This is the second time I’ve shot the guys in my kampung celebrating Indonesia’s Independence day. In case it’s not obvious from the photos, this involves the erection of a wooden pole, fairly smooth, like a clean tree trunk, which is then smeared with discarded machine oil. At the top of the pole are some low value household items, brooms, water dispensers, plastic cups and plates, that kind of thing. And the guys slither up the pole to reach them. If they get to the top and pull them down, they keep them.
Honestly, the prizes aren’t worth much. The boys do it for the glory.
The first time I shot the celebration, I’d just moved into my new house, just down the road from the spot where the pole is erected. It’s not the kind of neighborhood where foreigners are likely to live, and I’m the only one in the whole district division. People were very wary and suspicious. Was I a Christian missionary? Was I an Australian spy? Was I going to corrupt the morals of the locals?
It’s a fairly tough neighborhood. I’d call it “upper working class.” Traders, skilled technicians, small informal businesses. My immediate neighbor owns a few microlet. Sometimes he drives one himself, but more often than not, he rents them out to other drivers. He’s a reasonably successful businessman. Another neighbor is a freelance air-conditioner repairman. He lives in a modest house, but he doesn’t seem to be doing too badly. The guys just across the road run a warung. They are Betawi, Jakarta’s natives. One guy in the family disappeared mysteriously for a year or two following some issue with the legal system. He’s in a “pesantren,” his wife says. Well, he’ll be out soon. Enough said.
When I first moved in, groups of young men would fall silent as I walked past, staring. When I’d walked past, someone in the group might call out “Hey Mister!” or “Hello Bule!” It wasn’t entirely comfortable.
And then we came to Independence day. I asked the neighborhood head if I could take photos of the greasy pole event. She said sure. So I took photos, then had them printed. I gave them to the neighborhood head. And she displayed them on a public notice board.
And the guys were delighted. Of course, people had always taken photos of the event, on their phones and so on. But these were, if I may say so, photos that showed the event in all its wild savagery. They were delighted to see the event through the eyes of my photos.
And there was a dramatic transformation in people’s attitudes. From that day on, people called me by my name. They smiled and engaged me in conversation. They invited me to their weddings and events, asking me to bring my camera along. I was shocked at how suddenly and dramatically people’s attitudes had changed.
All of a sudden, I was considered a useful member of the community, someone with something to offer.