Radhiyya Indra, Jakarta – Looking back over 40 years of The Jakarta Post, each photograph captures the emotions behind the country's events and experiences.
On a long desk in an office library, hundreds of old photograph albums have been piled up until no space was left. "There are tens of thousands of frames here," photographer Rony Zakaria explained.
More than a library, it is the archives for complete editions of The Jakarta Post, including the photographic prints that accompanied the articles within.
Rony has been tasked with the gargantuan challenge to choose a dozen or so photographs among the many scattered on the desk for the national newspaper's 40th anniversary.
"We are in the process of choosing among the analog photos from 1983 to 2004, a span of well over 20 years," he said on March 31.
After 40 years of publishing, the Post has seen and covered many of Indonesia's momentous events, from the fall of president Soeharto to the start of the reformasi (reform) era, and through the COVID-19 global pandemic and its local impacts.
Beyond the articles that reported these events, their accompanying photographs offer a vivid look at the situations the country has experienced through the years.
Getting the perfect shot
"From these thousands of frames, we'll choose about 5,000 to 8,000, which will be [cut down to] 700 through a process of elimination, all the way to just 20 negatives and 20 digital prints," Rony explained.
The 40 total selections marks how long the Post has been running, as well as the rapid technological advances that replaced photographic negatives from the late 1980s with digital images in the current millennium. But choosing only 20 photos from each period is a herculean task, especially considering the number of iconic pictures the paper's photographers have taken.
"During the New Order era, photos of demonstrations were hard to take and [publish] because under Soeharto's leadership, there were rarely any protests or demonstrations," P.J. Leo, a former head of the Post's photography division, said on April 16.
That all changed when the public finally reached the limit and released their pent-up anger that resulted in the deadly 1998 riots and the Semanggi shootings. Leo was there, risking his life to capture images of the historic events.
"Us photographers had to position ourselves between the students and the police officers. But when the police and military saw us there, of course we're still going to get hit," Leo recalled, laughing.
"A lot of my friends had their cameras snatched [by the police] and shattered to pieces. That's what often happened in those [incidents]," he said.
Leo joined the newspaper in 1991, starting out as a proofreader and then working in pagination, and eventually became a photojournalist in 1993 after studying photography on his own. He retired from the Post in December 2021.
"That Semanggi demonstration was really a monumental piece of history, it really tore down Soeharto's iron fist," he said.
Meanwhile, another of the Post's former photographers, R. Berto Wedhatama, was on the spot to take photos of natural disasters, from the 2005 Nias-Simeulue earthquake to the deadly 2010 Mount Merapi eruption.
"The most memorable moment for me was the tsunami in Aceh in 2004. Leo was there on the second day, but I got there five days after the disaster," Berto recounted on April 20.
Berto, who was familiar with scenes of tragedy, had expected blood in the streets when he arrived in Meulaboh, but nothing could have prepared him for the sight that met him there.
"The city was awash with dead bodies with absolutely no blood at all. It felt so devastating," he said.
Berto started interning at the Post in 1999 and eventually fell in love with journalism. He was promoted to photojournalist in 2001. Although he frequently covered regional conflicts and natural disasters, Berto admitted that none was ever easy.
"When Jakarta was flooded time and again, I often waded through the water to get a picture. I once fell into a ditch by the street as a result," Berto laughed.
Occasionally, the people in disaster areas were much too nice to be photographed.
"I've met people affected by those disasters [who] smiled when we visited them, which was surreal, because as photographers we had to take moments of them crying or grieving, right? So we didn't know what to do," said Berto.
"That's Indonesia, the people are very friendly and smile wholeheartedly," he chuckled.
Selecting photographs to be exhibited is not merely a show of the photographer's skills and talents. It is also a chance to look at how Indonesia has changed through a retrospective lens.
"In the paper, we see current affairs and what is happening in the country. But when we look back after 40 years, all that is recorded history," Rony said.
The Post's journalists and photojournalists did not just contribute their articles and photographs merely as a daily record, he continued. "We want to show that they did their job as chroniclers of history. That's their life."
While scanning through the pile of thousands of images, Rony said he gained a different perspective on Indonesia's modern history, even on the most ordinary events.
"Jakarta, it turns out, has been flooding since forever," he laughed. From images of the National Games (PON) that were held across the country to the closeness certain politicians used to share before the relationship turned sour, Rony said he realized that the nation took a lot of things for granted.
"Even in my generation, some millennials have almost forgotten the 1998 tragedy. And what about the younger generations who didn't experience it, then?" he said.
"So this also serves as a reminder for them that democracy was gained through a bloody struggle. But we can't just present that opinion. They have to think [for themselves] from these pictures, these proofs of history, so they can make informed decisions."
The photographers, on the other hand, never imagined that their pictures would be worth another look decades down the line. They were just doing their jobs on that particular day.
"Actually, we never felt any sense of awe on the field, it's just another photo for us," Berto said, laughing. "Only when we returned to the office and the photos got printed did we realize, 'Damn, this is a part of history here.'"