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Why Choose a Holga? Part III – Film to Book

A woman is in trance during a Melasti ceremony at the Pura Tanah Lot, a 15th-century temple and one of Bali’s holiest sites situated just off the coast of Tabanan. This unique ceremony is held to purify and make sacred the Pralinggan Ida Betara, or god temple shrine, carried from its sister temple in Tambawaras.


Finding solace — and time to feed the beast — continues to occur in the air, this time heading across the Pacific in seat 25C.

No better way to proceed with Part III of Why Choose a Holga? then doing so while flying to a country we once called home and were the book, Island of the Spirits, was created.


Just the name, Indonesia, conjures images of mystery, enchantment, suspense and magic.

On many levels, Indonesia had a profound effect for me and my family. For instance, if we hadn’t chosen to name our daughter Francesca Merapi (Merapi, being the name of a mystical Central Javanese volcano), we might have chosen Francesca Indonesia Stanmeyer.

No joke.

The word Holga also illicit’s a sense of enchantment, mystery, magic and indeed suspense…suspense because you never fully know what will be exposed on the negatives it produces.

Digital cameras took away the mystery — and at times, suspense — of photography. The pensive wait for hours or days thereafter for the film to be developed has been replaced with instant gratification at a press of the button.

Film and a Holga simply does not work that way, taking you back in time (not that long ago) when thought and patients reigned.

A high priest, or Ratu Pedanda, is held by her followers during a ceremony in Ubud. When such a holy person prays, he or she is called a living Siwa and is believed to deliver direct messages or requests from the gods. That is why the revered person is held and does not touch the ground.


Living five years in Bali had many ups, but also downs.

Bali is an overwhelmingly beautiful place to live, raising a family amongst some of the most kindest people in one of the richest cultures on earth.

The down sides often resided in the reality that for a working photographer, there simply wasn’t the infrastructure on the island to handle professional photographic needs.

Forget non-reliant electricity, obscenely expensive satellite Internet fees, the numerous hassles from corrupt customs officials who would want to shake me down for money at the airport because I had more than one camera whenever arriving home (yes, I was a registered journalist and a legal resident…and a sign, clearly written in both Bahasa Indonesia and English, resided on the wall in the customs interrogation room which read “TWO recording devices are allowed to be brought into Indonesia…”), or if you needed specific equipment, it would have to wait until making a future trip to Singapore, Hong Kong or New York.

The greedy customs agents are easy to sort — just let them get bored with your kindness and smiles, after an hour they give up knowing they are wrong. Can’t blame them, they are underpaid and have families to feed.

The most complicated to sort was finding a lab which could properly develop 120mm film.

Knowing years before moving full-time to Bali that films like 120 Tri-X simply did not exist on the island, the choice was predetermined:

Kodak CN400.

Accepting that the grain pattern was tight, lacking the feel and sublet nuance of it’s more mature cousin, Tri-X, it was the ability to develop using C-41 (color chemical processing) which cemented the decision.

More so, it was relatively easy to find in Indonesia.

Seems simple, right?

Not really.

Here is how it was accomplished in what took five years to photograph and a few more years thereafter in post production.

A giant ogoh-ogoh is paraded at night through the village of Tibubeneng in Canggu on the eve of Nyepi, or the Balinese Day of Silence. The primary purpose of creating ogoh-ogohs is the purification of the natural environment of any spiritual pollutants emitted from the activities of living beings, especially humans.


During Indonesia’s historically weighted Reformasi era, I’d tried many labs in Jakarta for E-6 processing (jeez, remember E6?? It’s not that long ago) but only one lab stood out, Standard Foto.

One day I called Farida, the wonderful women who owns/runs Standard Foto, and discovered she does professional processing of 120 C-41 film. This was a near godsend because the only place found in Bali that could do 120mm film was a dusty hole-in-the-wall shop located in the dreadful tourist area of Kuta in Denpasar — they scratched a test roll of film more than the Holga naturally does.

To get film to Jakarta, we’d wait until 3 or more rolls were needing processing, then express mail the rolls to Farida.

She knew I was demanding, requesting that only she process the film. No one else.

It was also imperative that the film was not cut into strips — the Holga is a manual film advancing camera with a nowhere near precise hand-winding knob. This means space between frames are often close together or even touching. The decision where to cut was mine and no one else’s.

Then came the next hurdle; How to ship back to Bali meter-long, uncut strips, of fragile film?

Farida devised a system…she would sleeve the uncut film in plastic, hand spin each roll, placing the rolled film into two 35mm film canisters — one canister on the bottom, one on the top — taking tape to seal the two touching canister seams so that each roll of 120 film became virtually indestructible to damage in it’s mini missile container.

Farida also knew I was giddy to see the processed film, often times turning around 20 or more rolls in one day, returning the film back to the studio in Bali the next day…and ever so kindly not charging express processing fees. Big hugs for that, Farida.

The studio in Bali, build as a one room house but used entirely for photography.

Yudhistira Dharma, aka, JP, working in the studio.

Whenever Tiki-Jne (Indonesia’s domestic express courier) came knocking on the garden gate, it was a time for near juvenile excitement; We were soon about to see what we now take for granted whenever pressing a preview button on the back of a digital camera — the mystery of photography.

Ripping open the package as if it were Christmas, we would go into the temperature controlled film room — with extreme humidity in Bali, we had to build literally an entire room in the studio that was completely sealed and humidity/temperature controlled. We’d put on gloves, turn on the lightbox and begin opening Farida’s deftly sealed plastic film canisters.

At times it was a near religious experience — there is nothing more recessed in tradition and thought provoking than looking at film. And there is nothing more mysterious and beguiling then looping a roll of film created on a Holga to see what actually was exposed.

Editing rolls of Holga film with Wayan Tilik that had just arrived from Standard Foto in the film room of the studio. Not concerned about theft, more so, fire, hence the large safes which kept film and HD's from potential ruin. If you look closely near the center/bottom of the photograph, you'll see the Farida designed way of protecting 120mm uncut film using two 35mm plastic film canisters. Photograph Courtesy of Lukman Bintoro


Because of my concern to have no one else cut film, we had to devise a simple but meaningful way to go from a negative to a positive. We needed contact sheets. The solution: Flatbed scanner.

After cutting, Wayan or JP would dive with enchantment into the process of creating digital contact sheets, beginning the first step of an involving dance of going from film to book and exhibition ready images.


Step I

Digital contact sheets – Each roll would be scanned at around 30 mega each, given a special code (example: holga-melasti-001, holga-melasti-002, holga-melasti-003, etc), then placed in archival envelopes with matching digital contact sheet code.


Step II

Basic toning – Raw (untoned) digital contact sheets would need basic toning, sometimes toning individual frames on each contact sheet due the limited exposure controls on a Holga — Sun or Cloud.


Step III

First Edit – It was said by a photographer (her or his name escapes the mind) that showing contact sheets is like showing someone your underwear.

Ok, here is my underwear:

First edits made on a digital contact sheet from barong ceremony located in Baturiti, Bali.

Only one edit made on a digital contact sheet from a Perang Pandan ritual in Tenganan Village.

Using dots, I would make a broad but meaningful first edit. These edits would be called in the analogue as world work prints, but in this digital realm, they became work scans. All contact sheets were scanned as 30+ meg TIFFs, allowing for full-screen viewing on a 30-inch Apple monitor of each individual frame.


Step IV

Organizing – Every edited digital contact sheet was then imported into Aperture, Apple’s professional digital imaging program. Aperture is by far the best for not only toning both digital camera files and digital film scans, Aperture is the most intuitive organizing program, allowing you to work in a humanizing way, as if categorizing analogue film in the film room. In addition to contact sheets, all work scans were imported to begin the next step, toning of work scans. Here is an example of what contact sheets look like when organized using Aperture:

543 digital contact sheets, some edited, others not, residing in Aperture. Due to inherent spacing issues when advancing film in a Holga, some contact sheets could not be cut into typical strips of three. Some had to be cut into strips of two or even one negative frame, creating at times an A, B and C contact sheet for an individual roll of film. This is why all cutting of film had to be done in Bali, not at the lab in Jakarta or by anyone else other then myself.

Step V

Work Scans – JP or Wayan would then take each edits negative, scanning one by one on a flatbed scanner, using a mask to make sure perfect full-frame (including the natural black border of the film) scans were created. These scans were made as 30 meg TIFFs. The work scans then received a special coding, matching them with their respected roll of film. Example: holga-melasti-002-04 (meaning, roll 0002 of a melasti ceremony, frame number 4).


Step VI

Work scans needed toning. These would become the photographs which the final book edit was derive from. Well over 600 A, B and “what the #*$- is this?” edits, were toned and organized in Aperture.

When I first starting using Aperture (version 1.5 days), some photographers considered it a slow running program. Sure, we all want everything fast but those who complained missed the boat — anything digital in version 1.whatever is no different then complaining that your child, a prodigy violin player, isn’t immediately performing like Itzhak Perlman at Carnegie Hall. Speed aside, Aperture blew me away with its powerful toning controls for black and white film scans. More so, Aperture works in a way that mirrored my process in a wet darkroom.

Aperture version 3 is now lightening fast and nearing a Miles Davis level of brilliance.

Second Edit – Once the work scans were toned, the next task was to edit over 600 images down to a visual narrative. Using staring, color labels, Smart Albums and whatnot in Aperture, the multi-year body of work grew into shape and form on the screen, bringing a large loose edit into a storytelling 100+ image tighter edit.

Final A edit, toned and organized in Aperture. Notice the multiple albums, projects and whatnot on the left. The ability to quickly and efficiently make various albums helped in bringing the edit down to 106.


Work Prints – Being more in-tuned with three dimensions than two, I find it nearly impossible to fully determine a selection without making final decisions from prints. One long weekend, we printed 106 photographs on A4 paper.


Step IX

Final Edit – Lisa Botos, the former editor of Time Magazine in Hong Kong, was the editor for the Island of the Spirits book. We had worked together for over ten-years on countless stories. Lisa’s not only a dear friend and one of best photo editors I’ve ever worked with, she’s won nearly ever editing award possible during her tenure at Time. Lisa flew to Bali from her new home in Singapore. Awaiting her in the garden off the studio were all the prints, hanging on a makeshift clothesline around a large poinsettia tree we called Jack. Sipping wine and watching the kids run around the garden, we brought the 106 photographs down to 56, which would become the final edit for the Island of the Spirits.

My son's Konstantin and Richard, running around the garden off the studio amongst A4 size work prints. It's from these 106 prints that we made the final 56 image edit for the book, Island of the Spirits. August 17, 2007

Step X

Drum Scans – The final 56 photographs next needed to be turned into master digital files. Scans off a $300 flatbed scanner are fine for work scans, but it’s nowhere near good enough to use for a book or massive exhibition prints. Lans Brahmantyo, owner of R&W books (who published Island of the Spirits), had a drum scanner in his Jakarta office. Out of fear of having original negatives lost if using a shipping company, Wayan flew to Jakarta and hand delivered the original negatives for drum scanning. 200 megabyte, 16 bit, RGB scans were made of the initial 106 image edit, just in case of wanting to swap out an edits during the final layouts of the book.


Step XI

Dust and Scratches – Probably the most complicated, involving and time consuming task in the entire process of making the book was to clean dust and scratches that eight different Holga bodies imbedded across nearly every negative. 200 megabyte Heidelberg drum scans are ruthless, showing even the tiniest of tiny specs of dust. It took six months of nearly every day work to take the 106 images and remove the dust/scratches. We then made two versions of each master drum scan — an untouched original scan (with all the dust and scratches) and a second matching with was dust/scratch free, left untoned.


Step XII

Final Toning – The last step — though there never really is a last anything until the book comes off the press and the prints for the exhibition are all printed — was to tone the drum scans. It was in Aperture were the magic of being in a darkroom was nearly resurrected, working fluidly upon each image, reaching a proper, naturally toned quality. This final toning process took another six months.

A final toned image from a Melasti ceremony.

Step XIII through Infinity

The Book – In Part IV of Why Choose a Holga?, we’ll go into the process of why I chose to go with a Indonesian based publisher, working on design and layout, the nightmare of discovering that over a years worth of image prep was almost for naught and the fascinating processes of supervising the actual printing process of the book.

Till then, the plane, one of four that it took to get from Texas to Indonesia, is about to land. The second half of the National Geographic story, code named, The White Horse, is about to begin. It was a raging stallion to ride in the Pacific Northwest a few weeks back. It will likely continue to be an unbroken beast here in Southeast Asia.

Even with the visual challenges, I’d rather be nowhere else than in this magnificent land called Indonesia.



To Purchase Island of the Spirits

Regular Edition

Island of the Spirits by John Stanmeyer Foreword by anthropologist Wade Davis • Introduction by Anastasia Stanmeyer

Regular edition signed copies of Island of the Spirits are available worldwide through the Island of the Spirits website and unsigned through

In Indonesia, Island of the Spirits is available at all Periplus and Gramedia bookstores and the Ganesha bookstore in Ubud.


Limited Edition

Island of the Spirits is available in a Limited Edition of 150. The books cover is wrapped in grey woven material with a positive image on a full-frame piece of film replicating the original exposed 6x6 Holga negative. The numbered book is placed in a handmade box also covered in gray fabric material. A signed print on archival watercolor paper is included.

Limited Edition copies of Island of the Spirits are only available through the Island of the Spirits website.

In Indonesia, Limited Edition copies are only available from R&W.

August 7, 2011   9 Comments

The Soundtrack of Assignments

Musicians and photographers are a strange yet similar lot.

Passing the time on the bow a small boat crossing the Malacca Straits while working on the National Geographic story, Malacca Pirates. Knew this assignment would involve loads of boat travel, making the wooden friend an excellent companion. Photograph Courtesy of Yudhistira Dharama (aka, JP)



Balafon, cello, guitar, marimba, sitar, trumpet, voice…

DSLR, Holga, iPhone, pinhole camera, rangefinder, 6×6, view camera…



Chant, classical, folk, jazz, punk, rock, ska…

Advertising, architecture, art, fashion, paparazzi, photojournalism, sports…



After years of jamming in shit-hole bars, playing bland Bar Mitzvah’s or waiting tables, sometimes a musician gets a break, records a few meaningful albums then hits the road, sharing their music and message, performing night after night at their apex because people have paid good money to hear what touches their soul.

After toiling as an intern, self-funding projects by nearly living off of food stamps or working a few dull part-time jobs just to make ends meet, sometimes the photographer gets a break, does a number of short but meaningful assignments, then hits the road on longer projects, performing at their apex day after day because you’ve been hired to deliver nothing less.

The two professions are linked inextricably by the act of performing. Not as a rockstar — that only feeds an ego — but for the art and purpose of communication.



Photojournalist share another common thread with musicians, that of activism, helping bit by bit to turn the wheel of change.

We preform the roll of observer for others who cannot witness the event themselves. Images are the link which helps bind us collectively — a starving person in one part of the world is no different then a hungry neighbor up the road, yet if either plight is not witnessed, who would know to help? If no one documented the atrocities of war, how could those who perpetrate war crimes ever truly be held accountable? Were it not for those who often turn down more lucrative forms of photography, would important in-depth reportage on issues from the Congo or the foreclosure disaster in the United States ever become ink on paper or pixels on an iPad?

Having no witness begets the evils and weaknesses of humanity.

Had Paul Simon not produce the album, Graceland, how many more in our general population (especially outside of the continent) would have not known the oppression in South Africa, or would Stephen Biko have become a near globally recognized name for the enormous sacrifice he made where it not for Peter Gabriel’s 1980’s song, Biko, and his unflinching commitment to help end apartheid? Would the environmental movement not be were it is today without folk singer Pete Seeger? Would the plight for those in need in Bangladesh during the early 70’s not been raised to it’s global awareness without the efforts of George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, or would the world have banded together magically on it’s own had Bob Geldof not ran himself ragged to pull off Live Aid in the 1985?

Both the musician and photographer exert passionately for hours on end. It is not work. It’s an obsession. A purpose. The notion of calling it work is as absurd as saying breathing or urinating is laborious.



Photographs and music have another definitive connection; They are benchmarks of time and history. When viewing the shocking Kent State massacre photograph, I become enraged, hearing songs such as Turn! Turn! Turn! by the Birds. Images from the Vietnam War, Joan Baez’s album Where Are you Now, My Son fills the head and Edwin Starr screams his anti-war anthem, WAR.

After years of being on the road, a pattern began to form — just as the music which played on the radio when I was a teenager become that years soundtrack of summer, the music heard while on the road forever becomes the soundtrack of that assignment. An audible link. A metaphor. A reference to time. Suddenly an album or song takes on new meaning, sometimes comical, other times weighted.


For instance…traveling in 1999 to the brothel-ridden southern border town of Ruili, China, for a Time Magazine story on border towns, translator and friend, Casper (yes, she choose her English name after the Friendly Ghost), commandeered the China Southern Airlines music player, tricking the stewardess that the cassette she had in hand was music everyone onboard would love. We jammed at 35,000 feet listening to the Doors blasting through the isle. Jim Morrison also accompanied us throughout the long car drives to the Burma border in Yunnan Province. Every time I think of Ruili or see the following photograph, I hear The Doors.

The last remaining traditional masseuse in the town of Ruili, China. Learned on this story never say you'll never revisit a place, returning a total of three times to this depressing town located along the Burma border. Young girls from throughout China and Burma are trafficked to this small village which, at least between 1999 and 2003, was basically one massive brothel. Oh, that last masseuse...he was gone a year after taking this photograph in 1999, replaced by another karaoke bar.

Vast amounts of heroin moves across the Burma/China border in Ruili, making it one of the most drug saturated cities in China. It's also the route of the B strain of HIV which then migrates north via truck drivers.



Driving through Central Java with my dearest of friends, Heri Yanto (Heri tragically passed away last year), we stumbled upon a cassette sold at a small warong (shop), that became our soundtrack to the National Geographic story, Volcano Gods. Since ancient Javanese spirituality and Ponorogan culture have connectable roots to Mount Merapi, it seemed mystically fitting that Music from Ponorogo would forever be heard every time I gander a photograph from that story, with it’s hypnotic suling (Javanese flute) and trance-like percussion.

Gunung (Mount) Merapi, erupting on May 15, 2006, in Central Java. Merapi is consider among Javanese spiritualist to be mystical and sacred. And thank you, Ed Wray, for letting me use your 300mm lens for this photograph. 50mm is normally the longest lens I tot around and Ed, one of the kindest photographers I know — and an extremely talented photographer — was generous to lend me his lens for a few frame, one of which became the cover image for this story. On a side note, being so engrossed with the various layers of spirituality while working on Volcano Gods, my wife and I named our daughter, Francesca Merapi Stanmeyer.

Reok Ponorogo culture has been around for centuries. Here a member of the group, donning elaborate makeup and a fake beard, waits to perform in the Jatilan, a sacred dance held in May 2006 in hopes to calm the restless ogre believed to reside in Mount Merapi.

Ancient Javanese ceremony where rice offerings (tumpengs) are carried to a river flowing from Merapi. The offer was to try was to try and protect a village located 2 kilometers from the erupting volcano.

Ancient Javanese ceremony where rice offerings (tumpengs) are carried to a river flowing from Merapi. The offering were intended to try and protect a village located 2 kilometers from the erupting volcano.

My dear friend, Heri Yanto, during our three-day visit to Mount Bromo in East Java. Heri and I worked together throughout Indonesia and parts of Malaysia for over 10 year. He passed away last year from diabetes, an illness he never told me had.



And for some odd reason while covering the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, James Taylor’s album, October Road, became the soundtrack while moving through some of the most precarious roads ever traveled with my friend Raza Khan (Raza also tragically passed away a few years back). Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the most amazing qawali singer ever, shared speaker time, however somehow October Road united with the harsh yet staggering landscape. Think it had to do with witnessing so much loss and suffering, finding hope and love in the track, September Grass.

Evening prayers amidst the ruined mosque in Balakot, Pakistan, after an major earthquake hit Kashmir on October 8, 2005. The entire region was leveled. Truly depressing what happens when the earth shakes.

With the bridge over the Pattika River hanging only by a few remaining cables, it didn't stop the needs of the people who survived the earthquake.

Praying over freshly made graves in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, one day after a massive earthquake rocked the Kashmiri region.

Raza Khan waiting for me to get a hair cut amongst the destroyed remains of a barber shop in Balakot, Pakistan. Raza and I worked together for nearly 10 years. In hostel regions such as along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, he swore to protect me, no matter what, often saying emphatically "I will die for you, Brother John!" Raza didn't have to die for me. He tragically died in a auto accident while driving my colleagues Lynsey Addario and Teru Kuwayama back to Islamabad from an assignment they were working on in the tribal regions of Pakistan. Fortunately Lynsey and Teru survived. I miss Brother Raza dearly.



While packing just over two weeks ago — at the very last minute, of course — for an assignment in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, the need for choosing the right soundtrack was paramount…it would require driving throughout much of Washington State, the Oregon coast and possibly Northern California.

In many ways, the decision was more weighted then the gear that still needed packing: underwater camera housing, special tripod clamps, oddball cables, gaffers tape, camping gear, mozzie net, etc.

In fact organizing the camera bits are simple.

It’s the choice of music which often takes the weight of thought and time.

Music — and far more kit then normally is brought on an assignment — selected for last weeks National Geographic assignment in the Pacific Northwest.

Rummaging through the music library, slowly and methodically, the audio narrative took shape. Here is what Part I of the assignments musical accompaniment sounded like:


Peter Gabriel – US

Neil Young – Harvest

Tchaikovsky – Symphony #6

Pigmy Chants of Central Africa – Hunting, Love and Mockery Songs

Musicians of the Nile – Luxor to Isna

Taking Heads – Stop Making Sense

Japanese Shakuhachi – Japanese flute music

Sundanese – Batawi

Frank Sinatra – Greatest Hits

U2 – All That You Can’t Leave Behind

Górecki – Miserere

Sundanese – Classical Music

Dave Matthews Band – Live in Central Park


The CD player of the Chevy Traverse become the epicenter of musical timekeeping, naturally heralding, in it’s own time, an album that would become the soundtrack for part one of this latest National Geographic story.

Jabbering incessantly on geology, devising our own audible manual to assemble rather complex foldable Folbot kayaks and the recounting of past peculiar events, forester Dave and I were only able to enjoy around 70 percent of the audio enlightenment; Japanese Shakuhachi, U2, Sundanese, Talking Heads, Pigmy Chants of Central Africa, Neil Young, Frank Sinatra and Paul Simon, each selected by Dave and played in that order over long drives through some rather stunning Pacific Northwestern landscape. A week ago we were still on the road at 1:30 am with the only place open for dinner being a 7-11 for hot dogs and chips — U2 and a cup of weak joe kept me awake for another hour, barely. Damn, sure live high on the hog while on NG assignments, don’t we.

Dave Yamaguchi enjoying dinner consisting of water, a hot dog and chips, at the pumps of a 7-11 somewhere on the outskirts of Olympia, Washington.



Allowing the music to decide what will forever be indelibly referenced as the soundtrack to the 1,400+ miles of driving, a near regular ritual begins, preformed after every story, arising most specifically while flying home, this time lost in clouds hovering over the Cascade Mountains — reflecting on what has been photographed and what lies ahead.

Somewhere over the Rocky Mountains on Southwest flight #210 from Seattle to Chicago.

The most invocation-filled moments — along with non-photography bits, like this blog entering completion — tends to happen on planes. Though the carbon footprint is obscene (sadly, it’s impractical to walk from the farm in New England westward to Seattle, Washington…Louis and Clark took over a year back in 1804-05 just from Ohio to Oregon), there’s a certain sense of peace found in planes.

Sick, right.

Maybe it’s because there’s nowhere to go. Maybe it’s the hum of the engines playing on the consciousness with its monotoned drone. Maybe it’s the lack of distractions. Really haven’t a clue. But I’m truly balanced and at peace while being in the belly of a bird…and giddy as a school boy in lederhosens during each take off and landing with the bizarre notion of being encased in what basically is a 10-story building, turned on its side, with two flat sticks on either side.

Oh yeah, and it flies.



One thing is for certain…I don’t sense this story — which had significant hurdles to overcome during the last two weeks — will change the world. Unfortunately it’s not going to end hunger nor put a halt to wars. However the purpose of this story, like so many others we all do, is to help us think. Think about our future related to events which can happen to many of us, in turn hopefully saving lives.

A bit of a tall order indeed. One at the very least should be tried, helping, if possible, to turn the cog just ever so slightly further, awaiting the next hand to turn the wheel of change.




PS: Least I forget; Thank you, Kōhachiro Miyata, for fusing your fluid style of shakuhachi with the State of Washington while driving at dusk along Route 8 towards the coast. And to Frank, The Chairman of the Board, dripping your velvet voice while driving under moonlight along the Pacific Coast Highway (Rt. 101) in Oregon, embossing soundtracks to the White Horse along the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

July 21, 2011   2 Comments

Why Choose a Holga? Part II – The Tortoise

Extremely fast moving — Young Bali Aga men use sharply thorned pandan leaves to fight each other during the Perang Pandan ritual in Tenganan Village. Thrashing one another until severely bleeding, the participants do this to show their respect to Dewa Indra (god of war).

A rangerfinder is a lapdog, always faithful, a stalwart.

A digital SLR is a rabbit, blisteringly fast, hard worker.

A Holga is a land tortoise, staggeringly slow, a meditative beast.

If there was a contemporary symbol added in Chinese astrology — reminding us to slow down in these gigabyte blasting, hard drive stuffing days — it should be a giant land turtle.

When choosing a Holga for the book, Island of the Spirits, it was deliberate act in order to delve into a mindset of not only looking back in time from the perspective of the present, the decision also was to slow things down.

Here’s why: A 64 GB flash card equals roughly 60+ rolls of 35 mm or 180+ fills of 120 mm film into space smaller than a cracker.

In some ways such a massive table to work on is liberating…near limitless photography where batteries will need changing before ever considering the need to change film.

Troublesome in other ways — one can end up producing far too much food to choose from on that table, allowing the weakness of being human to consume more tasteless excess than needed, hindering the mystery and depth found in patients to see (often time sooner) the more flavorful dishes buried amongst the excess. Decelerating also avoids the hours spent in a hotel room working off the gorging from a day’s visual consumption.

Even worse…a lack of moderation can lead to never finding your visual voice.

The protracted pace of the Holga forces you slow down simply by its idiosyncrasies, which can be welcoming*.

Slowing down to a turtles pace while photographing a multitude of ceremonies in Bali had its ying but also a weighted yang;

How to photograph certain spiritual events which at times moved quickly while using a camera that moves film as if dancing tango with your partner in heavy mud?

Cremation ceremonies can last all day, sometimes at a glacial pace. Other times, briskly.

Thousands descend upon sacred water sources during Melasti (cleansing) ceremonies, with many entering rapidly into dramatic states of trance.

Melasti ceremonies start slow but once worshipers enter into a state of trance, it can be like photographing a sprinters.

How to solve the frame past number 12 with a camera that can take 2-4 minutes just to change film?

Solution: Five Holga’s and one assistant, deftly changing rolls of 120 film, turning the tortoise and all it’s pensive but laborious wisdom into a zen-like animal of fluid photographic efficiency.

Five varying models of Holga's were used to create the photographs of the Island of the Spirits.

Throughout the five years it took to photograph Island of the Sprits there were two truly wonderful friends who assisted in making this book actually happen. Bli Wayan Tilik and Bli Yudhistira Dharma, better known in the Indonesian photographic community as JP.

Wayan and/or JP came with me to each and every wedding, cremation, tooth filing, land blessing, spiritual event for the book. Neither of them had ever used a Holga let alone worked with 120 film before.

Appreciating the light leak effects which the Holga naturally creates, I was more interested in deciding the outcome of photographs, not have the camera create the feel of each image with random acts of fogging. To do so, it was imperative to ensure the porous shell of each Holga was completely sealed with electrical tape. There was also deft skill needed to make sure the often loosely spooled rolls of film was somehow tightly sealed before opening the camera back. It required all sorts of beguiling objects taped or glued to the exposed film area inside the camera — FYI, earlier Holga’s didn’t come with the small pieces of foam in present models.

To achieve success also meant finding shade, which is challenging when photographing in a geographic location 8 degrees below the equator.

In the beginning we had hit and miss results but over time JP and Wayan quickly learned techniques and tricks to sustain a fairly consistent level of unfogged film.

Often times looking like an overly decorated Christmas tree, it was this ability to always have 2-3 pre-loaded cameras around my neck (or at least in reach) which helped achieve a fluid flow of photography when events called for nonstop photography.

Photographing a gamelan orchestra using three Holga's while also making a binaural recording of the music with microphones placed in each ear. Photograph courtesy of Lukman S. Bintoro

By no means can one move massive amount of film with a Holga as can be done with a DSLR or even a rangefinder film camera. It defeats it’s purpose. But there were days during truly astonishing event filled ceremonies where we’d get back to the studio and realize there were 20-25 rolls of film in the film bag…and for a Holga, that’s seemed staggering — a whopping 240-300 photographs.

Photographing, slowly, the bathing ritual during a cremation ceremony in Ubud. Photograph courtesy of Lukman S. Bintoro

When photographing with the Holga, I often times made field recordings. The rituals were of course stunning to witness but the audible essence of Balinese spirituality and culture was equally hypnotizing. Here’s a short binaural recording of gamelan performed by a 30-piece orchestra during a cremation in Ubud, Bali:

[wpaudio url=” at a Cremation Ceremony.mp3″ text=”Gamelan at a Cremation Ceremony” dl=”0″]
(iPhone and iPad)

While changing film and totting 1-2 extra camera bodies, JP or Wayan would also carry the Fostex and an Audio Technica microphone, recording ambience from the periphery, while I had binaural microphones in my ears connected to an Edirol, freeing the hands to work the camera while recording truly three dimensional sound.

JP making field recordings with the Fostex and Audio-Technica microphone while I photograph with a Holga during a cremation ceremony in Ubud. Photograph courtesy of Lukman S Bintoro

Wayan Tilik making an audio recording of musicians performing gamelan music after a barong blessing in central Bali.

Once back in studio, the slow pace of the Holga didn’t stop. There was processing of film, cataloging, archiving, toning, audio archiving and a whole host of other tasks ahead, often requiring similar patients and wisdom found when using the Holga in the field. 

Part III of Why Choose a Holga (on post production and how working with a Holga influenced my other photography) in about two weeks time. For now, the plane is landing in Baltimore and a steward is about to go postal if not shutting down.




To view some of Lukman Bintoro’s photography, visit his blog.

Reminder: I’ll be teaching a 9-day workshop in Bali between August 11-19, 2011. If you’re interested in taking your photography further, being guided through in-depth storytelling and seeking more insight into working with a Holga, this is a workshop not to miss. Visit the workshops section for registration and more details. Hope to see you then.


* For an average National Geographic story, it’s not unusual for me to produce (when working over the course of 8-10 weeks) 25,000 or more photographs. That’s an average of round 360 photographs a day or only 10 rolls of 36 exposure film…which truly makes the Holga a tortoise compared to the hare.


May 19, 2011   4 Comments

I Found OBL Years Ago

For nearly ten years, no one could find him. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent, more blood spilled than one could ever imagine, all in search of one person.

Yet Osama Bin Laden was everywhere — on t-shirts, packaging, painted on trucks, you name it. Around the world, Osama’s image had become as recognizable as Mickey Mouse.

In 2006, I became intrigued by the notion of so many people searching yet not finding Osama Bin Laden, producing a photo essay titled “Where is OBL?, focusing in Indonesia where I was living at the time, viewing this phenomena from the perspective of how well-marketed, clearly visible and how common it is for Osama to pop up out of nowhere. Even in areas like Indonesia, where the vast majority of the population is just like you and me: non-confrontational and just living our lives.

Here are a series of images where I’ve seen Osama:

OBL, spotted on the back of a truck driving through central Java.

Bin Laden on a t-shirt worn by a supporter of cleric Abu Bakar Bahire during his court trial on his alleged connection to the radical group Jemaah Islamiyah, which has connections to Al-Qaeda.

Osama as window tinting on the back of a mini van in Yogyakarta.

Osama Bin Laden in a candy store, central Java.

OBL on a t-shirt wandering the streets of Jakarta selling snacks.

Osama Bin Laden spotted on the streets of Ambon, next to Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri and Vice President Hamzah Haz.

Osama riding through the congested traffic of Jakarta on a becak.

He even turned up on a 2002 calendar located in mosque where drug addicts were kept to wean themselves off heroin.

I saw Osama Bin Laden everywhere.

As events unfolded late in the evening of May 1, I began looking in the archive for other places I’d seen Osama…for example, here on a roadside shop of a sign maker in Tanzania:

Osama, hanging out with a rapper and a mother with child at a sign makers shop just outside Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. 2006

And throughout Pakistan, Bin Laden was indeed always there, like here at a October 2001 rally in Peshawar:

Field recording of pro-Osama Bin Laden supporters in Peshawar, Pakistan, on October 15, 2001. Fascinating how one fellow says he not only loves OBL, he also loves fly fishing.

[wpaudio url=” Rally-Pakistan.mp3″ text=”OBL Rally, Pashawar, Pakistan” dl=”0″]
(iPhone and iPad)

Even more wacky, Osama — along with flying missiles, jet fighters and tanks — on a package of mint flavored pan masala or beetle nut I found in a roadside shop at the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan near Quetta back in 2003:

Never knew Osama was "fine" and mint flavored.

Yet it took until this past Sunday to realize he was in a fairly nice home in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Some may think we’ve reached a closure in this decade-long period of our collective humanity. In some ways, we have. In other ways, maybe not completely. Only reflections upon history along with the elapse of time will tell.

Will close with words from Martin Luther King Jr., reminded to me from countless repostings on Facebook over the last 48 hours.

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence and toughness multiples toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.” ~ Martin Luther King






May 4, 2011   3 Comments

Why Choose a Holga?

Royal Cremation Ceremony, Ubud, Bali 2004

A few weeks ago, an interesting question was asked on Facebook, inspiring this discussion connected to the book, Island of the Spirits.

Doug Thacker wrote:

“John, would you care to discuss in detail, here or elsewhere, the process of choosing the Holga for this work; and how using this camera changed your work habits?”

Suppose one takes initial impulses for granted at times, in this case the choice between a Holga over a conventional 35mm or 6×6 camera. To be honest, I never recall thinking much about the decision. It was a deliberative choice right at the onset of this five year project: I wanted to present a body of work on a very unique and ancient culture, allowing the viewer to have one foot rooted in centuries of unchanged religious and cultural practices, while having the other foot firmly planted in the present.

The Holga — a stellar and very powerful camera — allowed me to do just that.

Doug’s request (along with Tobie’s similar request from Taiwan) made me recall something which might illustrate this decision a bit clearer, or even open up a fascinating debate.

Digging through the archive the other day, I came upon a frame taken with a digital Canon camera from the exact ceremony and nearly exact angle of one of the photographs in the book, taken with film on a Holga.

Thanks to digital metadata details — which I rarely look at — this ceremony happened on March 29, 2006.

It was the day before Nyepi (the day of silence) when melasti or cleansing ceremony happening all across the island. In the village were I use to live, Banjar Tandeg, the local temple was literally a two minute walk from our home and an all day ceremony was reaching a climax. At this lovely temple — my neighbors praying and worshiping, some in trance, stabbing themselves with kris’s, incense whirling while the gamelan orchestra clanged to an intense rhythm  — there was line of priest deep in prayer. One of the priests use to work for us. We called him Made Mystic because he was security guard by day, a priest and shaman at all other times.

I recall clearly the moment both of these photographs were taken…the light was falling fast. According to the metadata of the digital image (below, right), it was 655pm and already was pushing the film for the Holga two stops, the available light simply not enough for the fixed f8 lens of this rangefinder. Working the low light as long as I could — even at times using a Holga body with a clipped shutter spring to work in bulb mode (before Holga’s came with a bulb setting) — I asked my friend and assistant, Wayan Tilik, to hand me the Canon camera…the setting was so peaceful and rich in layered warm light.

The end result in color is fine and meaningful in it’s own right — rich golden yellow umbrellas, neutral whites, hints of dark reds in the temples bricks mirroring almost the tonal hues of the women on the far right dress and Made Mystics sarong hanging from his waste. But it just didn’t present the historicity of events occurring across Bali…a society deeply connected to centuries of unchanged traditions, holding (somehow) onto those roots during the present bombardment of development and modernity sweeping across the island. It color felt too simple. Too straightforward. Too expectant.

Holga on left, Canon 1DS Mark II on right

There have been countless color coffee-table books made about Bali. Very few (other than a fascinating book titled Bali Sacred & Secret by Gill Marais) made me feel or understand the enormity existing all around me. Color photography presented the weight and measure of Balinese society in too simple of a form. Yes, it had meaning and purpose as a visual message, however I wanted to create a document, a testimonial reference, able to remind the Balinese just how astonishing their culture actually is, especially at a time where dramatic changes are taking place across the island, effecting traditions or which one day might erode culture.

My assistant, Wayan, would help me edit hundreds of rolls of film taken with the Holga. Often times he would come up to me say “Bli” (brother in Balinese), “I never realized how beautiful and special my culture really is until seeing these photos.”

At that moment I knew I’d done my job.

Wayan Tilik carrying a Holga at a ceremony held
at his families home in Tabanan. No clue why
Wayan’s standing on a chair

There are other reasons for choosing the Holga. It’s a rangefinder, not a toy camera. It’s very meditative to work with rangefinders, composing, working slower and actually seeing the photograph you’re taking. The natural fingerprint of the Holga shares space with dreams and poetry.

Next posting on this topic I’ll touch on how or if using the Holga changed my work habits as well as some insights into how I actually work with Holgas, usually 4-5 bodies at one time, while juggling audio, even video.

Feel free to present additional questions to topic and I’ll expand upon this theme if there’s interest.


May 2, 2011   7 Comments