The Pemulung

My latest personal project took me to Indonesia, starting in Jakarta and ending in Denpasar on the island of Bali. My local team and I zig-zagged down through the Islands, shooting two very different projects. Pemulung is the first project from the trip to be finished and released.

I wanted to shoot a project to show the extremity of waste that we, as a population, have created. When I had heard about the Pemulung in Indonesia, I wanted to show the extremity but with a human element, showing them strong against the truly terrible landscape in which they work and that we have created.

The Pemulung are scavengers, working on the local dumps scouring through the waste to try and collect plastic to sell, or anything they can use. They work outside under brutal conditions, the smell is horrendous, the heat is unrelenting, and they have very little in the way of protective equipment. There is barely any shade apart from homemade shacks, and they work constantly – the sites are 24 hours a day operation. The heavy machinery and ground giving way underfoot means its an incredible hazardous job, and that is before we start talking about the trash they are picking apart.

Aiming to collect plastic to sell for processing, they can earn about 6000RP/kg (Indonesian Rupiah) which is about ¬£0.34/kg. If they find other things, they can use or sell that’s a bonus, and many have collected makeshift building materials and created shacks to live in on the dump.

The first stop on the trip was Bantar Gebang, a sprawling 200-acre landfill site that services Jakarta province – it has 8000 tonnes of fresh waste delivered each day and works 24 hours a day with many scavengers working in the dark with head torches. The site is home to many scavengers, and locals estimate that the site has more than 100,000 inhabitants. The smell was unbelievable, we could smell it from a mile away in the car, and when we arrived, we were all choked by the thickness of the smell.

What was amazing about the Pemulung at Bantar Gebang was how happy they were despite working in some of the worst conditions on earth; many came over and volunteered to have their picture taken, it was a lovely atmosphere in the worst conditions!

The following portraits were shot at Bantar Gebang;

Daryanto stands on one of the many mountains of rubbish at Bantar Gebang, thought to be South-East Asia’s largest open landfill. At 200 acres it is visible from space.

Mujiasih scavenges at Bantar Gebang rubbish dump with her Frozen bag she’d found a few weeks earlier.

Sutar stands for a portrait in front of the massive methane catching covers of part of Bantar Gebang; the management is now trying to capture and utilise the gas given off from the rotting rubbish rather than it escaping into the atmosphere.

Sardono stands with a backpack full of plastic ready to finish work and sell whatever he’s managed to find.

Yahya has been working on the dump since he was 12 years old, this portrait was taken just before he started work.

Rasmadi collects a tyre at the top of one of the hills at Bantar Gebang.

Karsono carries some firewood down the hill as he gets ready to take a break for lunch.

 

After Bantar Gebang and Jakarta, we headed south to Yogyakarta, known locally as Jogja and previously the capital city of Java before Jakarta. It’s a very artistic place with lots of art universities and known as the centre for Javanese arts and culture.

The dump we visited near Jogja was called Piyungan, thousands of cows live on this vast site; eating whatever they can find in the newly delivered rubbish. Like Bantar Gebang, The Pemulung at Piyungan are incredibly friendly and were very happy to take part in the project, when we arrived we had a great chat with the management of the site who fed us and offered us drinks and iced tea.

After shooting for half a day disaster struck, I was crouching down, taking a shot of a cow when I heard shouting. My fixers ran over and tried to pick me up – turns out there was a bull running at me from one side and a bulldozer shovelling about 5 tonnes of waste to the other side of me – both which I hadn’t seen in my peripheral, the bulldozer driver hadn’t seen me either. My fixers grabbed me and probably saved me from a very nasty ending, but when I got up my knee dislocated, and I collapsed, the Pemulung beat back the bull with their sticks and managed to stop the bulldozer.

Cue colossal pain and a trip to the hospital, they couldn’t reset my knee, and they sent me away telling me it would probably pop back in at some point, and they were right, but it did take two days of shooting on crutches before it did pop back in!¬†Shooting on crutches is awful, given the terrible conditions of shooting on a massive landfill coupled with the ground giving way under the crutches.

Here’s a couple of shots of me loving life shooting on crutches, I did this for two full days, it was hell. My knee eventually did pop back in.

A picture of me continuing to shoot on crutches.

My fixers said it looked like I had permanent tripods on my arms!

More importantly, here are the portraits of the amazing people we met at Piyungan dump.

Sudar takes a quick break and sips on iced tea at Piyungan dump.

A lot of scavengers live on the dump, here Sarmi sits in her shack made from reclaimed materials from the landfill.

Karsadi takes a quick break from sorting to have his portrait taken.

Sarjono sits on the back of a waste truck as it waits in the queue to unload at Piyungan.

Ponirah carries a full load back to the edge of the dump to sort it and hopefully sell.

 

After Piyunagn we set off for the coast and shot a whole other project which I will release later this year when it is finished. After hundreds of more miles in the van, we ended up getting the ferry over to Bali. We headed to our final destination of Suwung, the dump servicing the capital of Bali, Denpasar.

Here are some of the portraits from Suwung dump;

Nur shows off her picking tool know which is known as a kait.

Gatot takes a break for a cigarette and sharpens his kait on a whetstone.

Marno carefully balances his days load on his bike just before leaving the dump to sell what he’d collected.

 

There are some techy bits below, but I wanted to say a heartfelt thanks for everyone who had their portraits taken, to the staff at the dumps who helped us, and my fixers Dery & Yusak. I couldn’t have done it without any of you.

This project was shot entirely on the Fujifilm GFX100, the 32-64mm lens using a Profoto 3ft RFi Octa & B1X/B10 Plus flash head. The Fuji is a great camera, but I have since sold it all and made the system swap to Leica, mainly for that extra character from their lenses. I travel to a lot of difficult locations, so I have to keep the lighting kit small. I tend to use one or two heads for most of my shoots; this series was shot with one head. I also had a B10 plus with me on the trip (I wanted to see how the smaller B10 plus held up shooting in heat as it has less ventilation than the B1X, but it was fine, just less battery capacity than the B1x) Technique wise; I used the Profoto HSS withe Fuji trigger to drop the ambient and upped the power on the flash.

I’ve always laughed when, as a photographer, people ask me if I can deal with a difficult client or shoot in a difficult situation – they are never going to be as bad as the conditions on this trip – after this, I feel like I can shoot anywhere.

To see the complete collection of the Pemulung portraits, please click here.

One of the images won a Gold Graphis Award (link), and another won a Silver Graphis Award (link)

For more of my personal work, please click here.