This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
As a photojournalist, picture editor and chairman of Pewarta Foto Indonesia,
Arbain Ram bey was right in the thick of things. By Zhuang Wubin
bubble burst in 1997. That
newspaper has to use a picture of the event on the front page," Arbain Rambey recalls. "You can't even use it on the second page." Needless to say, it led to boring journalism. But everything came crumbling down in 1998.
year, foreign investors left the region together with the euphoria that had accompanied the economic boom through much of the 8os and 90s. lt would take a full year before the impact was felt in Indonesia. And it would eventually have a hand in the removal of President Suharto.
Things fall apart
In many ways, 1998 was the watershed for Indonesia's history. While disgruntled Indonesians took over the streets, hordes of young photojournalists were "at the frontline" , dodging batons and bullets, covering the melee that eventually led to incidents of rape and looting targeted at wealthy Javanese and ethnic Chinese. Like any other photojournalist, Arbain was out on the streets photographing the mayhem. He was then, as he is now, the photo editor and chief photographer for Kompas, Indonesia's largest national daily. Instead of concentrating on the rioters who were clenching fists and waving flags, he looked the other way.
At the same time, journalism in Indonesia
was undergoing a revolution. Under the reign of Suharto, press freedom was curtailed. There were written and unwritten codes that editors had to abide by. " Whenever Suharto attends an event, every "In every loud and 'glamourous' situation, there is a smaller and subtler counterpoint," states 43-year-old Arbain Rambey at the lobby of my budget hotel along Jalan Jaksa, Jakarta. "In 1998 and 1999, a lot of banks went bankrupt. I quickly zoomed in on the
expressions of the jobless employees and the customers who were waiting blankly to withdraw their money." During that period of time, Arbain also had an opportunity to observe how foreign photojournalists worked as they flocked onto the streets of Jakarta, eager to make a name for themselves. According to Arbain, James Nachtwey was the standout. Using only a 17mm or a 2omm lens, James Nachtwey tried to get as close to his subjects as possible to make dramatic pictures. Once, Arbain asked James for his motto and his reply was: "If you're afraid, don't be a photojournalist."
invited members from Pewarta Foto Indonesia (Organization of Indonesian photojournalists, otherwise known as PFI) to his residency. As the founder and chairman of PFI till 2001, Arbain did not visit the president with the rest of the members. "lt's important that I don't look like I'm in agreement with the president even though I have nothing against him," Arbain explains. "PFI needs to remain neutral."
Championing the cause of photojoumalists
During Suharto, there was only one press association known as Persatuan Wartawan
"In November 1998, James was photographing in the morning, only to return with his head and hands badly injured by police batons," Arbain continues. "By afternoon, he was up and running again, wearing bandages and a helmet, taking pictures with the rest of us!" Of course, the subsequent administrations of B. J. Habibie and Gus Our helped ease the restrictions on the press. When Suharto was in power, a journalist had to put on a suit just to get into his presidential palace. After Gus Our was elected as the president in 1999, a journalist could get in with Bermudas. No doubt it was disrespectful to do so, but it did help in debunking the myth that the president was holy and untouchable. Habibie, despite having very close ties with Suharto, was an avid photographer and a Leica collector. In late 1998, the president even found time to hold a photo exhibition on clouds. Therefore, it was hardly surprising that he was much closer to the photojournalists as compared to Suharto.
Indonesia PFI. And it offered little protection to the photojournalists. "In many ways, the photojournalist has a harder job than the journalist," Arbain comments. "Whenever there's a riot, a photojournalist has to be out there, braving the danger to document the incident, whereas a journalist can file a story from his desk in the office."
In case you are wondering if Arbain is biased against the journalist, it is assuring to know that he actually started out as a sports journalist for Kompas in 1990. In his first year at Kompas, Kartono Ryadi
In December 1998, President Habibie even
SO . GROin
-the photo editor then -was so convinced that Arbain would do a good job as a reporter and photojournalist that he promptly sent him to the 1991 Manila Games. A self-professed Michael Jordan fan, Arbain complains he has never met the legend, despite having a few opportunities to travel to the NBA games in America. lt was only when Arbain was promoted to the picture editor in 1996 - leaving him more or less desk-bound - when Jordan made his comeback. In any case, Arbain stayed at the beat for six years. And Kartono is the one whom Arbain credits for kick-starting his career in photojournalism, teaching him all about composition and the importance of having a striking image. In 2000, Arbain was even assigned to head the North Sumatra bureau, where he stayed till 2003. Therefore, he is more than credible to comment on the state of journalism in Indonesia.
pictures in the public sphere". lt also helps in weeding out "black photojournalists" who earn money by representing PFI illegally. They are infamously known as wartawan Bodrex (wartawan means photographer, Bodrex refers to a popular medicine for headaches made by a German company).
Tilting the balance back
And so, in the short space of a year, the
But back in 1998, Arbain was busy working out a way to channel their strength in numbers into an organization that represented the photojournalists in Indonesia. That was how PFI was born.
liberation of the press seemed almost complete. In the early part of 1998, the government was infuriated when the papers placed on the front page a picture
"At that time, whenever photojournalists were attacked by the army, PFI would threaten to sue General Wiranto, who headed the military till Feb 2ooo,"Arbain recalls, on "Sensing that we were serious, General Wiranto changed his approach and offered to pay for all the destroyed cameras. We helped by requiring PFI members to wear a big name tag for notification." Therefore, the basic function of PFI is "to protect the rights of the photo journalist to take
of the president looking terribly forlorn, signing an agreement with the IMF as a bullish-looking Michel Camdessus stood beside him. By the end of the year, Indonesians could easily find pornography on the streets of Jakarta. "Looking back, having absolute press freedom is not all good, but I see it as part of the liberation process," Arbain elaborates. "There was a point when papers would put the most sensational and sadistic images on the front page. They would take a picture of a police being cut up into two and play it up. But it soon reached a point when readers started to alienate from such content." lt was a natural progression then to the period of reflection. Editors and photojournalists around Indonesia would soon incorporate the notion of elegance, acquired by flipping through Time, Newsweek or Far Eastern Economic Review, into their work. Needless to say, the proliferation of pornography died away, as with tasteless editing. "And I think we have the right balance now," beams Arbain Rambey.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.