Photographing Cat-Hustler Khadir and His Persians

Have you ever wanted to start a documentary photo project but felt overwhelmed by how to start? You may have a great idea, but it’s hard to put that idea into practice. How about if you begin a photography project with someone you know?

Living in Indonesia off and on for the last few years, I got interested in how Indonesians make a living. My friends there rarely hold down nine to fives. It’s not for lack of trying, but there simply aren’t enough jobs available. Some places even create smaller jobs for meager pay so as to offer more work opportunities. You’d see what I’m talking about if you walked into an Indonesian restaurant at the mall. There are no less than 10 waiters and waitresses, probably all making under Indonesian minimum wage (3.35 Million IDR/about $250 USD a month). 

I’m in awe of the creative ways Indonesians find to stay afloat economically, and their entrepreneurial spirit. Since I use my camera to learn about people, I set out to photograph some of these people with their “odd jobs.”

When I am thinking about a new photography project, I think about people I know who might fit into the scope. For example, when I thought about people with non-traditional jobs in my city of Yogyakarta, I made a list of some I might like to photograph. It made it easier to begin the project. Once I photographed a few people I already knew, then I began photographing people I didn’t.


How I started the project

I began this project with someone I’ve known for a few years. Khadir Supartini is an eccentric twenty-something artist. He works out of his home in Mlati Village, outside Yogyakarta’s city center. He lives in a beautiful, large, and dusty house. He’s a painter and likes to work big. Some of his canvases are 2 meters wide, and sometimes he strings 2-3 together to make a finished piece.

Khadir’s paintings help him define his place in the world and explore his familial relationships, especially with his estranged Middle-Eastern father.

When speaking with Khadir, his narrative weaves between truth and fiction and that’s part of what I enjoy about him. I’m never sure what part of the world his stories inhabit–the part we can see or the part he has created.

Khadir is comfortable with me since we know each other well. He is also uninhibited and talks about personal feelings much more freely than other people I know. He wasn’t nervous as I took the photos, and that made it easier for me to get natural images of him in his home and studio.

As I worked, I asked him a few questions about his livelihood.


Khadir holds Garfield in front of a monolith canvas frame

What do you do to make money besides painting?

I used to buy and sell Holden cars. But sometimes it tied up too much money and took too long to sell one or part with one. So now I design batik T-shirts for a few stores here [in Yogyakarta] and I breed Persian cats.


Let’s talk about the cats. How many do you have right now?

I currently have 8 adults, two males, and six females. One female just gave birth, so there are 6 more babies as well. Plus (gesturing at a small cat carrier) this one. She was dropped off to breed with Garfield, but she is trying to get comfortable here, first. She likes to sit in the carrier.

How much does a full-grown Persian cat cost?

About 2-3 million rupiah without pedigree papers (~$175+). It depends on their features, though. There are three different commonly found features. Some have a peaked nose, some have a medium-height nose and some have a flat nose. The flat face cats are the hardest to take care of because you have to wipe their eyes and nose often, otherwise, they become caked with crusty buildup and tear staining. Now, the cats with medium features seem to be most popular because they are easier to take care of, too.


And how much can you make from a kitten?

People think the cats are cutest from 2-4 months old. But I wait until they are 3 months old to begin selling them. I can make around Rp.500,000 (~$45) per kitten. Once they reach 4-8 months, they become more difficult to sell. I sell them using sites like Toko Bagus and Kaskus, which are similar to Craigslist.

begin a photography project with someone you know

How did you get into this?

I went to the PASTY animal market in Yogyakarta to look at the animals. I was considering making an art exhibit using only cats in kennels. I bought my first Persian there. Garfield was really cute and I kept buying more and more cats.

As we talk, one of Khadir’s relatives walks in and says there’s an escaped cat outside. Khadir looks around a bit, but all his cats are safe and sound inside. He goes outside anyway and comes back in with a slightly scared looking Persian cat with crusty eyes. He places it in an extra cage. Khadir says this occasionally happens and either the owner will show up or Khadir will take ownership of the cat.


Tell me a little about the cats and this business.

Dali, over there has a strange imagination, thus the name. Basquiat reminded me of the American painter. Sinsin is named after an art gallery. (Chuckling) Sometimes, I set up a projector with dirty movies for the cats….

I think, on a whole, this business can be successful.


Do you think buying and selling cats is exploitative?

I think the animal market vendors are only in it for money because the animals are kept in tiny cages. The cats have no chance to play. There are 48 catteries in Yogyakarta. Some of these breeders give their cats freedom to play like I do here. Some people collect cats like expensive objects but others really do care about them. Full breed cats can raise at least Rp. 8 million (~$700).

Yes, I feel a loss when I sell a cat but it’s a cycle. I couldn’t take care of them if I kept them all, anyway. The money I raise goes back into buying supplies like food, litter, and hopefully creates some profit.

Months after interviewing Khadir, he had gotten out of the cat business. Khadir is mercurial. He was concentrating on other projects such as buying and selling classic cars, working on his T-shirt business, and preparing for painting exhibits.

Khadir and his Holden car

I enjoyed having the chance to ask Khadir some questions about the cat venture. Taking photographs can cement a friendship, I’ve found. There is something intimate in the relationship between photographer and the person we photograph, and I treasure that.

How do you begin a project? If you know you will be photographing many people for a project, do you start with people you know, or begin by photographing strangers? How do you decide who to ask? What do you do if they decline, or don’t respond to your request? Do you keep asking, or move on to the next possibility? Have there been any instances where you were quite bold, and finally got a yes from someone who was wary about being photographed? Leave an answer below.