Soeprapto Soedjono, the rector of ISI Yogyakarta, gave a solo exhibit of his photographs at Jogja Gallery on 21 March - 5 April 2009. I attended a moderated discussion with the photographer and colleagues at the Gallery.
Prapto's pictures - blown up in full colour to huge scale - show people sleeping in public spaces. Airports. Beaches. Town squares. Subways. Buses. Park benches. The project occupied Prapto for some 5 years. Everywhere he went (Japan, all over Indonesia, Europe, US etc) he took pictures.
One of the people at the discussion reported the delight he took - miming a sort of evil chuckle - when he encountered a subject. Another spoke about how he was glad Prapto did not have the opportunity to photograph him. A third said that the exhibit lacked a photograph of Prapto himself sleeping - and when Prapto said there was an image, the participant said that this did not count as it was not 'objective' as it was taken by Prapto's son.
I found the pictures to be ethically troublesome. They depict people in a moment of weakness, prone to being exploited. Clearly permission to take the photographs (implicit or explicit) was impossible. (Prapto pointed out that he only took their picture - others might have taken their purses.) Prapto claimed there was no 'misi' behind the photographs but I wondered how the images would be received by a Yogya audience. Would they read these as proof of human universals that all people are prone to faults (falling asleep at the 'wrong' moment), as one religious-minded participant claimed? Or would they find other meanings? I would question, for example, the relation between Prapto's position as rector and the sort of power he exerts over his sleeping subjects.
This came through even more clearly in the exhibition's opening (which I did not attend, but was described at the discussion) in which Prapto paid a model to pretend to sleep on a bed in the gallery. She asked not only for payment but told him that she didn't have a nice 'baju tidur' which Prapto took as a sign that she was requesting him to buy a negligee. He bought the negligee, she wore it and visitors to the opening took lots of pictures of her.
I see - and others chimed in - the problems with this exhibition. Intentional or otherwise. Yet at the same time I recognise the ambition of his project -and am thankful to have attended a free discussion and received free refreshments and a free copy of the catalogue. Does this make me complicit?