Award-winning photojournalist Joshua Irwandi poignantly tells the stories of his home country of Indonesia. From his coverages of the covid pandemic in the capital city of Jakarta to the Asmat people of Papua, Irwandi brings depth, humanity, and a kind of understanding that only an insider can behold to his photography. Read on to learn more about his work in our exclusive interview.
I know you began taking photographs during your time as an undergraduate student. What got you interested in photography, and were you always drawn to photojournalism in particular?
For as long as I can remember, I have always been attracted to photography, primarily because it allows us to stop and return to a certain point of time. It has been the case since I received my first camera. Eventually I thought, what can we really do with it? What can photographs tell us that words can’t? What kind of statement – impact, perhaps – can we make about the things that are happening around us? How do we tell that through stories and photographs? I believe, as we create memories, we create new perspectives. These new perspectives create an endless cycle of opportunities to look and therefore reconsider our human condition and state of the world we live in. They provide us with reasons for a change in a very much injured world. I believe in this very power of photography that made me decide to become a documentary photographer.
Currently, you are doing fieldwork for your long term project “Not a Blank Canvas” on the Asmat people of Indonesia, for which you were awarded a National Geographic Storytelling grant. Can you tell us a bit about this project, and what you hope to accomplish in your fieldwork and add to the story?
Not A Blank Canvas is a documentary project on the consequences of development and progress within the Asmat. The Asmat are an indigenous community of about 100,000 population, dispersed on the southern coasts of Papua, Indonesia. In 1961, the Asmat were notorious for the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller – then son of Governor of New York Nelson Rockefeller – and so forth widely labeled as headhunters and cannibals. Their art pieces today are exhibited in major museums in Europe and America.
In reality, ever since Indonesia annexed Papua from Dutch New Guinea, the fate of the Asmat has always been defined by others with little regard to their culture, environment, or existence. The Asmat’s livelihood continues to be disrupted by the rapid changes in their immediate environment: the influx of Indonesians from other islands continuously pushes the Asmat to the margins. Government-sponsored projects, deforestation, and illegal logging soon replace the void left after the gradual elimination of their ritual culture. More recently, the Asmat resort to the Indonesian government’s village funds that have turned the Asmat to be dependent on these subsidies. All the while, they have little means to have education, fair economy, and health. For sure, the reality in Asmat certainly isn’t black and white, but by the end of the decade, we may lose entire communities and rainforests if this current model is allowed to continue. By 2030 less than 17% population of native Papuans will exist in Papua. Asmat is one of the critical Papuan groups that will be affected within the 4 million population of Papua.
With this project, I hope to provide a new perspective to how people would perceive indigenous communities – especially in Papua – about what they can offer to our world today and what we can learn from them. Representation is key. In history the Asmat and Papuans in general have been represented as ‘noble savages’, a romantic-colonial outlook when visually representing the community that negates the current reality. They are very much part of the global economy. I try, in several ways that I can, to give back to the community. I am working with the local Asmat Museum in Agats especially with archival work as well as pushing for more effective museum programs.
What are the biggest challenges when doing long-term fieldwork like this?
The hardest part is the personal sacrifice. Time with family, mostly. As a person I am quite attached to friends and family and I try to stay in touch as much as I can. The most traumatic experience was, in 2015, after spending a month with no communication whatsoever in the village of Sa-Er, the first thing I learned when I came back to town was that a family of mine had been diagnosed with cancer. So, whenever I am in town, my circle is usually limited to family and close friends. They matter the most to me.
Your coverage during the pandemic showed the world the intensity of what Indonesians were experiencing with Covid-19. Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like photographing the pandemic in Indonesia?
If you remember, it was complete chaos at the beginning of the pandemic for the rest of the world. Test results took weeks, and at times they only came back after patients have passed away. Nurses had to lie to their parents about their work. Many nurses were treated as outcasts, they weren’t even allowed to return to their rented homes. Many have caught the virus themselves. Patients weren’t always honest about their symptoms. Worst of all, personal protective equipment weren’t always widely available. Many used raincoats and gaffer tapes. If there were any available, they were expensive, poorly made and easily torn. In short, we woke up late to what was the greatest medical crisis in modern Indonesian history.
This needed to be documented because the reality for most doctors and nurses, families of patients and victims, and myself as a photojournalist was vastly different to what the public might be seeing daily. We entered a world relatively unknown to us then. I only thought of my own family and friends when I saw what I saw.
One of your photographs from the pandemic had a huge impact, “The Human Cost of Covid” went viral, so to speak. Why do you think so many people reacted so strongly to that particular image?
There was a segment in PBS in May 2020 with Christiane Amanpour, Walter Isaacson and Sarah Elizabeth Lewis titled: “Where Are the Photos of People Dying of COVID?” At the time, if you remember, we were all seeing numbers, words, hardly any visual of COVID-19. So for a period of time people were kept in the dark as to how severe the situation was in hospitals and public health stations. In the image that eventually went viral, what I photographed was a procedure mandated by the Department of Health of Indonesia – a procedure that is carried on until today – and the public has a right to know. As a matter of fact, the news about COVID victims being wrapped in plastic weren’t fresh news at the time. People had written about it already. When the photo appeared in National Geographic in June 2020, I suppose people reacted so strongly because it was the first time that it appeared visually. In Indonesia, the country was trying to implement ‘new normal’, but the photograph said otherwise.
I was dismayed how polarized opinions were, from both ends of people who believe and don’t believe in COVID-19. Many were in denial of the image, calling the image fake and a set up. My genuine intention was merely informing the public of the danger of COVID-19. It is what’s worrying about social media: eventually, the reality that people believe in are the reality that they curate for themselves. A year after the image was published, Indonesia became the center of the pandemic in Asia with over 100,000 people dead from the virus.
Besides your camera, what one thing do you always bring with you when going on assignment?
A tourniquet. You just never know. But I *touchwood* hope to never use it!
This Interview has been edited for length and clarity.