture under threat, or as some idealised spiritual oasis in an otherwise materialistic world. The reality of course is much more complex and multi-faceted – our stereotypes may tell us more about ourselves and our own cultures than about the ‘real’ Bali.

The Balinese have a neat concept for this: they speak of ‘Sekala’, which is the surface layer of our experience – that which is visible, the tangible. Beneath lies ‘Niskala’, the hidden world which explains and animates the surface layer, full of gods, spirits, ancestors – the balanced and opposing forces of good and evil. Images in this exhibition may only deal explicitly with Sekala, but will hopefully offer glimpses into the underlying world of Niskala.

The images were selected from the 15,000 that I took during 2009-10 when my wife Karen and I worked on a volunteer assignment with a textile arts foundation based in Ubud, Bali. During that time we travelled a great deal, and were privileged to encounter a range of people, places, performances and ceremonies, many of which were well off the standard tourist trail.

The exhibition of prints (and the associated video slideshow) seeks to reveal some of the ceremonial and ritual practices that I found most compelling. I hope that it goes some way to explaining my fascination with this extraordinary place and its people – a living and vibrant culture surviving in the face of great social, environmental and economic change. In particular I have sought to highlight two things:

  • the Balinese ‘aesthetic’ – the love of elegance in performance and visual decoration which pervades all products of their material culture; and
  • the strands of animism and Balinese Hinduism that so often lie just below the surface of daily life and events.

I was inspired in this work by the stream of western artists who have created their own ‘outsider’ visions of Bali over the past century. In particular this would include such painters and writers as Miguel Covarrubias, Rudolf Bonnet and Walter Spies, but also fine contemporary photographers such as Rio Helmi.

Repetition of form 2: Tampaksiring temple

Another post about the repetition of forms (shapes, objects, even colours), and how pleasing it is to the eye when you see such repetition in an image. (The previous post on this subject can be seen at this link).

Pura Tampaksiring father and daughter

The original image was taken in the grounds of the main temple at Tampaksiring, north of Ubud in Bali. It’s a major pilgrimage spot by virtue of the holy springs that bubble up from the ground, and people come from all over the island to pray and have ritual baths at the temple. At the time of the photo there was a heavy rain shower in progress, and everyone had retreated to the shelter of the several open pavilions in the temple grounds. (You can make out some falling rain on the right of the photo.) While waiting for the rain the stop, this man and his daughter carried on a quiet and languid conversation.

The photo was actually taken last year, but I have recently reworked it in preparation for A3+ (or possibly A2) size printing. The photo is one that I have chosen to put into my exhibition of Bali ritual/ceremonial photos at PhotoAccess here in Canberra early next year (opening night 24 February – put it into your calendars!)

While working on it I realised that, by cropping the original differently, making it a little wider, I could gain  some nice pairs of repeats across the image: two people, two stone gods, and two Ganesh elephant statues. Somehow the photo is made to look more complete, to ‘cohere’ better, by emphasising these repetitions. Although it now includes an additional object, it actually looks simpler overall. Below is the original cropped version for comparison.

Pura Tampaksiring father and daughter (old)

I don’t know why we like to find recurring patterns in images – but that’s not going to stop me speculating! Presumably it’s due to the way that the human brain processes visual sensory data, instantly applying pattern recognition to quickly interpret meaning from the raw image input. At some level below conscious thought we derive some small pleasure or reward when we can make out replicated shapes in an image.

You could imagine that it conferred some evolutionary advantage on individuals or populations that first had this perceptual skill, allowing them to better and quicker identify threats and opportunities in the world as they saw and experienced it. Over thousands of generations, through the process of natural selection, more of these ‘gifted’ individuals survived to have the relevant genes replicated, and so over millennia we got better at it as a species. Similar development of pattern recognition has no doubt occurred within non-human species too – especially for use in hunter/prey contexts.

Anyway, enough digression. The other thing I did to simplify the image, at the cost of its documentary authenticity, was to remove (via  Photoshop) an obese western tourist in bright t-shirt and shorts who was sitting just to the left of the father in the picture i.e. in the bottom right corner). Believe me, the image was substantially improved by getting rid of him!

You can see more images from that visit to the Tampaksiring temple on the main Jokar web site in this folder.

Backstage dancers and photo ethics

Balinese dancers backstage at Amed

Balinese dancers backstage at Amed

I’m really happy with this photo of six young Balinese dancers waiting backstage before their Baris and Legong dance performances, with their teacher/chaperone beside them. I think what I like is the combination of the warm light and colours, the serious composed faces of the dancers, and the way the middle four look at you straight down the lens.

It wasn’t a great situation for photography, with dim low-wattage incandescent lighting. I went up to 1600 ISO on my 5D Mk11, shooting RAW (of course!) and opened up to f/3.5, and even then I needed a 0.4 second exposure to get enough light to the camera sensor! The camera lay beside me balanced on a table as I had no tripod with me at the time. All of this explains the overall softness and the motion blur of the girl on the right hand side.

But this photo is not actually one photo, but a composite of five separate images put together in Photoshop. In reality, at no time was more than one of the dancers looking towards the camera. I chose the best image of each of the subjects, put them into individual layers one Photoshop image (658MB!), and selectively removed parts of each image with layer masks until just the bits I wanted showed through. You can see this in this screenshot from the Photoshop layers pane.

Amed dancers Photoshop snipSo, I do like the image – but for me it’s raised a couple of dilemmas about ‘photographic ethics’.

Dilemma #1 – Five decisive moments in a single image?

The photo looks like it has simply captured a single moment in time – but in fact it’s an amalgam of five distinct moments, presented as if it was one. So it’s a record of an instant in time that never actually occurred, presented on my web site as if it depicts reality, without any disclosure or explanation.

In this case I don’t suggest it’s a significant manipulation of reality, or a serious deceit. No-ones’s going to be tricked in any serious way – but in a small way the viewer is nonetheless deceived. As the software tools for digital manipulation improve, it’s becoming easy to do this kind of thing without anyone knowing. Should ‘The Ethical Photographer’ always disclose when this kind of manipulation is done?

Dilemma #2 – Candid camera

The second (and perhaps more serious) ethical issue is that this photo (or more correctly, this series of photos) was taken without asking permission first, and without the knowledge of the subjects that their pictures were being taken. The camera lay beside me on the table, facing backwards towards the young dancers sitting on the bench. I was facing in the opposite direction, shooting blind as it were, pressing the shutter button without looking through the viewfinder to frame the shots. They would have had no idea of what I was doing – and, at the time I wasn’t entirely sure either!.

Normally, whether at home in Australia or travelling elsewhere, I make it a rule to ask permission before taking someone’s portrait – unless they are in a public situation, part of a crowd or performing in some way. In Indonesia, one of the first expressions I learnt in Bahasa was: “Boleh saya memfoto Anda?” On this occasion, they were performers – but they weren’t engaged in performance at the time I took the photos. Does that make it unethical? Does the fact that I took the photos covertly make it wrong? What about the fact that they were children?

I haven’t lost any sleep over these dilemmas, but I think it is worth considering what ‘The Ethical Photographer’ would have done in the situation. What do you think? Post a comment below and let me know, eh?

The full set of photos from this night (and other photos taken in and around Amed in eastern Bali) can be seen on the main Jokar web site in this folder.

Cremation and serendipity

Sometimes an image works out because you planned it that way. Perhaps you set out to go somewhere particular to take a specific image that you had pre-visualised, and you knew in advance pretty much just what the finished picture would look like. You’d chosen the lens and the focal length, knew just what aperture you’d need for the desired depth-of-field, and even had a plan drawn up for the precise lighting gear and light modifiers you’d need. And when it works out just as you planned it, you get a nice warm feeling.

But for me that’s actually quite unusual… and many – perhaps most – of my favourite images have come from a spur-of-the-moment situation, a quick or casual capture of a scene, even an accidental image. And often I have no idea at the time that I have managed to record some compelling image until I look at afterwards in post-processing. I wish I could say that every decent image was planned, but it’s just not true. Often as not it’s serendipity that’s responsible.

This image is an example of that. We’d been invited by a friend to attend a family cremation ceremony in a village just near Bangli, Bali. The Balinese put great effort into every aspect of cremation, because they believe that this is when the soul is liberated from the confines of the physical body, and it’s got to be done right or the soul may not be properly released, with all sorts of potential consequences. It can be hugely expensive too, with poor people borrowing large  sums of money to pay for the ceremonies, even mortgaging their houses to fund it all. Consequently it’s common for villages to pool their resources and hold a mass cremation, with the bodies being buried for a time until several families can share the costs, or until a wealthy family is holding a cremation.

When we arrived on our little motorbike and had changed into ‘appropriate’ clothing for the occasion, we found that about eight bodies were to be cremated, including one of a highly respected (and wealthy) village elder. We were the only non-Balinese there, but we were made very welcome, and encouraged to take photos (as many of the locals were doing also). After a  deal of ceremony, preparation and presentation offerings, gamelan music and wayang kulit shadow puppetry, there is a countdown and then all of the cremation fires are lit simultaneously, and there is a great flurry of confused activity, smoke, heat and noise.

As a photographer it was hard to know how to try and capture such a scene, as there was so much happening at once – and the flames and smoke presented a challenge to getting a well-exposed image. I had been concentrating on photographing the large bull sarcophagus in which the village elder was being cremated, when this lady ran over to one of the smaller biers to throw some special small offerings into the flames. The photo was taken as she returned to rejoin the other onlookers. 1/320 second exposure? Aperture at f/7.1? Just an accident, it’s lucky that it’s even sort-of in focus!

One thing that I find interesting about the image, and which most viewers misinterpret when they see it, is the strained, even distraught, look on the lady’s face. It is not a face of grief as it may appear. Cremations in Bali are usually joyous occasions, where the liberation of the soul is celebrated. She was not in the throes of mourning – she was just wincing because of the smoke…

You can see more images from this ceremony here, or a selection of other Indonesian photos here.