Picturing World Cultures: Joshua Irwandi - Indonesia

02/01/2024Link2

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 listened, check out all of the episodes of our Picturing World Cultures podcast series here.

Guest: Joshua Irwandi

Boys rowing a longboat in front of one of three telephone towers that existed in Asmat in 2014.
Boys rowing a longboat in front of one of three telephone towers that existed in Asmat in 2014.
During an excursion to Asmat, western tourists circle the city of Agats and return to their ship within two hours, 5/16/15.
During an excursion to Asmat, western tourists circle the city of Agats and return to their ship within two hours, 5/16/15.
Bananas gathered by the people of Pirpis are prepared as offerings ahead of the the Semubino Baci feast, 7/23/16.
Bananas gathered by the people of Pirpis are prepared as offerings ahead of the the Semubino Baci feast, 7/23/16.
Catholic priests edit a passport photo for an Asmat student in the priest’s house, Agats, 7/10/14.
Catholic priests edit a passport photo for an Asmat student in the priest’s house, Agats, 7/10/14.
Fr. Vincent Cole, the last American missionary in Asmat, and one of the longest serving in the history of the Catholic Mission in Asmat, 7/8/15.
Fr. Vincent Cole, the last American missionary in Asmat, and one of the longest serving in the history of the Catholic Mission in Asmat, 7/8/15.
Fr. Vincent Cole is paraded into the jungle by the villagers of Sa-Er, where he will baptize about 90 village children, while incorporating Asmat terms into the Catholic baptism ritual.
Fr. Vincent Cole is paraded into the jungle by the villagers of Sa-Er, where he will baptize about 90 village children, while incorporating Asmat terms into the Catholic baptism ritual.
Dat spirit masks, representing an ancestor or deceased family member, emerge from the jungle during the Jipae resurrection feast in the village of Kapi, 7/23/15.
Dat spirit masks, representing an ancestor or deceased family member, emerge from the jungle during the Jipae resurrection feast in the village of Kapi, 7/23/15.
The manimar mask named “Arowoso” from the clan Basinarpes, advances toward the village of Jeni during the Jipae resurrection feast, 7/17/15.
The manimar mask named “Arowoso” from the clan Basinarpes, advances toward the village of Jeni during the Jipae resurrection feast, 7/17/15.
Villagers in Kapi toss “red fruit” (buah sanap) toward the manimar named “Hamtar” from the Amnes clan during the Jipae resurrection feast, 7/22/15.
Villagers in Kapi toss “red fruit” (buah sanap) toward the manimar named “Hamtar” from the Amnes clan during the Jipae resurrection feast, 7/22/15.
Members of the Indonesian National Army (TNI) look on while Asmat men occupy the streets during a raid on the Kaigars, 512/15.
Members of the Indonesian National Army (TNI) look on while Asmat men occupy the streets during a raid on the Kaigars, 512/15.
Skulls of wild boar are stacked on a stick in the village of Jakapis. A man’s standing in the village is decided by the kind or quantity of animals hunted, 7/10/15.
Skulls of wild boar are stacked on a stick in the village of Jakapis. A man’s standing in the village is decided by the kind or quantity of animals hunted, 7/10/15.
Six bridesmaids line up for a selfie before a wedding reception. All are a combination of Bugis, Butonese and Makassarese transmigrants, who have been settled in Asmat for decades, 9/20/16.
Six bridesmaids line up for a selfie before a wedding reception. All are a combination of Bugis, Butonese and Makassarese transmigrants, who have been settled in Asmat for decades, 9/20/16.
Transmigrants from Kei Islands and Toraja, pose together with Asmats and Papuans after a confirmation ceremony in the Catholic church of Kristus Raja Mbait, Agats.
Transmigrants from Kei Islands and Toraja, pose together with Asmats and Papuans after a confirmation ceremony in the Catholic church of Kristus Raja Mbait, Agats.
Joshua Irwandi working in the field in Asmat. Image © John Peterces
Joshua Irwandi working in the field in Asmat. Image © John Peterces
Joshua Irwandi tries a bow and arrow while in the field with Yakobus Sirarmbi, an Asmat elder. Image © Laurensius Reginaldus.
Joshua Irwandi tries a bow and arrow while in the field with Yakobus Sirarmbi, an Asmat elder. Image © Laurensius Reginaldus.

Episode Timeline:

  • 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.

Guest Bio:

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.

Stay Connected:

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/


Senior Creative Producer and Host: Jill Waterman
Technical Producer: Mike Weinstein
Executive Producer: Yermy Weiss
Editorial Director: Shawn C Steiner
Theme Music: Gabriel Richards

2 Comments

Thank you so much for this amazing series! I greatly enjoy every episode. Waiting for more episodes to be added.

So great to hear that you're enjoying this series, Chana Esther. A new episode will be released the first Thursday of every month, so please be on the lookout. Thanks so much for the feedback on Picturing World Cultures, and for listening to other episodes of the B&H Photography Podcast!