Indonesian Photographer Displays Women’s Beauty in Every Shot
His mentor told him he couldn’t have a business card as a professional photographer unless he could take a good shot of a nude woman.
But if you think that’s why photographer Apelgede chose nude women as his favorite subject, you would be quite wrong.
Apelgede, whose Betawi nickname means that he can transfer the client’s personal vision into photography, is not your ordinary artist. Yes, like many artists, he smokes a lot and has a creative look. But he knows what he does is rare in Indonesia.
“There aren’t many photographers [here] willing to take a nude photo,” he said, taking a deep puff of his cigarette.
“This is Indonesia. If you aren’t different, you’re like all the others. If you’re different, people will notice.”
Apelgede’s models are ordinary women with imperfect bodies. Some are young and some are old, some are slim and others voluptuous, but he puts them all in focus.
Apelgede’s photography often emphasizes parts of the female body without showing the model’s face, perhaps featuring well-shaped breasts or a pretty back. But he also creates aesthetic black-and-white images of larger bodies, including a 150-kilogram woman.
“People don’t ask, ‘Who is the model?’ but ‘Who took the photo?’ ” the 34-year-old father of two said, adding that his wife does not object to his work.
“If you take a photo showing the model’s face, people will ask who it is, but they don’t ask who took the photo.”
Apart from using an occasional flash, Apelgede tends to use natural lighting.
“Why do you have to use a lamp or anything, if you can use God’s light?” the faithful Muslim said. “God gives me the light, it’s greater. The biggest light is the sun.”
He positions his models in front of a window for the lighting and studies the female body, rather than the person.
The body may not be flawless, he said, “but I think, ‘How can I make a perfect body?’ When I show the model the photos at the end of the shoot, they often say, ‘Wow, that’s my body? Really?’ They feel good and proud of themselves,” he said.
Giving women confidence in their bodies is important, he said. It’s also important not to think too technically.
“I take the photo from my heart, from my imagination, from my skill, from my mood,” he said. “I just follow how I feel.”
He is guided by his instincts and has never taken a photo course. He wanted to go to art school, but followed his parents’ wishes and studied economics in college.
An older friend noticed his talent and encouraged him to pursue photography, but he objected because he was “too poor.”
“I didn’t have the money for a camera,” he explained.
Still, his “senior” friend insisted, and eventually Apelgede convinced his mother to lend him Rp 1.5 million ($160) for a camera — equivalent to the cost of studying at university for a year.
“My senior always said ‘Follow your heart, follow your mind, use your eyes as you want. … The camera will work when the man behind the camera uses it well.’ ”
Apelgede visited photography exhibitions and his eye for art quickly improved. When he took second place in a photography competition, his confidence grew.
“[Then the moment came when] my senior told me I could never have a name card as a photographer unless I could take good nude photographs.”
That was a challenging task for the then-17-year-old, at the height of puberty. Using four films, he could only produce a handful of good images.
“I tried it and it was so bad,” he said. “I couldn’t control my emotions — my brain, my heart, my libido.”
He “tried and tried,” until taking photos of women became easier. “Nowadays, I just have to control the lighting,” he said with a laugh.
His models are all Indonesian women who pose for their own “private collections” or want to model because they think “they have a good body now [and want to capture it],” Apelgede said.
The enthusiasm is surprising in an Islamic country, but nude photos have become a trend in the big cities, he said.
“First I thought I couldn’t do nude photography in Indonesia,” he said. “But the Internet [and] TV gives people inspiration. You may see sexy things, so people get inspired. It’s growing [here].”
Unfortunately, he said, narcissism is also on the rise, with people using phones to take self-portraits, sometimes topless, and then positing the images online.
“Why are you using your phone? I’m a professional photographer and can do it [for you],” he said, shaking his head.
He acknowledged that some women might not feel comfortable posing nude in front of a stranger, but trust is crucial.
“The models trust that I’ll take a good photo,” he said. “I’m a professional — your photos won’t appear on the Internet.”
His moral message or life goal could be to “take a good photo as a good photographer,” though he said it is also vital to become better every day.
“I’m always learning to improve, I’m always learning by doing. Every day you grow and learn, learn, learn.
“I believe in talent, but also in practice. Both of them are connected. When you have talent and you don’t use it, it’s nonsense to me. But if you have talent and you try to improve, you will get better.
“Photography never used to be important to me, but now it is. For me, it’s like water — I need water. I need to take good photos, they give me money and connection to people. Photography makes my life a good life.”
While his rate is “possibly too high for Indonesians,” he leaves the price up to the client.
“If they appreciate my photos, they can pay anything. It’s up to them.”
The artist has compiled a collection of his favorite images and is currently looking for a gallery to exhibit them — a task that’s challenging in a country where an anti-pornography law is a major obstacle.
“This is Indonesia. If you’re not different, people won’t know you. You have to challenge that. It’s a risk, but if you’re brave, people will say, ‘Hey, I know him. He’s a good photographer.’ ”
He believes it’s fair to have an anti-pornography law “because this is Indonesia,” though he said there are inconsistencies.
“If you see a nude painting, is it art or not? Interpretations vary. What is art? What is porn? It’s blurred,” he said, adding that some nude photography is in fact pornographic.
“But will you please look in terms of artistic [value]? Don’t judge with half eyes.
“Some people cannot see the validity of exploring oneself, but with your heart you can see it’s not pornography.”
Apelgede’s exhibition, called “Unseen Beauty,” is about more than stripping away layers of clothes.
“There is art beneath the blouse or the skirt,” he said. “You never see the beauty behind the clothes. But I show that behind the clothes, there’s art and there’s beauty in every human body — whether old, young, thin or fat.”
Like all great photography, he said, his images can speak to his audience. And his message is clear.
“I want to tell people who come to my exhibition to have confidence in their bodies. If you’re big, it’s OK. Your body is artistic. God gave you a good body, so don’t be shy to explore [it] for a photo.
“I’m a lover of women’s beauty because a woman’s body is a God-given gift. I love the parts of a woman’s body.”
He disagrees with the common perception in Indonesia that nudity is vulgar.
“When I see a nude female body, I try to believe what I see is true and I try to tell people [that] in my exhibition.
“Art is a moral message we must capture. Nudity is interpreted as immoral, but in fact, [it] is an honesty.
“I try to visualize and convince that nude photography can be seen as artistic — it’s just up to us to see from where.”