Introducing Jakarta-based award winning Photographer – Muhammad Fadli

The day I heard that 1/15 Coffee shop was coming to my neighbourhood of Kemang in South Jakarta was an exciting one. In my eagerness, I accidentally visited the day before it officially opened. Fortunately the friendly staff welcomed me in, offering me a cup of their wonderful coffee. Taking a seat for a brief moment, my eyes settled on the large photographs roughly pasted onto the bare concrete walls. Raw, understated and beautiful, the images hinted at a story that I knew little of, but one that I definitely needed to learn more about. Inquiring as to who was responsible for these images, I was told an Indonesian photographer by the name of Muhammad Fadli.

Photographs from Muhammad Fadli’s series, Bridge to a Nation (above and below) – 1/15 Coffee, Kemang, South Jakarta

I sipped my latte, made note of the name and gratefully thanked the staff. Upon exiting, I knew two things for sure: 1/15 would become one of my ‘locals’, and more importantly, I had to discover more about this photographer, Muhammad Fadli – and if I was lucky, maybe he would even agree to an interview.

Later that day, feeling optimistic, I decided to send through a message to Muhammad. To my shock and sheer excitement, a prompt response was received, agreeing to meet up and further agreeing to today’s interview. Lucky Us!

* Kenalkan Muhammad Fadli

Photograph of Muhammad Fadli by Danar Tri Atmojo

Where were you born? 

I was born in Bukittinggi, West Sumatra then moved to Padang (the capital of West Sumatra province), with my parents when I was a baby.

Can you tell us a little about your early years? 

As an only child, I really loved drawing when I was young. So much so that my parents searched for drawing classes for me as they recognised my interest and talent. Unfortunately back then there wasn’t anything on offer in Padang, so my drawing classes didn’t eventuate, but my interest in art continued.

After high school in Padang, I studied at the local university, completing a degree in English Literature. It was during the 3rd year of my tertiary studies that I started borrowing a camera (a simple digital one) from the AV department. I was permitted to use the camera for a couple of hours at a time. Although the camera wasn’t sophisticated, these early days were the beginning of my passion for photography.

In 2011 I moved to Jakarta as I had a contract to fulfil with Tempo – an Indonesian weekly magazine that covers news and politics. I mainly did portrait assignments for the magazine, taking pictures of public figures, and also daily coverage for publication need. I recall my mother in particular, being very supportive of me during this time. She knew I was ready for this big move.

Any other artists/creative people in your family? 

I would have to say my Dad. I have memories of my Mum commenting on the way my Dad would approach a problem or even talk about things. Mum would say that he was speaking like an artist. What she meant was he is creative and less direct with his language. 

How would you classify yourself as a photographer? 

These days, apart from being a documentary and portrait photographer, I am also a video and multimedia producer. Recently I also started the role of picture editor for a magazine.

What does it take to be a great photographer? 

Nowadays, everyone can take a good picture. This is especially the case with smart phones and ‘point n’ shoot’ cameras. But the key point of difference is whether you are able to take it to the next level. For instance, can you tell a story with your images?

What are your favourite things to photograph? 

People and places.

Portrait of a woman law enforcer in Aceh, Indonesia
Two ballet students during a rehearsal at the training room of Kosovo Ballet, Kosovo National Theatre, Pristina

What is a ‘perfect’ photo? 

I would argue if there are any perfect photos, then I’m guessing they will be very boring. We probably just need interesting photographs instead of a perfect one. And it can be interesting because of many things, for example, as simple as light entering a window.

Can you tell us about the first camera you owned? How you acquired it? And what is your ‘standard’ photographic equipment now?

My first camera was a model Canon EOS 350D. After finishing university I saved up for it. When I met my girlfriend, she too was interested in photography but didn’t have a camera. I let her use mine. My equipment now ranges from digital to old film cameras. I use film cameras mostly for my personal projects.

An example of photographic equipment for a trip to Ambon, Maluku Islands, Indonesia
Muhammad always carries a camera on him

What has been your most moving and/or profound experience as a photographer?

Probably when I photographed the refugee crisis in Europe back in 2015. It was the biggest human migration since World War II, and it is still happening. 

What has been your most confronting experience to date as a photographer? 

Also the refugee crisis I think. It has always been so dilemmatic to capture these kinds of images, although no one will know it is happening without photographs or reports.

I mean, photography is exploitative in its nature.

And sometimes I think photographers benefit more from this tragedy than the people they photograph. 

I’ve really enjoyed looking at your website. Although I can’t say I have a favourite (I love all your photos!), I am particularly curious about the following series : Rebel Riders, The Mentawai, Bridge to a Nation (which led us to you!) and your portraits of many famous people, in particular current President Joko Widodo. 

Can you please share some insights into these images.

Rebel Riders – The project, Rebel Riders was inspired by a master class photo festival that I attended in Malaysia in 2016. I was mentored by 2 German photographers who directed us to each complete a story about our own culture. I wanted to photograph a subculture and chose a community of scooterists who make and own scooters known as Vespa Gembel, or Vespa Drifters, (although the riders call these vehicles, ‘Vespa extreme’).

The uniqueness of these modified scooters – with almost Frankenstein-like features, represents freedom of expression and attracts metalheads, punks and rastafarians to their subculture.

Iponk (middle), a scooterist from South Sumatra along with his son (right) and a travel companion (left). He traveled for hundreds of kilometers, mostly at night to avoid police, to attend a Vespa event in Lampung
Bedul (right) and Ucil (left) two scooterists at East Jakarta
Fajar ‘Bajaj’ Purboyo, a university student and a scooterist from Pamulang, a satelite town outside of Jakarta

I’ve just recently published Rebel Riders as a book. It is available here or can be obtained by contacting me directly through Instagram .

The Mentawai – Over the past years, I have visited the Mentawai Islands located off the west coast of Sumatra in Indonesia’s far west. I feel particularly familiar with the Mentawai people who have one of the earth’s best-preserved indigenous cultures. It is quite surprising and also quite sad to see how they behave when tourists come – they immediately ask for money. 

I feel the impact of tourism can be confusing on culture and authenticity. 

A Mentawai shaman from the village of Madobag. The Mentawai are the tribes living traditionally on the island of Siberut, Indonesia. Here, some of the people are still living like their ancestors many centuries ago. They still practice an ancient religion called Arat Sabulungan, which upholds the belief that everything in the forest has a spirit
The Mentawai ancient tattoos
Mentawai children studying in the jungle school at the village of Buttui

Bridge to a Nation – Bridging the Indonesian archipelago is the passenger liner company Pelayaran Nasional Indonesia—better known by its acronym Pelni. Pelni is owned by the government and operates two dozen ships servicing more than a hundred ports across Indonesia. 

The biggest of the vessels can legally carry up to 3,000 passengers. The passenger ship, Dobonsolo was built in 1993. It is a method of transport reminiscent of yesteryear before domestic flights were affordable, when people would move between the archipelago, often ‘pulang kampung’ for special times of the year. 

Interestingly with flight costs again on the increase, the use of trans-archipelago ferries is once again becoming common but unfortunately for me, a trip on Pelni to my home city of Padang will never eventuate as this ferry does not dock in the West Sumatran capital.

For some, train travel is considered very romantic, but for me I think travelling on a ship is even better.

One of Pelni’s longest regular routes sets off from Surabaya, East Java, and docks in Merauke, Papua, the easternmost city in Indonesia. This voyage takes two weeks, passing more than a dozen ports and covering a distance of more than 4,000km
Pelni is a relic of a bygone era yet remains relevant in stimulating businesses and allowing people to migrate for employment opportunities, all the while hauling goods into places beyond the reach of any other means of transportation

Joko Widodo – Just two days before announcing his running for Presidency, and whilst still Governor of Jakarta, I travelled with Joko Widodo on his ‘blusukan’ trail. This portrait of Joko Widodo was taken at Jakarta City Hall. During these few days, I accompanied ‘Jokowi’ (as he is affectionately known) and his entourage to a variety of places including Pluit in North Jakarta. Here we viewed the cleaning of a reservoir. We also travelled to Rawa Buaya in West Jakarta to visit those affected by the devastation of floods. 

Portrait of Joko Widodo
Joko Widodo talks on his phone while trapped in Jakarta’s notorious traffic jam

Can you tell us a bit about the awards you have received for your photography?

Recently I was awarded 3rd place at Istanbul Photo Awards 2018’s Portrait Story.

Before that I was also awarded a fellowship by The GroundTruth Project for documenting the problem with Jakarta, mainly related to land subsidence and how people live with it.

You mention the Arka Project on your website. Can you tell us a little about this?

Arka Project is a collective that I’m building with two other friends who I have known for quite some time. We were contributors to the same magazine and all of us are documentary photographers. As we were enthusiastic to market ourselves abroad, we decided it would be easier to work together as an institution rather than work individually. Arka Project is now in its 5th year.

What other projects are you currently working on?

I have a few ongoing projects including publication of The Banda Journal in the not-too-distant future. It is a collaborative project between me and my friend, a writer. We highlight the aftermath of colonisation and exploitation in the Banda Islands, part of the original Spice Islands.

Can you tell us about one of my favourite Muhammad Fadli photos (pictured below)?

Open spread photograph taken on assignment for Destinasi Asian Indonesia (April – June 2018) Location: Dasht-e Lut (Desert in Iran)

It’s an interesting photo as it definitely gets different reactions. It too is one of my favourite photos because the process of taking it is like the story of Iran, where the image was captured. 

Photographed in 2017 in early spring, it represents the story of the opening of Iran to the world due to the lifting of sanctions. It was also selected as the front cover of German magazine, Süddeutsche Zeitung. 

Can you recommend some photography/art feeds, or other sources that inspire you? 

Actually there so many now. On Instagram I can recommend some: Foam Magazine which focuses on contemporary photography, or World Press Photo and New York Times feed if one’s really into photojournalism. 

Great interviews from great photographers can be found in American Suburb X as well.

Your Top 3 pieces of advice for those wanting to get into photography:

Be a good communicator. You need more than just photography to advance your career. 

Understand and appreciate context around your photographs. For example, if you’re working in fashion photography, understand the design process as well.  

Know how others photographers think. I realised this as I learn almost everything by myself. Looking at other photographers works is good, but what is better is to know how they achieve it.

Please tell us a bit about Your Jakarta including:

3 words to describe ‘Your Jakarta’

crazy, lovely, endearing

Coffee or tea and where?

Coffee for sure – Rumah Kopi Ranin in Bogor, 1/15 Coffee in Kemang and Menteng, Giyanti Coffee Roasters (and can I add Klinik Kopi in Yogyakarta?)

Favourite Indonesian snack (and where to get this?)

Martabak Manis with cheese and chocolate. Buy it from any roadside martabak stall. They all make it well.

Favourite Indonesian food/s and where to find them?

How can I not say, ‘Nasi Padang’! In Jakarta the best Nasi Padang can be found in Rumah Makan Surya in Jakarta’s city centre.

Favourite food in general (Indonesian or otherwise!)

Iranian food is really good…. in fact lots of food is good!!

How do you relax and unwind?

That’s an interesting question as I don’t officially ‘relax and unwind’. In fact I’m most relaxed when I’m taking pictures for my own projects. I definitely also feel relaxed when I’m at home. 

Favourite place to visit in Jakarta?

I really love to walk around Cikini (near Menteng in Central Jakarta). In fact I really enjoy walking around anywhere I can in Central Jakarta. If you’re not in a hurry to get places, it’s nice to walk instead of taking a car or a Gojek. I think Cikini is the most laid back part of Jakarta – and bonus as there’s good coffee nearby (Giyanti Coffee Roasters).

Favourite place to visit anywhere in the World?

I would have to say Bosnia. You’d be surprised but there are quite a few similarities between Bosnia and Indonesia: Both are multicultural, and within each country there are groups that don’t always like each other. The people in both countries are very loveable and just like Indonesia, Bosnia is a good place to reflect about many things. Bosnia has good food too – again like Indonesia!

And what about hobbies?

I really like to listen and play music including bass guitar. I used to have a band but I left it because I had to concentrate on photography. 

I also like to play computer games, especially ones that involve real-time strategy. 

Do you have a favourite book and/or author?

Ah, I have so many..! I like The Impossible Country by Brian Hall, Country Driving by Peter Hessler.

Favourite movie of all time?

Too many as well so I cannot say just one. I really like Incendies, The Lives of Others, Rang-e Khoda, and so many others.

Complete these sentences:

Every person to Jakarta must taste… any kind of street food from Bendungan Hilir – AKA Benhil (an area near Senayan).

Every person to Jakarta must experience… a traffic jam.

Every person to Jakarta must visit… Pasar Glodok for food and ice coffee at famous Kopi Es Tak Kie.

I get inspiration from …. many things. Life around me, for sure. Places that I visit. Books, movies. I love reading in general. I like watching movies in general. 

And finally, how do our readers best follow your journey and keep in touch with you? 

By instagram for sure MF Images

Be sure to check out Muhammad’s website: for examples of Projects, Features, Portraits, along with a list of editorial clients and publications. 

The day of our interview at 1/15 Coffee, Kemang.
Thank you Muhammad for sharing your story along with your beautiful photographs.

Here are some links to other talented photographers featured here on our blog, A Journey Bespoke:

Vanessa van Houten : Photographer, Jakarta – Indonesia

Meet Nita Strudwick of Nita Strudwick Photography

Celebrating talented Indonesian Street Photographer – Vina Alhadath

  • Kenalkan – Let me introduce.. 

Words: Jo Stevens Photography: MF Images (unless otherwise stated)

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