Photography feature- Andri Tambunan had a moment of epiphany five years ago. He found himself in Bombay during the attacks of 2008, and felt compelled to pick up the camera and record what was happening around him. Tambunan instinctively wanted to document what he saw but, also, in the heat of that moment, his approach to photography changed too. He felt that photography had the power to tell hidden stories of people condemned to silent suffering in difficult conditions. Though trained in fine arts photography, he changed tack. His new book, Against All Odds, is about the AIDS epidemic that has ravaged the indigenous population of the Indonesian island of Papua. Tambunan hopes that the book will bring about change, which is why he prefers to call it an information book, or an ‘action’ book, certainly not a conventional photo book. It does a commendable job of putting a human face to what would otherwise have been an abstract statistical misery-cliché in another ‘unfortunate’ part of the world.
Ophira (18) has been HIV-positive for one year. She is recovering from her injuries after getting drunk and falling off her motorcycle. Despite her condition, Ophira does not take her ARV medication regularly and she rarely comes to the clinic for her check-up because she is afraid others would find out about her status.
It was in 2009, while visiting relatives in Jakarta, that the 31-year-old America-raised photographer came across a story about Mama Yuli, a mother and a wife who had lost both her son and her husband to AIDS. She was withered and shunned by her community – thin as a stick and ostracized – when a non-profit group rescued her. With treatment and better nutrition, she gradually regained her health. In a brave move, she decided to go public with her condition, and, subsequently, went on to become an AIDS activist. Impressed by her spirit, Tambunan contacted the NGO that had helped her, and thus began a journey of documenting photographically the intimate, horrific details of a diseased and sinking population. The infection rate in Papua is 15 times higher than the national average. 40% of all HIV/ AIDS cases in Indonesia are located here.
A young mother with HIV is seen wearing a necklace with a picture of Jesus Christ and a sweater that reads, “I love Papua.”
The problem is compounded by several factors: superstition, poverty, moral conservatism and language issues. Condom ads are not encouraged, as they are perceived to be promoting teenage sex. The locals would rather spend a fortune on pig sacrifice as a mode of treatment than take the patient to hospital. The Indonesian government’s approach has been callous to say the least. Over the years, they have followed a policy of transmigration—much like what the Chinese have been doing in Tibet—and repopulated the island of Papua with non-Papuans from neighbouring areas. The state has plied them with money, land and benefits, which has led to the indigenous folk being completely marginalised. Even the anti-HIV pamphlets are written in Bahasa Indonesia, the national language spoken only by the new migrants and incomprehensible to those who are affected most by the condition – the original inhabitants.
Tambunan travels deep into the heart of rural Papua. He is allowed to photograph grim, private scenes of death – a man carrying his dead wife to the pyre while a priest blesses her; a page from a mother’s diary, her cherubic baby laid to rest in her prettiest fondest frock- another fledgling life gone too soon. There are photographs of freshly dug graves; of family and friends hugging someone familiar who’s just died; a dying girl on a hospital bed as a tear rolls down her cheek; the entrails of sacrificed pigs; emaciated men being transferred onto stretchers.
Against All Odds : The HIV/AIDS epidemic in Papua
Many of these photographs feature helpless, helpful bystanders. The anguished, aggrieved expressions on their lined faces tell a story. These are short-statured yet physically strong men with broad chests, thick calves and bull-like necks who have been felled by a preventable virus. One photograph, of a guitar-shaped Jesus locket, speaks of a redemptive religion that was introduced to the island by missionaries. Sadly, the other photographs in the book speak only too explicitly of a formerly proud and peaceful people who have been let down terribly, both by their government and their god.
(The writer is the author of The Butterfly Generation: A Personal Journey into the Passions and Follies of India’s Technicolour Youth. He writes a column for Mail Today Sunday and Time Out Delhi)