Other than Putu, Made, Nyoman and Ketut, one of the most generic names you’re likely to find in Bali is “Gusde”. People get so confused by their Gusde conversations, they have no choice but to ask “which one?” When the answer is “Gus De Photography”, everyone knows. Gus De equals exquisite pictures.
So, do you know Gus De? This one tried to be a banker once. Next time you’re at the bank, thank them would you. Image-wise, rejecting him may well be the best decision an Indonesian bank has ever made.
You’re one of few prominent figures in the Bali photography scene. How did your career start? What got you into photography?
You know, my parents wanted me to be a banker?! I took economy as my main subject when I was at uni, just to be a good son to my parents. I did get my degree but it turned out that it wasn’t so easy to find a job. No banks accepted my application. For three years I was unemployed. I went back to college and this time I enrolled to study graphic design. Mind you, I had been wanting to go to graphic design school forever, but never got approval from my parents. I’ve always been into art, always like painting—I guess it’s an influence from my grandfather who’s a painter. I painted a lot when I was a kid, won quite a few trophies representing my school in painting.
I landed in the photography world after getting a job working as a graphic designer for a surf company in Kuta. I had to buy a digital pocket camera as a support tool for my job and I used it quite a lot, work wise. Having to use this little camera, I became fascinated by photography, I really wanted to be able to take pictures properly. I learned from the internet, joined online photography clubs, and talked to photography enthusiasts who were part of these virtual communities. Then one day I took one of the bravest steps in my life: I purchased a DSLR. Guess I may be not the greatest example in making parents happy!
What obstacles have you faced in your career? Anything major?
This photography thing, it all started as a hobby. I never dreamt that I would be doing this professionally, making a living out of it. After I purchased a DSLR camera, even though I was really excited, I didn’t think I would get this far.
In the beginning it was a bit hard for me to find people that I clicked with. I mean, yeah sure there were a few photography enthusiasts out there but they were pretty much doing their own thing. So I began to connect with people from outside of Bali as I was quite active in photography forums, particularly international photography forums. They were so open, people who were interacting through these networks didn’t think twice about sharing knowledge. They certainly weren’t afraid of anyone becoming their competition. I learned a lot from them. I didn’t have quite the same experience with photography enthusiasts in Bali as, back then, they tended to be kind of individualistic and, overall, not the types to share.
I spent around three years as an amateur, hobby-based, photographer and then began to step into the professional scene by taking landscape pictures and also photographing lesser-known models. After I had taken those steps, thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I found myself taking photos for national fashion magazines.
Just so you know, there’s a problem between local and overseas photographers here in Indonesia: we get paid differently. It’s classic. Despite obvious proof to counter this argument, local photographers are considered to be of a lower class. People say that what we produce lacks quality, that our work is not professional and then, of course, this line is thrown at us to justify cheap and disrespectful payment for our work. Meanwhile, overseas photographers, without scrutiny, are considered to produce work that is better in quality, more professional, and therefore are automatically offered much higher payments. As a matter of fact, between local and overseas photographers, there isn’t much difference anymore, we’re the same. The real problem with local photographers is that we can’t—I can’t—sell ourselves. We are bad at communicating our worth and we are not the best negotiators. It’s often because we can’t speak English well enough to express ourselves confidently but it’s also because, in our very own culture, we are not taught to talk directly, it is considered impolite to name your price (except when you are in a traditional market, or a shop selling something, basically anywhere where one is practicing “real” trading). Overseas photographers, they’ve already won. They speak English confidently, know how to sell themselves, and have zero problem getting straight to the point. This is the real reason they are getting people to pay them right—expensive. But locals deserve to be paid right too, without having to breach our culture. I’m not meaning to generalise, and the issue that I’m trying to raise isn’t that overseas photographers shouldn’t be working here or that they are bad, I’m just trying to highlight the fact that this unfounded discrimination is a reality, and it something that local photographers, talented photographers, are faced with each and every day.
Do you think there is a way to resolve this discrimination?
Rather than playing blame games, I think local photographers need to be tactical. We could do this by communicating the way clients expect. I guess, using the same tricks the overseas photographers use could work. Begin by including your “award-winning” title in your portfolio! Or maybe we have to start joining international competitions, just to win something, and then include that on our cv. I mean, that seems to work well in overseas photographer negotiations.
Other than that, I have been talking with some friends about building an association of local wedding photographers in order to create fair competition. We set a certain standard and a set of guidelines, and help to facilitate recognition and respect for members. We work together, to be stronger, for the better.
Achieving this isn’t going to be as easy as I make it sound though. When I was a fashion photographer, I found out just how unfair the competition was. Bad discrimination. So hard to fight it. Too complex. This was a major factor in me changing my direction to wedding photography. I think I do alright today. Oh yeah, me and my colleagues, we all submit our photos to wedding photography competitions like Fearless, ISPWP, Junebug, to name a few. And we’ve successfully gotten a couple of awards out of it too. It totally helps. We’re making progress.
How’s the photography scene in Indonesia today?
All in all, it’s very positive. I think this is thanks in part to Facebook, or socmed in general. These days every person who owns a DSLR thinks that he or she is a “real” photographer and they have access to quick and easy outlets to share the images with their peers, by posting the photos on Facebook. There’s Instagram as well of course. Since this popular photography movement began, photography competitions have been popping up all over the country, there’s one almost every week. It’s not about the photos being good, it’s the enthusiasm. It all helps to transform the scene and now the scene has evolved into one that is dynamic and enthusiastic. Maybe soon all this activity will allow the general public to comprehend the importance of photography and how it has become a significant part of life in Indonesia. When this happens, photography will be given the respect and recognition it deserves here. Plus people will always try to make better pictures than their peers, with each image they strive to improve, and this elevates overall quality. Public eyes are already educated. It’s exciting to witness such enthusiasm and, integrated with the harmonious atmosphere occurring among photographers, photography enthusiasts, and photography clubs….perhaps this harmony means we’re entering into the heyday of photography in Indonesia!
What is the best achievement you have received so far?
Not so long ago I was offered the opportunity to talk about my photography work in Denpasar. I was really humbled by the turnout. It’d never occurred to me that this chat I was going to have would become such a big thing, with such heavy buzz, let alone that hundreds of people were going to show up to hear it! It was a surreal. And to see that people weren’t just coming from Bali, but also all the way from Java, Sumatra and Kalimantan, made me feel really appreciated. What else? I was pretty pleased when Elle Indonesia magazine gave me their whole fashion spread. Awards-wise, it was exciting to have been included in Rolling Stone Indonesia’s 2009 Hot List. And I was pretty damn happy to receive those two consecutive awards from Fearless Photographer, 2012 and 2013.
Any plans for a solo exhibition?
Not at the moment. Back in 2009 I was included in BLIPfest Imagemakers together with a few other young Indonesian photographers…group shows, group shows. Hmmmm, now you’ve said it, yeah, maybe I should start thinking about exhibiting solo.
Name your favourite local photographers and why.
For fashion photography I definitely admire Nicoline Patricia because, through her, international eyes have begun to focus on the talents of Indonesian fashion photographers. And, I’m a big fan of Erwin Damali and Ray from Apertura. These two wedding photographers may not live in Indonesia but they’ve helped Indonesian photography get recognition as a significant part of the global photography map, especially once their names appeared in the Top 10 Wedding Photographer list compiled by American Photo magazine. And I respect Rio Helmi too, his photos are one of a kind—he was already a professional photographer before I was even born!
Any last nagging words?
You call yourself a photographer? When you’re on a holiday, don’t bring a camera. Trust me, it’s nicer.
• 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 28th edition, was firstly published—a slightly different version—on The Beat (Bali) #336, April-May, 2013
• Co-editor: Lauren Shipman
• Co-editor: Lauren Shipman Check out Gus De’s photoworks: www.gusdephotography.com