“Hotel Waria” is a sneak peek into the lives of young transgender in Indonesia and their struggles in a deeply religious muslim society.
Giorgio Taraschi (born 1986) is an Italian documentary and NGO photographer.
Disillusioned with his homeland Italy he headed to India – and eventually ended up in Bangkok where he’s currently residing.
In this interview he talks about his recent project “Hotel Waria” and about social committment as a photographer – and he explains why working for NGO can be quite tricky these days.
Interview with Giorgio Taraschi
Giorgio, one of your recent projects is called “Hotel Waria – Transsexual Pioneers Under Indonesia’s Islam”? What is it about and why did you decide to take on that particular subject?
“Hotel Waria” is a sneak peek into the lives of 20 young Indonesian transgender, sharing the same roof as a big family in the world’s most populous Muslim country.
Giving each other strength to endure harassment and intimidation from the outside; living under the watchful eye of Mami Joyce, an elder transgender who, after seeing many colleagues fall victim to AIDS, now takes care of these young ones.
What comes first: the idea for a series or single images that at some point fit and fall into place to form a particular body of work?
It’s generally the idea for a story that comes first.
Whenever something gets my attention, I always try to understand whether or not it’ll work as a series.
Regarding Hotel Waria though, something different happened: I flew to Jakarta with my colleague to work on a story about the first house for “retired” transgender in the outskirts of the city.
Since we were dealing with elder people, we thought it’d be best to contact a local NGO and ask them to help us interviewing the young transgender still working on the streets at night to have a term of comparison.
That’s how we ended up at Mami Joyce’s house and, once we met her and had a look around, it didn’t take us long to understand the side story was becoming the main one.
How do you prepare a project like that? Do you do a lot of research beforehand and what about other issues like finding the protagonists for your series etc.?
Yes, there’s usually a long research period before. Trying to get in touch with the right people, making your intentions clear from the very start (I can’t stress this enough) and trying to get as many information about that particular topic.
For the original project, the protagonist was the human rights campaigner who runs the “retirement house”.
For Hotel Waria, nevermind the presence of a strong personality in the house, everybody’s the protagonist.
I in fact chose showing Joyce’s face just once (every other shot is cropped or rich in shadows) not to let her image prevail.
How did you connect with the people for your series? And how did you earn their trust as this was not an easy subject?
It’s all a matter of communication and not necessarily verbal. It doesn’t really matter who the subject is; the secret is keeping the interaction simple and clear.
Personally, I smile a lot by nature and that’s always helped me.
Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide is known to work very slowly. She once said in an interview that she’d rather miss a good photo than to interrupt a conversation with the people she’s taking photos of. To her “respect” and “complicity” are fundamental. Can you identify with that approach?
“Don’t forget that what the subject’s saying might be as important for the story as the picture.”
Totally, that’s why I rarely do news photography. I rather take things slowly and give my subject the time to get used to my presence.
Plus I’d hate to interrupt a good conversation; don’t forget that what the subject’s saying might be as important for the story as the picture.
And what about the actual process of shooting the project? Can you please describe it?
The fact that it’s a portrait story gave me all the time I needed to break the ice and eventually photograph them.
Two strangers arriving to your house with all those gears and questions can be intimidating so, while my colleague was making interviews, I’d go to the second floor and start talking with the others; we barely saw each other for the whole time we were there.
It was quite dark so I’d wait for the right time and ask them to step into the light and the over-saturated walls gave me an interesting different color cast in every picture (red bulbs, green neon, blue walls and tv light: noticing this, someone in the industry accused me of having used too much photoshop so I had to mail them a preview of the RAW file and prove them wrong).
At the beginning of each project one often has some kind of idea in mind as to what the result could be like. Sometimes that changes along the way and the result is quite different. Was that the case and if so what did you learn during the project?
It surely was; we actually had to quickly re-plan everything on location so one thing I’ve learned is that being prepared on a topic at 360°, not only helps you during the shooting process but also keeps you confident in case of a sudden change within the story.
Do you work in a team or by yourself? How common is it in general to work jointly on projects in documentary photography, for example with a writer to provide text to go with the images?
“I think working with a journalist really helps a lot in terms brainstorming and having to come up with a B plan.”
I usually work by myself for personal projects but for some of the major stories I’ve covered in the past years, I’ve always joined forces with journalists.
Some of them happened to be good friends of mine so both planning and shooting sessions went very smoothly. I think working with a journalist really helps a lot in terms brainstorming and having to come up with a B plan.
Plus knowing who you’re working with and the way they write is crucial for the editing process.
What does a single photograph or a body of work need in your opinion in order to stand out and get noticed? Especially keeping in mind the abundance of photographic imagery in today’s society where everything already has been photographed?
You have to work on something original, which doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be something new. It can be a different angle about something in everyday’s life or a particular interpretation of things people wouldn’t normally notice.
Work on something you’re honestly interested in – something you like – and your pictures will speak for themselves.
Besides working on your own personal projects you work for NGOs. How important is social commitment to you and your work?
I think that whoever has the chance of traveling as much as we do and see both sides of the coin, has the moral obligation to speak. Some can get too cynical with time and some do it just for the glory but, apart from these exceptions, the ones who do reportage are generally driven by social commitment.
Working for NGOs nowadays can be tricky and one should bear in mind that you’re not getting hired for a reportage but for a corporate assignment.
Hence the kind of photographer they’re looking for is the one who is capable of showing exactly what they do and how good they are at that.
You can shoot for yourself as well but you shouldn’t let your personal point of view alter the final message your client wants to convey.
Do you work for a specific NGO?
Not for a specific one.
How powerful are images still these days in your opinion bearing in mind the abundance of visual imagery we are exposed to in today’s society?
“Cupcakes, old rusty doors, wurstel-looking legs and kittens are never gonna make the cut.”
Images that strike your attention and don’t let it go. Images with a story behind or images in which the story is shown as it unfolds. Those are the “powerful” images.
Yes, we’re exposed to an abundance of visual imagery today (also because of instagram-like applications) but cupcakes, old rusty doors, wurstel-looking legs and kittens are never gonna make the cut.
In other words: What do you think is important to stand out with one’s work and get noticed?
Finding your own language and work on things that matter to you first.
What do you consider to be the biggest challenges documentary photography is faced with? And what are the most important changes recently in that area?
In terms of photojournalism intended as “news” or “war” photography, the challenges are many, countless I’d say. But when it comes to documentary I think we find ourselves to be living through a very interesting time.
Both approach and format are changing: more and more photographers are embarking in long-term projects, often divided by chapters. A very good example is “Via PanAm” by Kadir van Lohuizen.
One can follow the evolution of the story on dedicated web pages that work both as blogs and fundraising platforms. The addition of video and mobile shots provide that backstage element that helps putting everything into context and understand what kind of environment is the photographer working in.
It’s an adaptation of the most classic travel journal after all.
You graduated in Photography at “European Institute of Design and Visual Arts“ in Rome. What is it that the academic career has taught you about documentary photography that working in the field couldn’t have and vice versa?
Most of what I know now about the photographic approach to a story, I’ve learned it “on the field”, traveling, failing, learning from other professionals, trying again…
I felt I learned more during my first 10-days assignment with a journalist than in 3 years of university. Nonetheless – in terms of understanding light and confidence into approaching different styles of photography – the academic teaching played an amazing role.
The possibilities are countless and being fully prepared makes the difference.
You were among the finalists for the “Invisible Photographer Asia Street Photography Awards “ 2013. What does the genre of street photography mean to you?
“I use street photography as a therapy and it’s always worked pretty well.”
It’s a way of finding a logical order among the randomness of daily life and expose it’s meaning. I use street photography as a therapy and it’s always worked pretty well. I struggle living in the same place for too long so every time the city I live in sends me a negative vibe, I shoot it and things go back to normal. Though I focus more on composition than decisive moment so it eventually becomes a city portrait.
Susan Sontag once said “The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own”. How has photography changed the way you look at the world and what have you learnt about yourself?
(answer included in the following one)
Every photographer is going through different stages in his formation. Which “landmarks” do you recall that have marked you and brought you to the place where you are today as a photographer?
One event in particular: four years back I met with a well-known Magnum photographer at his house. He took a few minutes to look at my work then destroyed it along with my certainties.
That was followed by a couple of hours of talking, during which I was given the best photography-related advice that, back then, applied to my life as well.
The brutality and the honesty of that meeting, all mixed together, mark the moment when photography stopped being a means to an end.
Since then I always subconsciously saw photography as a chance to see the world, almost an excuse to keep traveling. After that, photography became the main reason why I travel.
Last but not least, let’s switch roles: Which question would you have liked to be asked in this interview about your work that I didn’t ask? Please feel free to add it – as well as the answer.
You’ve dug deep with a lot of interesting questions – and I feel I might have talked a bit too much too! (laughs)