Recollecting Memories of Tukang Foto Keliling:
A Tourism Photography Project— From the Heyday of the Itinerant Photographer to the Era of Instagram
By Dito Yuwono
In July 2014, Dito Yuwono initiated a group exhibition for Kelompok Fotografi Kaliurang (Kaliurang Photography Group) as part of his ongoing project: “Recollecting Memories: Tukang Foto Keliling”. The project started at the end of 2013 through a series of interviews and discussion with tukang foto keliling (itinerant photographers). The show is first held in a hotel room at Kaliurang. The second exhibition is presented at Lir Space on August 2014. In the latter show, there are six photographers whose works are on display: Pak Dasri, Pak Triyanto, Pak Tukimun, Pak Slamet, Pak Wijiyana and Dito Yuwono. This project is still ongoing. The following text is an essay written for the exhibition in 2014.
1 / The Itinerant Photographers at Kaliurang
My interest in the itinerant photographers at the tourist destination of Kaliurang started when I first met Mr. Dasri, a tukang foto keliling who still works there. Kaliurang is a tourist area located on the slopes of Mount Merapi, about 25km away from the center of Yogyakarta. Located 900m above sea level, Kaliurang is known for its cool mountain air and beautiful scenery. The area was first developed for tourism in the early 19th century when the Dutch built several villas for their geologists’ family retreat. After independence, the ownership of these villas came into the hands of the natives. Since then, members of the royal family, companies and individuals started building their vacation homes there.
Kaliurang’s natural beauty attracts many tourists. Families, friends and couples typically take pictures in its natural environment, at its iconic playground, by the streets and at other beautiful locations. In the early 90s, owning a camera was still considered a luxury and the itinerant photographers often peddled their services at different tourist sites across Indonesia.
In 1981, a number of itinerant photographers started to congregate at Kaliurang. It began with the presence of Polaroid’s distributor (PT. Eresindo Jaya) in the area. A local resident was designated as an official representative of PT. Eresindo Jaya. He was assigned to distribute Polaroid’s instant film products. He then formed a partnership with some people who wished to work as itinerant photographers. The relation between the two parties resembled the kind of professional relationship between suppliers and consumers. Apart from being a provider of products while serving as the coordinator of the region, he also created a strategy to avoid territorial conflict amongst the itinerant photographers operating at Kaliurang. Even though a cordial relationship has always existed amongst the members, this itinerant photographer collective has never become a formal organization or a community. The amiable relationship manifests itself on a personal level amongst the photographers. It has not translated into organizational activities such as identity building, training and regeneration.
2 / Tourism Photography
In the past, tourism was one of the most important revenue sources for the Indonesian government. Postcards, travel advertisements and photo contests were used to boost the tourism industry. The main idea was to promote Indonesia as a destination of beautiful and un-spoilt nature. It was reinforced visually through several thematic elements: traditions, happiness (relationship between society and nature) and tropical exotics (flora and fauna, local habitats). One of the government’s initiatives in developing tourism was to organize photography competitions, which allowed amateur / non-commercial photographers to get their photos recognized. This systematic development of tourism undertaken by the government helped to establish the image identity of Indonesia. There are three perspectives that one may approach such examples of tourism photography.
First, the tourist perspective: This is already highlighted above. Some photographers will use images that already exist as reference to produce similar images. Reference images come from tourism promotion media (brochures, postcards etc) or from friends and relatives who have previously photographed at the tourist sites.
Second, the media perspective: The pervasive influence of the media can prompt people to produce similar images. In other words, the tourists no longer see the location as a tourist spot but as a site for image creation.
Third, the romantic perspective: While traveling, some people may recall memories and experiences in life, which may shape the tourist photos they make.
The role of an itinerant photographer is to capture a portrait of the tourist according to her or his references and fantasies. Their practice is not merely financial or promotional. It encompasses the romantic function of providing satisfaction for their customers by crafting the images of their dreams.
3 / Three Decades of Tourism Photography at Kaliurang
Around the 1990s, the number of itinerant photographers at Kaliurang started declining. After the eruption of Mount Merapi in 1994, the number of tourist arrivals at Kaliurang started to drop, which led to the declining consumption of tourist portraits. Partly in response, the photographers began peddling photos of the Mount Merapi eruption, garnering a pretty good response from the customers. Some of them began to expand their services by selling photographs of Mount Merapi as souvenir.
Since 2000, sales of the Polaroid instant camera products started to drop. PT. Eresindo Jaya decided not to provide Polaroid products as part of its business portfolio from around 2005. In the same year, the number of itinerant photographers at Kaliurang plummeted and the photography group that was once unified by the distribution network of PT. Eresindo Jaya ended. In 2008, Polaroid announced the termination of its instant film production. The termination was a response to the decrease in sales by 25 percent annually since 2000. Its decision was influenced by the proliferation of pocket camera technology at a more affordable price. Camera phones were becoming commonplace rapidly. As visitors started bringing personal image-recording devices to tourist sites, the need for itinerant photographers has become supplanted.
At the height of the itinerant photography business, there were around 13 photographers who worked at Kaliurang. At present, there are only two people who are still working as itinerant photographers around Merapi. One of them works in the Tlogo Nirmolo (the Japanese Cave) while the other is based in the area of Kali Adem (the eastern slope of Mount Merapi). Both of them no longer use Polaroid. Instead, they use digital cameras and portable photo printers, allowing them to print their work on the spot. Other than the two of them, everyone who used to work as itinerant tourist photographer has switched professions. They no longer see the financial potential of being a tukang foto keliling. Some of them still practise photography, but more in the production of images for promotional media, t-shirts and souvenirs.
4 / Exhibition: In Search of Narrative
My first attempt to seek a narrative for these itinerant photographers is to create an exhibition for them. In search of physical artifacts and relics from the heyday of the Kaliurang Photography Group, I have come to realize that they have become similar to the photographers’ memories: a bit faded and vague. Photo materials are brittle. The humidity causes decay and loss. There was no catalogue system then and there was no awareness to properly store the photos to maintain their condition. The few remaining photographs that I gathered become the narrative of the stories for each photographer. The exhibition then evolves into a group show featuring the works of the Kaliurang Photography Group.
I use the term “Kaliurang Photography Group” to refer to those who worked as itinerant photographers at Kaliurang between 1981 and 2005. The connection that united them was unofficial, voluntary and organic. In the process of collecting oral stories based on their memories, I realize the confidence that people have in their memories.
The first series of work in the exhibition is presented in the form of old Polaroid photographs that belong to Dasri. These Polaroid prints were taken at several iconic spots in the famous Kaliurang park playground. The park is one of the favorite tourist spots, often seen in the background of photographs. At that time, Dasri was one of the itinerant photographers who worked there.
The second series comes from Mr. Tukimun’s old sample Polaroid prints that he used to promote his services to the tourists. Unlike Dasri’s images, Tukimun’s photographs are more “mundane”. He was more interested in capturing the fleeting moments and in making typical portraits, instead of focusing on including the iconic sights in his clients’ photographs. Given that analog cameras have no digital preview, these sample photographs were important in selling his work.
Mr. Slamet, another former itinerant photographer, devised a strategy to rescue his expiring Polaroid sheets. He used them to make photographs of his family. Not contented to allow his Polaroid stock to become expired, the remaining sheets were used for private purposes and as memento of his time working there as an itinerant photographer.
The next presented work is a blank photo with slopes of the Merapi as its frame. This is created by Mr. Wijiyana, one of two itinerant photographers still working today. He makes instant photographs of tourists with the customized frame and sells them as souvenir. This is how he dealt with the changes in order to survive. Personally, the story of how Wijiyana suffered the business downtown and re-emerged in his work is rather inspiring. In this exhibition, the blank customized photo paper is presented with an audio recording of Wijiyana’s story, recounting how the 2010 Merapi eruption destroyed his photographic equipment and photo collection that he accumulated since the 1980s. In the recording, he recalls the manner in which he started adapting to the technological changes, creating business strategies that focus on customer satisfaction.
Compared to his comrades, Mr. Triyanto adopted a different creative practice. When it became less rewarding to sell Polaroid portraits, he started creating photo collages in which religious symbols were juxtaposed against tourism icons. These collaged photographs were made in the 1990s when digital practice was not yet familiar to him. He would manually cut out photos of Mother Mary or Jesus and paste them on photos of iconic sights at Kaliurang before re-photographing the collages as new images. This niche product was his creative response to the frequent religious retreats taking place at Kaliurang.
The projects chosen here are created at the point of transition, when the business of itinerant photography started to wane. In this exhibition, I position myself as a curator who selected the works, creating the narrative and preparing the group exhibition for members from the Kaliurang Photography Group. This exhibition is not the end of my research about the group, or the practice of photography and its relationship with tourism. The show is an important stepping-stone to unravel the bigger picture of rapid technological change in relation to photographic practices.
5 / Tourism Selfie and Hashtag: @wisataselfie and @wisatatagar
Based on my observation, until a few years ago, the practice of tourist photography almost always involved three elements: the tourists (people who are photographed), photographers (the people who take the photos) and the landscape. The role of the tourist itinerant photographers suffered with the advance of technology, creating newer cameras that are cheaper and easier to carry/operate.
The development of digital photographic technology, which has been incorporated into camera phones, further displaces the role of the itinerant photographers. This technological advancement has created the selfie as the new portraying habit of today, especially in relation to the travel portrait. In the selfie, the photographer and the subject of the picture converge. It alters the position and presence of the photographer (in this case, defined as anyone else who photographed the subject), which can be replaced by a tripod, monopod, or even one’s own hands.
Selfie is a new term used in relation to self-portraiture, especially those made by the photographed using a hand-held camera (or camera phone). The term is often associated with social media. The term emerged in the early 2000s and has become increasingly popular after 2010. Although the act of creating self-portraits has been in existence since 1839, the term has become more popular with the increased popularity of social media.
In my current work, I appropriate travel self-portraits. I prefer to recycle self-portraits that are uploaded publicly onto Instagram. I replace the process of photographing with the process of “screen grabs”, re-publishing the images using @wisataselfie as a Regramming account. Wisataselfie (Travel Selfie) is the account I made to document selfie pictures taken at various tourist spots across Indonesia. This account is used to regram tourist self-portraits found by searching for popular hashtags like #wisata, #wisataindonesia, #wisatanusantara and others.
In the process, I realize how selfie and hashtag are now incorporated into a new form of popular tourist photographic practice. With the culture of real-time sharing in social media (Instagram, Path, TwitPic, Facebook etc.), tourist perspective and media perspective (promotion of travel destinations) converge. The role of individuals who publish vacation photos on social media acts as provider of reference images, creating the fantasy that compels people to visit the same places and produce the same photographs.
This phenomenon is supported by user-friendly applications. Instagram filter, for example, is capable of making postcard-perfect photographs. Instagram, one of the most popular photo-sharing social networking services, reveals the strong desire amongst people to share their experiences for wider public consumption. The powerful tourist gaze, in tandem with the media gaze, makes people think of the tourist spot as an object to create images, seen in the photographs shared by their friends and family members. Some of the tourists have shifted their interest from experiencing to documenting. This is followed/sustained by the urge to share their photographs to the wider public as proof of their visit/experience at these tourist sites.
Beautiful landscape photographs are now rapidly reproduced. Some of them display a similar visual aesthetics and function as promotional media for tourism—with emphasis on the exotic, natural beauty and happiness. To differentiate the locations, a few “photographers” started adding hashtags to their photographs.
Hashtag is the easiest way to categorize a certain topic. It was first popularized in 2007 via Twitter. Then, Hashtag functioned as a folder separator to facilitate engine search, leading to the ideaof trending topics (hot topics that are widely discussed on Twitter). This approach is evolved for other social networking platforms, including Instagram. The way people use hashtags has undergone a shift, in which a single upload is now usually accompanied by more than one hashtag. In the early days of its conception, hashtag is used, in general, only three times in a single upload. The function of most Instagram hashtags today is still informed by the need to categorize the images. However, the use of hashtags has become more descriptive, explaining what is not only in the photo but also things that are not visible.
The descriptive turn in the use of hashtags affects photography itself (unphotographed photography). Each hashtag summons the memory of experiences accordingly. This is relevant to the romanticism in tourist photography. The hashtag is not only used to categorize the images in the virtual world. It is also used to trigger our memories of past travels.
Hastag is important for selfies. People sometimes fill the entire frame (of the photographs) with their visages, hence obscuring the landscape. In this sense, travel selfies need hashtags to mark the locations. The desire here is to seek a more tangible materialization of the situation and experience, presented in the form of photographs. People also started using hashtags as a way to illustrate the things that do not appear in the photos. Members of the public are encouraged to imagine these things through a romantic perspective that is directly tied to personal memories and experiences. My response to this phenomenon can be seen through my other Instagram account, @wisatatagar.
It is clear that the way people access tourist photographs has changed. While the images created by the itinerant photographers are used to recall fond memories of trips and are sometimes displayed in the living room or in the photo album, the photographs taken nowadays are to be shared with a wider public. Photographing has evolved from ‘recording’ to ‘owning’.
Larsen, Jonas. 2006. “Geographies of Tourist Photography: Choreographies and Performances.” Geographies of Communication: The Spatial Turn in Media Studies, ed. Jesper Falkheimer and, Andre Jansson. Goteborg: NORDICOM (p. 243 – 261).
Strassler, Karen. 2010. Refracted Vision: Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java. Durham: Duke University Press.