Mohamad Iqbal gives tsunami victims a face

Photo exhibition captures Aceh stories news media left untold

The Jakarta Post
Tuesday, April 26, 2005

By Christina Schott

A hundred thirty-thousand dead, 40,000 missing, half a million homeless -- the tsunami in Aceh produced such unimaginable numbers of victims that many remain anonymous; part of an inconceivable statistic.

And despite all the coverage, it was seldom that TV pictures of the horror, advertisement-style packages with emotional music, delved into the personal tragedies. Frequently we heard an announcer say "He lost everything". Far more rarely, however, did we get to know or feel what this "everything" actually meant. The victims became the objects, not the subjects, of the disaster.

But, as photographer Mohamad Iqbal's well-researched photo exhibition shows, the tsunami survivors have feelings and thoughts; fear of the past and hope for the future. All of which they express in their faces.

Faces of the Survivors is the title of Iqbal's very personal quest on show at the Goethe Institute Jakarta and presented in cooperation with the Antara Photo Journalism Gallery.

The 26 portraits show Acehnese people telling their stories without words, by presenting what is left in their lives.

For five weeks, Iqbal traveled down the west coast of Aceh looking for people who were willing to tell him their stories and to pose in front of his lens.

"It was a very emotional work experience. Every single photo is the documentation of a personal tragedy that I had to learn first, before I could set the picture in the right context," the photographer said.

Seven-year-old Delisa and her father, Bahtiar, from the town of Lambaro, are the only two members of their family who survived the tsunami.

Iqbal met them for the first time in January, when the 60-year-old father was rushing out of the military's Kesdam Hospital carrying his daughter, who just had her left leg amputated. The pair were fleeing with other patients because they had heard rumors about another tsunami.

When Iqbal returned to Aceh for the Faces project, he was surprised and touched to find them again by accident. He asked Delisa, what he could do for her. All she said she wanted was ice cream and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

In the picture telling this story, father and daughter are posing in front of a wooden shack -- their home now -- the girl smiling with a pocket radio balancing on her one leg, protected by her father's arm.

When so much of one's life has been obliterated by a disaster; so many loved ones taken away; possessions become highly significant. Nineteen-year-old Vera Siska presents herself with the remnants of her soft toy collection. The student of Syiah Kuala University spent days searching the neighborhood for her hundreds of dolls that had been washed away.

Eventually she found one here and another there among the debris. She washed each of them and dried them carefully. In the picture, she is leaning back on a clothes line with widespread arms. She wears a a T-shirt emblazoned with the U.S. flag as an Indonesian banner flaps in the background; the image becomes the almost surrealistic statement of a personal struggle to recover one's identity and a "normal" life.

"The choice of portraiture is the consideration of portrayed subjects. In portraiture, everyone composes themselves in front of the public, it is the presentation of an individual in the world," curator Alexander Supartono said.

Often in a chaotic and disastrous situation, a photographer takes scenes without the knowlege of the subjects, a situation that tends to objectify people in the search for a larger narrative.

However in Faces, Iqbal personally introduced himself to his subjects and had to convince them to pose for his medium-format camera. The wasteland of the tsunami became his studio, populated by his subjects and their few recovered possessions.

Ibqal did not push his subjects for an emotional response and many keep their distance, showing either an uncertain smile or the traditional serious expression Indonesians reserve for formal photos.

There are however, surprises -- like the old school teacher sitting in her courtyard who had complained about the recovery situation. In the photograph her resigned eyes do most of the talking.

With an almost obsessive wish for completeness, impossible to fulfill, Iqbal extended his stay in Aceh twice. He traveled from Banda Aceh through Aceh Besar, took a boat to Calang and Lamno and finally went by motorbike to Meulaboh, where he was stopped by the Indonesian Military from entering the city.

In other places, the long-haired 33-year-old Jakartan was suspected of being an agent of the Indonesian intelligence. Another time, a woman broke down in tears when she saw Iqbal because he reminded her of her own missing son.

The photographer fought his way through a difficult situation, sleeping in emergency tents, eating instant noodles and using whatever sanitary facilities were available; sometimes the open sea.

"In the beginning, I thought I would not be able to portray people who have had such traumatic experiences. By overcoming this, this journey will have a strong influence on my future work. I have learned so much respect for the Acehnese people -- they are very strong, accepting their fate as it is and trying to start all over again," he said.

Iqbal mentions Sunyoto, the owner of a coffee shop in one of the hardest-hit shopping centers in Banda Aceh. Although nobody else had returned to the destroyed area, the 52-year-old, who had lost his wife and house in the waves, began cleaning up the debris and reconstructing his shop.

Or Karmilawati and Syamsul, who met in a refugee camp in Mata Ie, fell in love and got married, starting a new life in the middle of the rubble. The couple, whose pictures were shown in almost all of the Indonesian newspapers, put on their wedding costumes for Iqbal to tell their story.

Faces of the Survivors (Raut Pusaran, Raut Hayat) photo exhibition by Mohamad Iqbal at Goethe Institute Jakarta, Jl. Sam Ratulangi 11-15, Menteng, Central Jakarta from April 14 until May 14.