Creative Smarts: Seeing is (not) believing
In Agan Harahap’s satirical fantasy world, US-president elect Donald Trump can appear in a batik shirt at a boisterous Indonesian music performance, and embattled Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama find himself on the receiving end of kisses from US pop queens Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry or, in perhaps an even unlikelier scenario, amicably shaking hands with his nemesis, Islam Defenders Front (FPI) chief Habib Rizieq.
The photographer shows that the camera can lie as he plays with illusions, and he has been a pioneer in using digital imaging to create scenarios whose witty, ironic and thought-provoking quality has won fans and press attention around the world.
His experimentations have also included images of animals in incongruous settings, such as a pelican peering over a display of fish in a supermarket, and superheroes in historic photos. He also imposes his own image in some of his works as he rubs shoulders with a gaggle of celebrities.
Another series of photos, some of which have been exhibited at Singapore Biennale since October, purports to show the black-and-white works of a 19th century Indonesian photo studio, Mardijker, but with European faces imposed on the figures in local attire, and vice versa. It’s an ironic take on the exoticization of old colonial settings.
Agan says modestly that his introduction to photography came from “a not very good beginning — due to various limitations, I was forced to repeat my university studies in photography over two years” at the Design and Art College (STDI) in Bandung. He attributes his real grounding in photography to his time at music magazine Trax, even if he says he was still confused about proper operation of the camera and studio lamps.
On the sidelines, he also contributed to other magazines of different genres; he said it required him to use his instincts as a photographer and also a “digital manipulator” to meet their demands. He had learned photoshopping during his time in college, and the skills came in handy when he worked in media.
“Working in the media also opened my eyes to manipulation of facts and reality digitally. And it has become my ‘guide’ in creating,” he said by email.
The phenomenon of digital photography and how it has changed traditional photography is at the core of his artistic message.
“In relation to the development of digital photography and its distribution in social media by more people, I see that these people are ‘trapped’ in an illusion of life of their own creation,” he said.
“And so they cannot distinguish between illusion and reality. So I, as a photographer born during the social media and digital era, am offering a response to this with my works.”
Satirical works are bound to elicit varied reactions. His image of a fish purportedly with a hammer and sickle on its head stirred up controversy earlier this year. But the 36-year-old said the most controversial were his works on the Jakarta gubernatorial election on social media. Some accused him of spreading falsehoods.
“In my opinion, we had reached the most ‘chronic’ point, when people can no longer distinguish between illusion and reality, or humor and libel, when people have forgotten to use common sense and their conscience to respond to a photograph that is said to be a representation of reality,” he said.
Agan is based in Yogyakarta, and finds the artistic and cultural milieu to his liking. “We only need a bicycle to meet friends, chat and exchange our thoughts on whatever we choose. It’s something that is very rare in Jakarta.”
His works have gained an audience around the world, and he has exhibited in the Netherlands, Singapore, Japan, Turkey and France, among other places. As well as exhibiting at the Singapore Biennale this year, he was also the sole Indonesian artist participating in 11th Shanghai Biennale, showing his earlier works of gravestone at a Jakarta pet cemetery.
Ultimately, his artistic explorations have allowed him to make friends with people from around the world, he added.
“I am still interested in studying and using social media as my media for creating,” he said.