Doing heart-led research on Indonesia’s small business owners
Showcasing Indonesian Micro Business Owners
A few years back, I started photographing a series called, “Odd Jobs,” documenting micro and small business owners in Indonesia. I was impressed with the entrepreneurial spirit of the people in the community. Indonesians have to be creative about finding work, with a high unemployment rate. But, I remain amazed by their small business ideas, and how the community supports these businesses. Beginning a documentary photo project is one of my favorite ways to learn more about a subject, so that’s what I did.
I began by documenting friends’ businesses (In this blog, I discuss my friend Khadir’s short-lived cat breeding business and how to begin a project by photographing people you already know). Then, I started casting a wider net, documenting people I met while getting errands done in the community. I photographed my street optician, and a man who sells new money that people can give as Ramadhan presents for children, to name a couple.
Besides sharing my photographs, I’d also like to offer some information about how I photograph a project. If you’re contemplating beginning a documenting photo project or a themed project, perhaps reading about my experiences could be useful.
How I photographed Nadia for the Odd Jobs project
I met Nadia through her husband, Radil, who was one of the men I photographed for my project, entitled, Relearning the Art of Living, Photographs of Indonesian Ex-Prisoners. Nadia is quiet and definitely an introvert. She is also bright, artistic and entrepreneurial. Nadia and her friend Ida started a business packaging and selling kripik, crispy chips made of cassava. They found a supplier who makes the fried crackers, and the women created their own spice profile, then package their product with their own branding and distribute it themselves.
Despite Nadia knowing me, I thought she might need some time to warm up to the idea of being photographed. Usually, when I photographed her husband and child, she was spending time in another room or running errands. When I mentioned the idea of photographing her, she was open to it, however. She invited me to come to her friend Ida’s place, where they packaged their kripik.
The day I visited, Nadia and Ida’s children played outside while the women weighed and packaged the kripik on a mat in the living room. Because the two women were working with their hands, it made the process more comfortable and we could ease into the photographic process. I observed for a bit and then started photographing. I am careful to take shooting breaks to establish rapport. It’s not always comfortable to be photographed and on display. I like to ask questions and put my camera down occasionally to have a comfortable conversation with my subjects. Nadia and Ida told me about their business as they packaged kripik. I strive to be vulnerable with my subjects, which means I try to be open, honest and build reciprocal trust.
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The decisive moment
Another reason I put my camera down occasionally is to observe my subjects and try to anticipate what will happen next. If you can develop this skill, you can raise your camera in time to focus and take a photograph at the decisive moment.
This quote from well-known photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson may might the idea of the decisive moment more clear. “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” (To learn more about this concept, read this interesting article.)
Luckily, Ida’s home had a lot of light and it was easy enough to shoot without additional lighting. I was able to spend enough time at her home to get varied shots of the women working. Plus, I got photographs of their children playing, and some product shots.
In some cases, you might need to revisit a subject, even if it’s a simple story like this one. I’ll argue that most photographic relationships will become more interesting and visually complex over time, and being able to spend more time with a subject is usually beneficial. But a quick project can be really refreshing, as well.
Now it’s your turn – beginning a documentary photo project
I consider photography research from the heart, that you do with a camera. I had an interest in the small businesses I encountered in Indonesia and I decided to conduct informal interviews and photographing the owners. Are there any issues in your community that you’d like to know more about? What type of project can you put into practice? What will be your first step?