This is another creative interview you won’t want to miss. Martin Westlake, who is based in Indonesia, talks about his creative process, and shares his polished and beautiful photographs. Enjoy!
Do you consider yourself “creative?” How do you express that creativity?
First of all, let me say I am happy to take part in this creative interview. I think we’re all creative creatures, though I didn’t realise that I was until I started taking photographs more seriously in 1988 and since then I have used photography to express myself creatively. I started out as a passionate traveller and found that photography was the best way of expressing what I was seeing on my travels. As my photography developed, it became a more creative process.
How did you become interested in photography?
As a teenager we lived in northern Nigeria for 3 years, this had a profound effect on me and how I saw the world. On school holidays we explored the country in a VW camper van and this instilled in me an interest in travel and foreign cultures. Whilst there, my father let me use his Voightlander Vito B camera and I started to learn the basics of photography and to record our travels.
Where do you “find” your ideas?
Travelling is a major inspiration and living in Indonesia undoubtedly fuels my creativity. I have a constant stream of ideas for projects usually based around my personal interests and past experiences. Books, maps, TV, movies, magazines, and other photographers’ work all serve as inspiration whilst forming ideas.
I have no formal photographic training so when I first started out I was much more interested in the process of photography. I was experimenting a lot with various darkroom techniques, printing methods and with different formats and film types in an attempt to find my own style. Through this experimentation, I would come up with a potential portrait series and I’d try a new technique to shoot it.
How do you decide if an idea is viable? Do you act on all your creative ideas?
When I first started out as a photographer–pre-internet and pre-digital–I would work on most of the creative ideas that I had; this was very important and part of my learning process. Now, I think and dwell much more on the idea and the approach and the possible end result, sometimes to the detriment of the project. It is important for me that my imagery always progresses and improves too, if I don’t see an opportunity for this then it is unlikely that I’ll start on a project.
What are you working on currently? You mentioned that you are learning about video.
I have been working on documenting volcanoes here in Indonesia since 2008 using a large format camera. When I started, I’d shoot pure landscape but on the last couple of trips, became interested in documenting man’s relationship with the volcanic landscape. I photograph portraits, human activity and manmade objects within the landscape as part of this work. This project has been a bit “off and on” and has become a labour of love. It is quite demanding timewise and is expensive, but I’m determined to create a bigger body of work as I’d like eventually to publish a book and exhibit material from this project.
I have been learning video, in the hope that I can offer another service to my commercial clients. I shot my first commercial video in Bali earlier this year, for a teeth whitening company and I have my next commercial video shoot scheduled this month, which is exciting.
Other ongoing projects include, an Indonesian wedding series, a hijab series which I started a few years ago, and a project on the kitsch architecture in the Taman Mini theme park in Jakarta.
Quite by accident last June, I started an iPhone portrait project on the Badui people in West Java–I had set out to shoot the project with my view camera but only a few of the villagers were willing to be photographed in this way. Whilst setting up, I started shooting with my iPhone and managed to create a very nice series. I plan to return to these villages in the near future to make the series more complete. I’d very much like to exhibit these images here in Jakarta next year.
Why did you face resistance when you used your view camera? Could you tell us a bit about the Badui people?
The Badui are a traditional community living in a small group of villages in the Kendeng Mountains situated 180 kilometers southwest of Jakarta. Referred to as the “Amish of Indonesia,” the Badui continue to live without modern amenities and electricity. Formal education is against the Badui principles and they may not grow wet rice, use modern tools and building methods or keep large domestic animals.
I set up my view camera and tripod, a white cloth background and 2 strobes in front of a villager’s house and tried to cajole the villagers to stand for portraits–I think they were a bit shy and worried that they’d be seen being photographed by the others in the village, so they refused. I took out my iPhone and persuaded one of the villagers to stand in front of the backdrop for a portrait. Surprisingly once I had started using my iPhone, other villagers came by and they all began to relax and got into the whole process.
How do you balance paid work with personal practice? Do these worlds often collide?
I don’t think that commercial and personal work collide, but I probably couldn’t do one without the other. The dream, of course, would be to only shoot personal projects but the reality is that I have children to feed and to put through university. When my commercial and editorial photography business is going well, then I have more funds to pursue my personal projects. Personal projects are very important as I can shoot for myself without the confines of a specific brief from a photo editor or art director. This type of work is good for my portfolio and the aim is that I’ll be commissioned to shoot a similar style for commercial and editorial projects. Each year I try to schedule in time for personal projects when I can.
How has living in Indonesia had an influence on your creative practice?
Indonesia has had a remarkable effect on me personally and on my creative process. From the first moment that I stepped off the plane in 1988, it stirred something within. Living in Indonesia has had a huge influence on my development as a person and photographer. I set up as a photographer in Jakarta, inspired by my surroundings and, hopefully; through my experiences here, I have become a better and more humble human being.
The cultural environment influenced my early projects, which were all portrait series of street hawkers, wayang orang troupes, Balinese villagers, dancers, and musicians. Indonesian culture continues to inspire me but I think since I’ve been living in Jakarta for a long time, that has made me more interested in the country’s remarkable landscapes.
Besides this, modern Indonesia is incredibly inspiring in many ways, in particular the new wave of architects, designers, and artists.
Do you consider yourself an artist? What makes one person an artist and another, not? Do you think artists should starve?
I’m not sure, I’m a bit confused as to what the definition of an artist is. I discussed this with a photo editor friend recently and she described me as a documentary photographer. Working with film and in the darkroom has a “craft” element, and is more “artistic” but I’m not sure if that makes me an “artist.” I do earn my living from my photography or “art.” I have exhibited my work in galleries and I do have a studio space–so in that respect I can perhaps be considered an artist.
I definitely don’t think that artists should starve! I have to work on money earning projects to support myself and my family. Thankfully I have enough work so that isn’t the case. If I gave up these jobs I could concentrate fully on my personal work, but would find it more difficult to get by.
What challenges have you faced in your creative work? How do you stick with it when the going gets tough? (I love asking this question because these creative interviews always teach me so much that I can bring back to my own photography practice!)
The main challenge with photography is making it a successful business too. To shoot the things I love and in the way I want is a costly process. As I said above, the commercial side of my photography is essential to fund my projects. If the commercial part of my business is slow then my personal projects get held up. Once a project is complete I face the challenge of getting the work into magazines, online, or in galleries. I love exhibiting in galleries but it can be a very expensive process.
Working alone can be incredibly challenging and quite isolating, particularly in a foreign country. Meeting other photographers or artists and showing them my work is very helpful and oft times inspires me to continue with what I have set out to do. Completing personal projects and surviving as a photographer can be difficult and takes a huge amount of self confidence and determination.
Have you ever reached an impasse where you thought a project had become impossible? What changed your mind?
I got stuck recently on working out the best way to shoot a portraits project. I’d been looking at too many other photographers work online as a reference. That became too confusing and led me to a dead end. I got through the impasse by going out and shooting and letting the subject matter lead me intuitively in my own direction.
Are there any ideas you wish you had time to act on but haven’t yet? Do you think they will become possible in the future?
For my volcanoes project I have missed a few opportunities when volcanoes have been erupting, something that I’d like to shoot as part of the work. As these events are quite sudden they are impossible to plan for. Hopefully in the future, I’ll have a window of time and the funds to cover the travel at the precise moment that these events take place.
Is there anything you would change about your field or about your photography?
I prefer shooting analogue and would love to go back to working the way I did 10 years ago, polaroid test shots, processing film, contact prints, printing, and then scanning. It was a much more tactile and enjoyable process than working digitally and all the hours spent in front of the computer. Sadly here in Indonesia, the change to digital has been very fast and it has become increasingly difficult to work any other way.
Also the amount of photography now viewable online can feel overwhelming. A complete media shut down each month would be nice -no Facebook, no Instagram, no browsing other photographers’ work!
Tell us something we don’t know about you yet:
I studied maritime geography and then hydrographic surveying at university. Afterward, I worked in the oil industry as an offshore surveyor in the UK, Norway, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia before setting up as a photographer when I was 30 years old.
Martin Westlake (b. England, 1961) has been living in Jakarta since 1988. In 1991, he quit his job in the oil industry to become a photographer. His work has been published in many of the world’s leading magazines including Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveller, AFAR, Monocle, New York Times T magazine, FT Weekend, Telegraph magazine, and Audubon. He has held solo exhibitions in Indonesia and has been part of joint exhibitions in the UK. His book Eastward published in 2011, was a winner in the 2012 Photo District News annual photo book category. Find more of his work on his website, Facebook or Instagram.
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Selected installments of “How you do dat dere?” –our monthly creative interview series: