A while back I wrote the first of what I wanted to be a series of 1000-word stories, titled A Picture Is Worth. I started on the second of these stories shortly after publishing the first, but as life happened I never got a chance to finish it. Recently I sat down, looked through my archives to find the draft, and finished it off.
For the second time, I hope you enjoy...
This photo was taken on May 26, 2009, and unlike most of the other photographs on my website, I couldn’t actually locate exactly where it was taken. I can tell you all the events that lead up to the moment I took it, and all the moments that came afterwards, but putting an exact geographical point on a map isn’t a possibility. Let me tell you why.
In May 2009 I spent a month with my best mate, Elliot, travelling and surfing in Indonesia. It was Elliot’s first year out of school, and we both had a rampant desire to surf overseas. Indonesia, being the modern Mecca of the surfing world (second only to Hawaii), and the closest and cheapest exotic overseas destination with surf meant it was the obvious choice for us. We’d both seen the perfection the various islands could manifest, so we decided to book tickets and 6 weeks later were on a plane.
Originally we landed in Denpasar, Bali, and spent a week surfing the most famous of all of Indonesia’s surf spots, Uluwatu, on the southern Bukit Peninsula. We slowly picked up the language, learned to ride our rented scooters shoeless, shirtless and helmetless (we were trying to blend in with the locals), and discovered why Bali is such a desirable location for tens of thousands of tourists (plenty of them Aussie) every year. Our second week was spent on the island of Nusa Lembongan, a place with plenty of awesome stories of its own, but one that I’ll save for another time, yet it was during our third week in Indo that we really got the itch to travel somewhere a little more remote, and this is where this story gets a little more interesting.
While staying on Nusa Lembongan we met a group of Australian tourists who'd just been to this distant location called ‘Karang Nyimbor’. They couldn't exactly tell us where it was or how to get there; they just passed over a crumpled piece of paper with a name and number. "Call these guys. They'll pick you up from the airport and you'll be taken to one of the most remote left-handers in Indo". What's to lose? We thought. Two days later we arrived back in Kuta, and after a brief interlude with the toilet due to a case of Bali belly we hit up the local shack with a wooden sign out the front declaring it a travel agent. "What's the closest airport to Karang Nyimbor?" we asked. "Where?” the reply.
Well that was a good start.
After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing in our best Bahasa Indonesian, we eventually settled on a return flight to Lampung, Sumatra. It was on the same island as Karang Nyimbor, so that had to count for something, right? Well, not really… Little did we know Sumatra is something like two thousand kilometers long, so landing in Lampung and expecting our taxi ride to take us 15 minutes was a bit like getting a flight to Sydney, thinking Melbourne is the suburb where your hotel is located and that any taxi would happily take you there…looking back, it’s fair to say we were clueless. But hey, you probably wouldn’t be reading this if that were the case so I consider our stupidity a positive…
So Elliot and I hopped off the plane in Lampung in our Bintang singlets and rubber thongs (flip-flops…), and with our Caucasian skin we quickly became acutely aware of the fact we stood out. Lots. If we’d hopped off a plane in the Antarctic dressed like that we would’ve stood out less. Or at least that’s what it felt like. Having spent the previous fortnight in Bali - where wearing as little as one likes at all hours of the day is perfectly acceptable - walking out of the airport to a swarm of women covered completely from head to toe left us feeling a little underdressed and more than slightly culturally insensitive. We’d left ‘Western Indo’ and had entered ‘Muslim Indo’.
Nevertheless, we waited and waited, board bags by our sides, for someone who looked like our driver. Whatever that was. After about half an hour of wide-eyed-stares from passers-by, a small man approached us and mumbled something in a tongue foreign to both Elliot and I; the only two words we made out were “surf camp”. Sounds about right, we thought, so we jammed our bags in his van and were off. Fifteen minutes past, then thirty, then after about forty-five I tried conversing with our driver. This would’ve been useful had my Indonesian language skills reached further than “Gado gado”, “toilet” and “thank you”, and had his English skills been existent at all, but as we quickly learned, our best bet was simply to smile and nod, and wait until we arrived.
As time wore on we began to realise this was not going to be a short journey… we were venturing further and further into the country, down dirt roads and along huge stretches of cracked bitumen, with very few people in sight. We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant and were served huge amounts of food, I'm guessing in the hope we'd eat enough to prop up the local economy. Not that anybody knew, but looking back I realise the contents of my camera bag probably equaled the life earnings of some of these people. Some of these entire families. As we drove on and on, silent in our seats, we passed tiny villages with carefully manicured huts and kids playing with each other in a way we don't see anymore in Australia... with literally nothing to call their own except the clothes they wore, they made each other smile in ways unimaginable to the stressed and busy I remembered back home.
At one point, about four hours into the journey, we were bumping along a dusty road and I'd basically all but lost track of which direction we were headed. I had my camera on my lap and had been occasionally pointing it at things I saw out the window, when I saw a little girl walking towards us on the side of the road about 100 meters away. As we got closer, she turned in to, for want of a better word, a dirt driveway. I don't remember her face, and I don't know where she was headed, but as we drove past her at 50 kilometers an hour I had my camera to my eye and snapped off one frame. That was all. And that's what you see here.
Photography can be an interesting game...we sometimes spend an entire day setting up a single image, sometimes a year organising a single wedding, but the moment I shot this photo took me just split, unexpected second, and then it was gone. I don't know where I was or the name of this girl. I don't know how old she was and if she had two parents or none. I don't know how she was feeling that afternoon, and if she's still alive today. But I do know I'm glad I was able to capture this photo of her, to preserve the person she is for all time. Who knows, it could potentially be the first photograph anyone has ever taken of her. It might be the last. One can strive for a lifetime to capture the true soul of a person in a studio with artificial lighting, or outdoors after weeks of preparation and scouting, but in this fleeting moment, on this day I had never planned for, I photographed one of my favourite images of someone I know nothing about, and who I’ll never see again.