Being a great jazz musician was his teenage dream. But one fateful afternoon, this shy Balinese guy set eyes on the beautiful body of a Canon SLR, dumped music and moved his heart to photography. He forgot economics, introduced his new love to his dad, and set off to America. Read on romantics! As one of Bali’s best photographers, the love story of this lens-view veteran shines on. Camera still firmly in his hand, Agus Pande is here to tell you the tale of how he first embraced his camera.
You’ve been into art since you were young but I remember you were in a band once. I never thought you’d end up as a photographer. When did you decide? How come?
Being in a band, being a musician, was my ultimate childhood dream. I started learning electone when I was really really young—mind you, in the early 80s, that geeky, nerdy instrument was considered cool. When I got older I moved to keyboard and when I was in high school, joined a band. I played mostly jazz, as this was the music that I was totally hooked on at the time. In the beginning, I really enjoyed that life and I really believed that music would be my future! But as time went by, I found things got harder, musically speaking. As a self-taught musician, I was practising 5-6 hours a day almost everyday, yet I felt stuck. I became frustrated because no matter how much effort I put in, I didn’t progress much with my skill level. I guess you could say that my dream wasn’t really evolving as I had been expecting it to. The kicker really was that, later on, I found out that being a musician, performing in cafes, wasn’t really something that I could survive from. The money was never enough. It was quite a frustrating situation…
The crucial turning point for me happened when my uncle came back from a trip to Japan. He brought a massive fancy camera back with him. The first I’d ever seen of this calibre! It was the best model Canon SLR with all the lenses and a big hammer flash. I was so stoked. That day I dumped music and moved my heart to photography.
So you enrolled in a photography course? Did you land a job in photography job right away? If I remember correctly, it wasn’t that easy for you…
I didn’t really go straight into learning photography, not properly. I learned mostly from books. At the time I’d just started taking classes in economy at Trisakti University in Jakarta. But due to my new hobby, I couldn’t really put my mind into it. I was too focused on analysing my camera and its functions, taking pictures of my buddies (that includes you, Dethu!), taking pictures of gorgeous models (and dating them!), taking pictures of everything. My life became about photography which took me far away from my uni study. My dad was very upset but he couldn’t really stop me—he witnessed me building quite a reputation amongst high society, getting invited to celebrity weddings and taking photos for them. I made my own money from photography. He decided that I might need a break from uni and so he allowed me to have a photography course in Singapore, for a year, on the condition that I finish my uni degree after that. That was definitely a wrong move! That course made me fall even deeper in love with photography. I didn’t want to to continue my uni, I wanted to continue my photography study at a more serious school in the US. My dad couldn’t really understand what happened with me. Why would I want to be a photographer in first place? Mind you, back then in the minds of the older Balinese people, a career in photography was akin to buying a polaroid, going to Tanah Lot, and offering to take tourists pictures with the Tanah Lot panorama in the background. I guess you could say it took me a while to convince him but he finally agreed. From that point onward, he put all of his effort into financing me, because in the end he decided it was important to think about what his son wanted for his own life, his own future. My dad always believe that school is an investment, he’d support it the best he could. So there I went, to Brooks Institute of Photography, in Santa Barbara, California. I was so lucky, I had the best dad.
I came back to Bali in 1997. Photography wise, Bali wasn’t the best option, local photographers weren’t respected, so I went to Jakarta. I got in touch with my old friends, tried to get experience, tried to get into the real industry, learnt all the tricks, built my confidence. I did quite ok at the time. I even went for an assignment to Europe for a couple of months. But I guess, in my heart, I’m just a boy from a little tropical island and I couldn’t really stand the fast pace, big city dog-eat-dog, you-snooze-you-lose life of the metropolis. I went back to Bali. Things had changed a little bit, local photographers were already starting to make a little bit of money. I did the best I could to survive. I did small, infrequent, photography jobs here and there but, basically, for over a year I was really struggling. Then, one day, the owner of a massive spa company called looking for a low budget photographer for his wife’s restaurant campaign. He was so impressed by what I did that he ended up becoming my informal public relations guy, promoting me to his colleagues. Word-of-mouth proved to be very effective. All of a sudden I became a very busy commercial photographer! And I got sucked seriously into commercial photography from that point on. Mostly tourism related and sometimes fashion as well. In fact, I remember taking propaganda pictures for your clothing line! How things have evolved for us! First, you were my “forced” experimental photography photo model, back in early 90s, and then, I became the photographer for your maximum rock-n-roll couture in late 2000!
I remember watching you in the dark room, back in the 90s, when photography was still quite traditional. You were checking the photos using slides, and all of a sudden, boom, welcome to digital era! Here in Bali, how do you find the photography scene, both art and/or commercial, in this so-called digital era?
I consider myself lucky to have experienced both eras: celluloid and digital. From the celluloid era, I learned a lot about working carefully with location, making sure everything is in place and well set up. I even made sure to iron the bed sheets properly! Back then photography was a luxury thing. It was very expensive. For instance, sometimes, you had to send the film slides to Singapore to be processed. Because of this we had to be very careful, anticipate, be strategic, always ready with Plan B so we didn’t waste too much money. The digital era, so far it has basically taught me to work efficiently and effectively.
In the beginning, I didn’t really believe in digital photography. I’d bet my perspective on this is pretty much the same with most of the old school photographers. The instant factor makes quality questionable. But then I was introduced to this Fuji digital camera which blew my mind and made me transform my skepticism.
Today’s photography scene in Bali and the digital era is like the boom era of local photography. The digital technology has made it possible for everyone to be a photographer. Which is a good thing. Every person has the same chance to compete, to be the best. Because of this, today in Bali, when people need a photographer, they have many choices. The only bad thing I’ve seen the young photographers do, which is a different approach to mine, is that they choose to work more on Photoshop, manipulating things behind their computer, rather than, say, chasing the early morning sunrise. You can’t make a good photo if you don’t have a good source, that’s a very basic rule. Photoshop isn’t God. Mind you, I’m still using Gobo to block light for high light detail, and a lot of light to balance the light to anticipate the limitation of the digital camera in handling shadow details. For me, it is going out exploring locations, chasing natural light, understanding lighting, that continue to remain the most significant factors in good photography, my photography.
And what about local photographers on the national photography map?
Nationally, photographers in Bali have quite a reputation—and thanks to internet, everyone in Indonesia has pretty much got the opportunity to compete. If I had to name one guy that I thought was having a big impact for photography in Bali I’d have to say Rio Helmi. He’s indirectly built confidence that photography in Bali is alive, cool and kicking. He’s always been my inspiration. I feel blessed that he’s one of my good friends. We ride motorbikes sometimes, exploring Bali.
I think us photographers, in my context, commercial photographers, should unite. We need to be friends with each other, create a solid association or something, so we can be stronger—especially when we are dealing with clients but also for our own future. If we did create an association, members would be able to get special insurance, teach other members about photography techniques, their could be fair job distributions, meetings for capacity building, or any other constructive stuff like that we could think of. A while back there used to be one or two associations, but as far as I know, they don’t exist anymore.
In all these years, so many photographers have come and gone but you persist. How do you do it? How do you reign amongst such tight competition?
Thanks, I’m flattered. As long as you keep quality as your priority then you’ll be fine. Keeping yourself updated is very important too. Stay hungry, keep learning, and leave your computer for a bit! Quit Photoshopping for one second! Go out for a drink, meet people in the industry—they are essential as well.
What’s your latest project? Any big plans?
For the past 15 year I have pretty much done the same thing! I can’t really differentiate between which work is big or small anymore. Any work is big for me and I always put my heart on the line—put in maximum effort. But if you are asking about my dreams, well, I’ve always dreamt about doing an art photography exhibition about the history of Bali. In black and white. Traveling back in time. Whilst I’m sure my commercial photography background can be a bonus for this exhibition, I want it to be completely different with my commercial photography. This is a long term plan, but it’s in the making. Keep your fingers crossed.
Any last nagging words?
Learning photography is like learning a piano, you don’t get to play a whole song when you first start learning but when you practice, when your fingers become familiar with the keys, when you mastering the techniques, you’ll be able to play any song.
• Homegrown & Well Known is my biweekly column in The Beat (Bali) mag. Basically it’s an interview via e-mail with Bali’s local big shots. This is the 24th edition, was firstly published—a slightly different version—on The Beat (Bali) #343, Aug 02-15, 2013
• Co-editor: Lauren Shipman