Sumatra Island, Indonesia
Over a three-week period in February, I covered two very different animal-related assignments in Indonesia – the slaughtering of snakes in West Java and the preservation of the endangered tiger in Sumatra.
In West Java, Wakira along with his 10 workers kill hundreds of snakes each day for their skin at his slaughterhouse in Cirebon. While in Sumatra, real estate tycoon Tomy Winata saves and releases tigers into the wild at his Tambling Wildlife Nature Conservation. I didn’t enjoy the snake slaughterhouse assignment because snakes are dangerous and disgusting, but I really liked visiting the tigers in Tambling.
The prize for a horse race in Indonesia’s Sumbawa Besar town is woven silk fabric but the prize in Bima is two cows and $100.
I covered the Bima horse races because they use child jockeys, aged between 8 to 12-years-old.
A ceremony to remember the victims of a bomb blast that struck a busy street on a Saturday night in 2002, killing 202 people.
Today’s ceremony carried me back to 10 years ago, where shops were burned and damaged. The bomb had left a big hole in Legian Street. That Sunday morning in 2002 was bright, with good weather and a blue sky as I entered Kuta beach’s Hard Rock Hotel. It was a different atmosphere; the situation wasn’t relaxing on the resort island. It was on high alert with security personnel covering the streets. Police, local security people called “pecalang” always asked for ID. If someone didn’t have ID, they couldn’t enter the hotel area or walk the streets.
In the morning paper I read that thousands of trucks were lined up at the harbor to cross over to the Indonesian island of Sumatra. For three days in a row the newspaper reported that trucks were stranded at the port not far from the capital, Jakarta. Traffic jams are a daily occurrence in Jakarta but this was unusual for trucks headed to Sumatra Island. On a calm day news wise, I decided to go to the port just 120 kilometers (74 miles) away.
After driving for three hours, I arrived at the back of the truck queue. I started to walk through. Truck drivers sat on the street alongside vendors. The smell of urine stung my nose.
I think this has been my hardest assignment to get photos since I began working for Reuters.
Wednesday afternoon at the office I received news that a Russian Sukhoi Superjet 100 passenger plane with 46 people on board had lost contact with air traffic control at Jakarta’s Halim Perdana Kusuma airport during their demonstration flight over Mount Salak. After more than four hours of no contact, it meant the aircraft was lost, crashed or had made an emergency landing. I decided to spend the night at the office to figure out the fastest options for covering the Sukhoi news, and to prepare all the camera equipment in the pictures vehicle. After a discussion with Heru Asprihanto from TV and Indonesia bureau chief Matthew Bigg, we decided to wait until morning to head to the the nearby location Mount Salak.
I remember well the 2004 tsunami in Aceh. I stayed for more than six weeks in Banda Aceh and then flew back to Jakarta to recover. In Jakarta, I cried everywhere when nobody was around me; at the office, at home, on the street, I was always crying. The situation was embarrassing, but I couldn’t stop the tears. They were automatic.
My brain couldn’t run from the images that I took of the tsunami aftermath. The counselor told me that I must go back to Aceh to take different pictures; positive pictures. Like people building their houses or shop stalls, children going back to school or singing songs happily.
On Wednesday morning I received an image on my twitter feed (@beawiharta). It was a photo from a local newspaper that showed a student crossing a river on a collapsed bridge. The picture caught me. I needed to find out where it was so I could go there to capture it.
Shortly afterwards I arrived at the office. I had forgotten about the collapsed bridge because we were very busy. I had two assignments for the day, a breast milk courier story and a story about Indonesia’s rising investment rating. This was a big financial story because Moody’s ratings agency restored Indonesia debt to investment grade.
Walking with two cameras, a small bag and a ladder is a daily activity for me. But today, I have a different assignment. I must change into a different kind of clothing to cover the marriage of GKR Bendara (youngest daughter of Yogyakarta King Sultan Hamengkubuwono X) to her husband KPH Yudanegara.
Since it’s not an ordinary assignment, today I will need more help in dressing for the wedding ceremony. Usually I wear something simple, but now I need something more traditional. Out of respect to the old traditions of my country, I figure I must dress the part or else I won’t be able to take pictures inside the palace.
We took off smoothly for the short flight from Singapore to Jakarta, and I started falling asleep. Suddenly I was woken up by the sound of two bangs, like a bomb or truck tire blowing out. My wife gripped my hand and asked “Do you smell something burning?” Yes, there was a sharp smell stinging my nose. I realized there was something wrong because all the stewardesses ran back with the food carts.
The plane started to vibrate, harder and harder. I held my wife’s hand tightly and looked at her face as she started praying. My two younger children were asleep, after their first ever trip abroad, but not Pradipta, the eldest one. “Pra look through the window and watch outside,” I said. “I see light, I see fire, I see fire,” he said. Then the electricity was switched off.
I want to share my experiences photographing Mount Merapi’s volcanic eruptions in Indonesia but I will say upfront that this won’t be a blog about suffering. There won’t be stories of those who have lost their homes, of painful deaths, of burns, of the death of valuable cattle or the destruction the volcano has caused.
Instead, this will be a blog about the logistics of getting great pictures in a dangerous situation.