In today’s Friday AJB blog post we interview Chris Bunjamin, an acclaimed Jakarta-based freelance photographer who has spent a considerable amount of time living overseas. As you read Chris’ story you’ll soon discover that realising his calling as a photographer was not immediate. Instead Chris travelled a more indirect path, accumulating life- and creative skills along the way.
But as Chris reflects,
“It’s been a long journey, and every step of the way I have learned something either about myself or about my craft. Getting to where I am (now) hasn’t happened overnight”.
Come with us as we trace Chris’ journey to his present status as one of Indonesia’s most sought after photographers.
Introducing Chris Bunjamin.
*Kenalkan Chris Bunjamin
Hi Chris! Can you tell us a little about your earliest years?
I was born in Bandung in 1983 and am the oldest of four children (I have a younger brother and 2 younger sisters). My parents Herman and Joesy are both from the island of Java and met whilst studying in Toronto, Canada.
During my infant years, my family moved to South Jakarta and then in 1994 to Menteng in Central Jakarta.
Can you share a bit about life during your early school years?
During my early years of school (up until Sekolah Menengah Pertama), I was a really strong student. I had good focus and spent lots of time with my dad who regularly tutored me. But then I hit Middle School (SMP) and all this changed. My parents had moved me to a boys school and this didn’t suit me at all. To be honest, I felt unsafe as the boys had a different way of interacting – much more physical.
At the same time, I felt I was seeing the world in a different way. For one, I started to notice girls. I guess in hindsight, I was growing up. Not surprisingly, my grades dropped – a lot. I felt devastated. Getting good grades and achieving well was my whole life.
My parents recognised that this school was not a good match for me and sent me to Rockville, USA for a one-month summer school. It was a litmus test as to whether I would cope with being sent overseas. I responded well so in 1997 my parents moved me to Georgetown Prep School for my freshman year. I was thirteen years old.
It was definitely a culture shock but I was also very excited. It was a whole new world!
At 14 years of age I returned to Jakarta as a student at Binus International School. My interests included video games, music, soccer and as the internet was booming this definitely captured my attention!
I know you have a strong connection with Toronto. How did you come to live in Canada?
When I finished secondary at Binus my grades were far from perfect. Recognising that I would not be eligible for a good university entry, my parents moved me to Kingston, Ontario to grade thirteen. The following year I was accepted into the University of Toronto’s Commerce degree.
It soon became apparent that it wasn’t what I really wanted to do. I was not enjoying study – but what made it even more stressful was that I didn’t know what I wanted to do. My grades plummeted and I was suspended for the year. Suddenly I had all this free time.
When did you start to take an interest in photography?
Freezing my butt off in the middle of a Canadian winter, my parents had no sympathy. I was car-less and relied on public transport for my daily 3 hour round trip to a course I had enrolled in to fill my time. Completely beside myself with the cold, I would regularly appeal to my parents but they stood firm, refusing to buy me a car. Eventually they relented and bought me a set of wheels.
Upon acquiring my car, I immediately joined a BMW club. This was my ticket to making many new friends and introducing me to photography. A friend I had met at the car club happened to be a keen photographer. He regularly took amazing photos of cars and I was inspired by his images. Realising my interest, he taught me a bit of car photography and that’s where my passion for photography began.
As my skills began to grow, another BMW club member asked me to do a pre-wedding portrait session for him. With limited equipment (a simple Canon camera, two lenses and a small flash), the experience went surprisingly well – so well in fact that he asked me to photograph his wedding.
When did photography become more than a hobby?
As my university suspension drew to an end, I decided to change courses and enrolled in Criminology. I signed up for an elective in black & white film photography which was overseen by acclaimed visual artist Simon Glass. Simon wanted us to become familiar with the work of a legendary black & white photographer. I chose Robert Mapplethorpe.
This was a defining moment in my life. I felt a real connection with Mapplethorpe’s work. It was new, challenging and striking – unlike anything I had experienced. Mapplethorpe could express himself through a self portrait, which I have now learned is not easy.
Before this, the way I experienced photography was simple, but through my black & white studies, I learned the process of taking photos, developing film and appreciating every step of the journey. This cemented my love of photography.
In 2008 aged 25, I completed a one year graphic design course with focus on applied photography. This opened my eyes to the beauty and significance of lighting. I was finally enjoying school! I still look back on this as one of the most beautiful times of my life. I had finally built self-confidence and belief in my craft.
By now I was keen to create work that challenged both myself and my audience, however, this was at the expense of my instructor’s approval. Their distain only served to fuel my determination and I began creating works that pushed boundaries whilst also remaining true to myself.
I recall being set a ‘scheimpflug’ assignment using a large format camera. Instead of picking a mainstream or beautiful composition, I chose to photograph a spread of less than perfect biscuits (“rotten cookies”). At the end of the year I was awarded best portraiture student by the teacher who originally didn’t like me.
When did you return to Jakarta?
In the summer of 2010 I returned to Jakarta. I had this need to be closer to my family and if I’m honest, I was missing the crazy energy of Jakarta.
It wasn’t easy at first as I had to establish myself as a photographer. I started working freelance with media.
I was hustling every day meeting people, sending my portfolio, working with suppliers and of course taking more courses to learn more technicals.
To continue moving forward, two years later I moved to Seoul, Korea to work with a fashion photography studio. It was super-high stress and the hierarchy within the photography studio was incredible. It was a good experience and a lesson in how to be strong and have that fighting mentality. To this day I still draw on the contacts I made through this experience.
Back in Jakarta I was doing massive assignments – up to 3 shoots a day. To build my eye and build my character, I took on everything that came my way. I began to move up in the industry whilst simultaneously finding my true self.
Then in 2015 whilst doing an exhibition for Escalier Jakarta I met Emmelyn, my future wife. At that time, Emmelyn was dividing her time between Bali and Jakarta but it wasn’t until mid 2016 that we met up again and developed a friendship.
In 2017 I helped Emmelyn (who now lived in Melbourne), with some photography for her weaving project. We really connected. Although she returned to Melbourne after the project, we kept in touch. We recognised we had the same core values and have been together since! We were married in July 2018.
It’s been a long journey, but I now feel sure when I am photographing, and I feel very natural in my work. It has taken time to reach this point, but when I am photographing, there is an unspoken respect between the subject and myself. This doesn’t just happen overnight.
What do you enjoy photographing?
People and everyday life.
In 2017 I experienced a significant turning point in my career. Until then I had worked in big commercial projects but that year I connected with John Clang – an acclaimed Singaporean visual artist based in New York. I emailed him requesting he take a look at my portfolio. It was a long shot but to my surprise, John agreed. Upon reviewing my work, John sent me a lengthy email. He said I had an interesting & fresh eye. He strongly encouraged me to continue focusing on my personal work more than commercial. To this day, I heed John Clang’s advice.
Where do you consider the best places to photograph in Jakarta?
If I had to name one place, I’d definitely say Petak Sembilan but I try to enjoy everywhere I go.
Where do you seek your inspiration and creative energy?
First I always pray. That’s where all the best inspiration comes from. It helps me to become mindful.
And then of course I have other sources of inspiration including watching movies, something my wife Emmelyn and I enjoy doing together.
Music is a significant inspiration or me, as is the work of other artists.
Even something as simple as eating lunch at Mangga Dua gives me inspiration. I just love watching people interacting over food.
How would you describe your style of photography?
Raw, honest, spontaneous and stylish, combined with technicality.
Across the Indonesian archipelago, where are the most memorable places you’ve photographed?
Flores (top of Mount kelimutu), Labuan Bajo and Bali.
Can you recommend some other Indonesian photographers we should follow?
There are many talented photographers here in Indonesia – so many that I can’t mention them all, but these guys came to mind immediately:
Where can we find examples of your work in Jakarta?
First point of contact would be through Niniveh Space.
For information about exhibitions that feature my work it’s best to follow my Insta or check out my website. I also have photographs on permanent display at One Fifteenth Coffee in Senopati and Niniveh Space.
Art for Refuge showcases some of my photography, as well as local and international print/online media such as Elle magazine, Manual Jakarta, and Sindroms magazine.
How did you come to be involved with the Art for Refuge Program, in particular teaching the skills of photography to young refugees?
It all started because of a pic I posted on instagram about some refugee kids that I’d photographed at Petak Sembilan. From there I was introduced to Art For Refuge by Ratna Kartadjoemena of Potato Head Inc.
Katrina Wardhana of Art For Refuge asked whether I was willing to spend time teaching the refugee kids photography at Roshan Learning Centre. I agreed as I wanted to give back, it was as simple as that.
These kids have taught me more than I have taught them. They inspire me. Photography is like therapy for them, a way to see the world in a different light.
About your tools/equipment
What was your first camera and what is your favourite camera?
When I was 12 years old, my mum bought me my first camera – a Casio digital camera. It printed very little photos.
My favourite camera would have to be my iPhone 5S because it reads light perfectly. And of course my digital medium format Phase One camera is pretty amazing too!
What’s in your photography kit?
My absolute essential item is my iphone combined with PICTAR.
Your top 3 pieces of advice for budding photographers
Keep your standards up.
Keep learning no matter how good you feel you are.
Help and support each other.
Where in Jakarta do you process film?
All my printing is done through Ekta Imaging in Sunter, North Jakarta.
Favourite photographic shop in Jakarta?
My supplier Prima Imaging Central Jakarta is definitely my favourite.
Do you have any future projects that you are happy to share?
I am currently working with my fellow photographer friends on an exhibition on risograph at my space, Niniveh. We will be teaming up with Kamboja Press in Jogjakarta; working with our selected photographs and converting them into risographs. We plan to launch an exhibition presenting the artworks along with a printed zine*.
(*risographs can be compared to a cross between screen printing and photocopying.
*zine is a small circulation self-published work of original text and images)
About Your Jakarta
Coffee or tea?
Best place for coffee? and how do you take it?
Always at home, in the morning made by my father in law using his mocha pot. Otherwise, Ombé Kofie, One Fifteenth, Kisaku, Anomali (Black Pearl is my favourite blend), and ice matcha latte from Honu.
Favourite Indonesian food?
Nasi goreng, bak mie ayam, pempek, gudek, nasi uduk, rawon, ketoprak, bakso
Where to find your favourite Indonesian food?
or purchased from various ‘Ibus’ who have set up home businesses, making food in their kitchens then delivering by Gojek or Grab.
Favourite place to chill in Jakarta?
Definitely at home, or in my studio, or at my best friends’ house
Favourite place to chill beyond Jakarta?
Tokyo and Melbourne
Your Jakarta in 3 words
Home, dynamic and cultured
Best places to take visitors in Jakarta?
Every visitor to Jakarta must eat..
Every visitor to Jakarta must try/experience..
A visit to Ombé Kofie in Cikajang, Honest Spoon, and Niniveh.
Chris Bunjamin Photography Studio
Jl. Latuharhary No.10
To secure a copy of Chris’ newly published book, Se/potong contact Chris via instagram
Interested in other Jakarta- & Indonesia based photographers? Here are a few of our favourites:
*Kenalkan: Let us introduce..
Words: Jo Stevens and Chris Bunjamin Photography: Chris Bunjamin Studio unless otherwise stated