Picturing World Cultures: Joshua Irwandi - Indonesia02/01/2024
While Joshua Irwandi was born and raised in Indonesia, the early pictures he made during his first visit to the region of Asmat, in the province of West Papua, were less than satisfying to him. Yet his fascination with the people and the place stuck, inspiring him to embark on the long-term project Not a Blank Canvas.
Above photograph © Joshua Irwandi
In this third installment of our monthly series, Picturing World Cultures, we speak with Irwandi about his experiences documenting the people and landscape of Asmat, which offers a window into long-held traditions and the sweeping changes he’s observed there over the past 10 years.
Listen in as Irwandi describes how tapping into the region’s rich history through museum collections holding Asmat art proved an important part of his background research. We also discuss the connections he forged with the local Catholic church, and how the many years an American missionary spent learning about and embracing local ways led to a blending of Catholic celebrations and iconography with traditional Asmat feasts.
Contrary to western holidays, Asmat feasts are celebrated for months on end, and Irwandi sheds light on their mystical origins through dreams and the performative rituals that he was privileged to witness and photograph.
In equal measure, he touches on the changing roles of a people who are essentially subsistence hunter-gatherers within contemporary society, and the recent effects of transmigration and gentrification on the region’s native inhabitants, which also forms a part of his documentation.
Self-described as a naturally shy person, Irwandi’s approach to making pictures for this project is to play the long game, while planning for longer visits that allow him to be a “constant observer,” as he describes it.
“I don’t pretend I have all the knowledge,” he says. “But I guess it’s easier to come and connect with the locals when you walk in like a new blank piece of book, wanting to learn, rather than assume that you know about them already.”
If you haven’t already heard them, prior episodes of our podcast series Picturing World Cultures can be accessed at the links below:
Guest: Joshua Irwandi
- 2:02: Joshua Irwandi’s first visit to Asmat, his decision to embark on a long-term photo project, plus the shifts in culture and infrastructure he’s observed in Asmat over time.
- 5:32: Advance research, Irwandi’s connections with the Catholic Church and Museums holding Asmat art, plus his change in perspective to get beyond the exotic in his pictures of daily life.
- 9:54: A look inside the Asmat longhouse, or Jeu, as a central gathering place and a starting point for documentation, plus the matter of language differences and dialogs in Asmat.
- 14:10: Structuring time and reading the room to determine when to photograph, plus safety precautions and calculating risks in tense situations.
- 24:29: Irwandi’s go-to photo gear, procedures for dealing with limited power, and troubleshooting issues that arise from the intense heat and humidity of the region.
- 30:50: Episode Break
- 31:36: Irwandi’s time working as a staff member at the Asmat Museum, plus his connection to an American missionary living in Asmat who embraced traditional culture and blended the celebration of Western Catholic holidays with traditional Asmat feasts.
- 38:12: The central place of ceremonial rituals, feasts, and cosmology to Asmat life, and interferences caused by contemporary culture.
- 48:56: Changing roles within Asmat culture due to modern progress, an increasing dependence on the Indonesian government, plus the increasing incidence of transmigration and the spread of foreigners to Asmat.
- 53:28: The viral effect of Irwandi’s Pulitzer-Prize nominated photograph made in an Indonesian hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- 57:22: Irwandi answers our Picturing World Cultures Visual Questionnaire.
Joshua Irwandi is a documentary photographer based in Jakarta, Indonesia. He is a National Geographic Explorer and a VII Photo Agency Mentee. Irwandi received a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Exeter and pursued graduate studies in photojournalism and documentary photography at London College of Communication. While working in West Papua, Indonesia, he focused on a long-term project about the Asmat people, documenting changes to their identity and landscape, while embedded as a staff member at the Asmat Museum. His project “Not a Blank Canvas” was awarded a National Geographic Society storytelling grant in 2021.
Irwandi has received grants from the Forhanna Foundation’s Fund for Young Talent and National Geographic Society’s COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists. One of his images, “The Human Cost of COVID-19,” sparked controversy in Indonesia when it went viral after publication by National Geographic. In 2021, he was selected as one of the speakers for the National Geographic Society’s Storytellers Summit. Recent awards include the 2021 World Press Photo Award in General News, a Lucie Foundation Grand Prize, selection as a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News Photography, among several others.
Irwandi’s work has been exhibited at Breda Photo Festival in the Netherlands, and featured in National Geographic, NHK, The Times of London, The Globe and Mail, CNN, TIME Magazine, and The Guardian.
Joshua Irwandi Website: https://www.joshuairwandi.com/
Joshua Irwandi Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/joshirwandi/
Joshua Irwandi Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/joshua.irwandi/
Joshua Irwandi X: https://twitter.com/joshirwandi/
Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress: https://asmatmuseum.org/en/
Joshua Irwandi National Geographic Explorers Page: https://explorer-directory.nationalgeographic.org/joshua-irwandi
Joshua Irwandi’s story for The Globe and Mail: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/
Pulitzer Prize page for Irwandi’s Photo The Human Cost of COVID-19: https://www.pulitzer.org/
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