Arts & Culture

Conversation Between Two Cities: Chris Bunjamin & Juliana Tan

Two cities, one love for photography

Words by
b-side staff

In a special collaboration with Manual Jakarta from Indonesia, B-Side brought together three creative figures from each city to chat about their works and how the environment and culture of their homes have shaped their career. First up, Chris Bunjamin (Jakarta) and Juliana Tan (Singapore) talked about their personal drive as photographers and the shortcomings of the industry.

Conversation Between Two Cities is a series of three articles that aims to showcase a glimpse of differences and similarities found in Jakarta’s and Singapore’s creative industries, as two noted figures exchange their working experience.

Juliana Tan was born in Indonesia but currently resides in Singapore. The 30-year-old photographer has had her works published in major publications such as The New York Times.

Chris Bunjamin resides in Indonesia, where his works in commercial and fine arts have been appraised in the industry. His works have been exhibited in museums and galleries such as the National Gallery of Indonesia in Jakarta.

Chris Bunjamin (CB): Hi Juliana, so how long have you been doing photography?

Juliana Tan (JT): I’ve been working for eight years now. You?

CB: Nine years. When I was in university, I didn’t know what I was doing in school. One of my Indonesian friends taught me photography. My Indonesian friend taught me how to use the camera and post-production and Photoshop. My Art Club friends asked me to photograph their portraits or weddings. I thought it was good therapy for myself.

I’m actually an introverted person, but photography makes me happy.

JT: I moved from Bandung to Singapore quite suddenly. I think you remember the 1998 economic crisis.

I remember I came home from school one day and mum said to pack my bags. And I didn’t know what that meant. I just packed up and left. I think the first few things that my dad bought me when I started school here was a camera. And I started to record everything that I could.

So, I started photography that way. In my third year at school, my lecturer did this very ambitious talk where they invited him and other photographers to speak. I remember sitting there, listening to the photographers and thinking to myself, Can I really call myself a photographer? I think that was the turning point when I decided to take photography more seriously, to a point where one day I could call myself a photographer.

CB: Do you think of yourself as a photographer now?

JT: I think so.

CB: What really inspires you when you do your photography?

JT: Knowing that I’m not there yet. I’m still so far from where I want to be. That drives me every day. I know that after every shoot, assignment and shot, I get better and I just need to keep going. I hope one day I will get to where I want to be. How about you, Chris?

CB: I think the inspiration is from daily life, enjoying the small little things in life and seeing what’s good around me. Because I’ve been in the fashion and commercial industry for some time, I’ve felt like I was losing myself in a way that I’m not really enjoying the work as much as when I was back in school, you know. I’m trying to get those things back into my photography by documenting the stuff that I love.

JT: Is there anything you’re working on now?

CB: I’m working on an exhibition for this December or January. I’m working with a museum foundation in Jakarta.

I’ve been shooting 10 museums in Jakarta — the facades, and documenting the surrounding.

We’re going to do an auction of the artworks at the end of the year, or the beginning of next. How about you? What are you working on now?

JT: I’m mostly working on assignments, but I’d like to think that I bring art and commerce to my work.

I try to put a little bit of art and a bit of the commercial glossy side. I like to exist in this space.

CB: What are some of your most memorable works so far?

JT: I did a series of works when I was in Cuba. I was there for about three weeks and I wanted to shoot portraits of the people, basically photograph people at their work place or in their home. I really like that work.

I think the people there are not as exposed to the rest of the world. When they approach the camera or interact with you, they’re not thinking about is it going to be somewhere. It was an organic interaction.

What’s yours?

CB: Last year, I worked with an art foundation that works with refugee kids from Afghanistan. I taught them photography. At the end, we did an exhibition together at the National Gallery with the kids. I created a project about the refugee kids, and they shot some projects under my guidance. It was a good experience.

One thing I believe about art and photography is that it’s not about finding good artworks at galleries, but it is also about seeing regular people do art and finding good art from them.

I was very surprised and learned new perspectives from the students: the way they see things and feel things. They were amazing. I was very proud of the students. They sold some of their works at the exhibition. I, too, sold a few of my artworks and donated some funds to the school to support the infrastructure of the photography course. We’re going to continue the quest this year.

JT: How long was the process?

CB: I taught for six months and shot for two. I didn’t want to approach with portraits; there are too many of those. I wanted to increase the awareness, so I photographed the children’s toys, the things they made, photographed the way they made things out of clay, food packaging.

JT: I think I saw that on your Instagram page.

CB: Yeah, I’m trying to channel my energy into sharing. It’s not about donating money; it’s more about educating, sharing my ideas and making everything more sustainable in photography.

Not only to look grand all the time, not only to brand yourself and make it look cool.

JT: I don’t know whether you feel the same way. Indonesia is much bigger than Singapore, and Singapore doesn’t have a lot of publications. I feel like editorial and photography go hand-in-hand, and when you don’t have one side, it kind of takes away from the photography as well. After a while, people are not trying to be better. Because there is so little competition, people are not so hungry anymore.

I think the main thing I feel in Singapore is that people are not pushing themselves hard enough, both client and photographer.

Of course, I can blame it on the client, but the photographer themselves have to like… because there’s no demand and not enough fire.

CB: Yeah, I understand what you mean.

JT: If you ask me what I want to be in 5 to 10 years, my dream would be to shoot the cover of TIME magazine, for example. But you have to understand that TIME was a very influential magazine a decade ago. Today, it’s just kind of another magazine, and I think we’re losing that realm for editorial. We need to find out what’s next, but it seems that it’s just going to be citizen journalism. Be famous for 15 minutes and influencers are taking over the world.

JT: Actually, I want to ask you this. When I first saw your work, I didn’t think you were from Indonesia. It doesn’t look… I don’t know enough about Indonesian photography, but it doesn’t look like it’s from Indonesia. It looks very European. What are your influences?

CB: At photography school, I was lucky to be able to express myself through my work. When I returned to Indonesia, it was pretty bad. The way I do things and the standards are different. It was a lot of commercial work when I first got back, and I was trying to adjust to the industry here.

But over time, I started to rethink and apply my ideas when I shot. I was pretty lucky to work with people who understood my ideas. It really transformed my work for the better. Now, I’m trying to keep it up and enjoy photography. Do more exhibitions, find mediums outside of Indonesia to work with, which give me the freedom to express ideas and the way I see things.

JT: So, you can’t do the same for local assignments?

CB: When I first got back, I couldn’t. But now, the media is more open to exchanging ideas. So yes, it’s shifting even for commercial work. When I shot for Uniqlo and COS, I was linked with agencies that understood my style, so I could shoot however way I wanted. Aside from the brief, I could put my own ideas. Here, the last couple of years have been good, and I agree with you about the media stuff. Print is dying here, but some, like Manual Jakarta, still do print.

JT: You also shoot a lot with film, don’t you?

CB: I used to shoot with film back in school. But here, the infrastructure isn’t as good.

JT: I shoot my personal projects with film. I’m trying to bring more film to my commercial works, but I think the margin of error is so high for film, and there’s pressure from clients when you shoot with film because they can’t see the result until it’s developed. I’m trying to find the right projects.

CB: But isn’t it fun?

JT: Yeah, as long as it’s not all black or all white. But you are right. I think it’s so important to have good labs so you are able to control the output. But increasingly, we don’t have that here. People are not hungry and curious enough. They get comfortable too easily.

Comfortable is okay, but making good art requires a bit of ‘pain’.

CB: So how did you get your ‘pain’?

JT: I inflicted it upon myself (laughs). To me, there are very few photographers in Singapore who can talk about photography in a deeper way. We’re not just working for money and patting ourselves on the back. But it really is about looking at the work and asking ourselves, “Is it good enough?”

Another thing about Singapore is the government and education system emphasise productivity. When conversations are centred on that, it’s just not good for the outcome. You’ve been taught so much about how to be a useful member of society and you are always thinking, “Am I living up to what I’m supposed to do?”

And while that might be good, I find that when you’re trying to create art or something that you cannot put monetary value, it really destroys the work and your own spirit because you’re thinking, “Oh I’m not doing this fast enough, not good enough.”

I have a friend who’s a writer and director and he’s still writing his first screenplay. Every time someone asks him about it, he’s like, “Oh, I’m writing,” and they’ll say, “Oh you’ve taken the last six months to write. You’re still writing?”

Things like these are the main drawbacks of the Singaporean culture.

CB: I think it’s pretty similar in Jakarta. A lot of creative workers become comfortable with their work. The bad thing about the industry here is that, a lot of people are willing to work for free. It affects the industry in some way, but I’m not really worried about it because if you don’t have certain standards or not enough drive, you won’t last long. The only thing I’m worried about is how to sustain my work, how to survive.

JT: When you say survive, what do you mean?

CB: To balance the work where I can still be hungry, create my own work and earn a living. That’s hard. I want to do less commercial work. When you’re shifting your work into more organic areas, you get to meet individuals who can help you grow as well. It’s not only about the money. Of course, I still need it, but by meeting these people, I grow as an individual, as a photographer, as an artist I guess… Which is good.

JT: I think it’s very important to know yourself and be true to yourself.

One of the most difficult questions that a creative person has to answer is, “What do I really believe in? What is it about me that I can bring to the table?”

It’s so important to know what you can create that other people cannot in a world where there are gazillion images coming up every day on your phone. What is it that makes you different? And once you know, be courageous enough to stick to it and not be swayed by someone else who shoots in their own style. If you start changing because of that, you will lose yourself. You’ll end up being second best.

CB: Right, I completely believe in that too.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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