There is an old joke among photographers about getting the phone call for a dream assignment in Tahiti. The usual response is, “I am still waiting.” In my thirty-year plus career, I have been luckier than most photographers in getting overseas assignments, usually for U.S. cruise ship and hotel companies. But photography has changed a lot in the last ten years with digital imaging being a large part of it. While traveling has always been integral to shooting architecture, there are significantly more shooters around the world and many are doing good work. So when the phone call came for a month long shoot, not in Tahiti but Bali, Indonesia, I was somewhat amazed. Bali is a tropical island in the Indian Ocean and roughly eight thousand miles from San Francisco. Once I got over the initial elation, I realized there was a lot of work to do before we left. The electrical grid in Indonesia is 220 VAC. None of our U.S. based 110 VAC lighting would work. We also needed a way to download, store and process images on location on a daily basis using the local power for all of our devices.
Our lighting solutions came from a Lithium battery powered flash system that could be charged with either 220 or 110 VAC power. All of our lights, stands, light modifiers and tripod fit into one case weighing less than 23 kg. Using a Macbook Pro with an SSD drive and an auxiliary hard-drive, we put together an al fresco processing station in the guest house that became our location studio in the jungle. Every morning our cheery driver would meet us there and ferry all our gear either on foot or by motor scooter several hundred meters to his waiting mini-van where we would be driven to the day’s shoot. Our guest house was located on a narrow footpath with only motor scooter access. To my astonishment, our 23 kg lighting case was often carried on the heads of our local female helpers. Once on location, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a small team of helpers would appear with plates of tropical fruits and copious amounts of local coffee, not to mention the mid-morning fresh coconut with straw. Fortunately our days ended early, usually with a tropical thundershower that would roll in around five. At which point, we would reverse the process and spend a few hours reviewing the day’s work, then catch a late dinner in one of the town’s fun eateries.
In just under a month, we completed all the images for a monograph about the work of Alejandra Cisneros, a local ex-pat American architect and two stories for a regional travel magazine. Working with Cisneros was delightful. She organized a small army of helpers who magically appeared whenever we needed something or needed to be somewhere. Her houses are a rich blend of traditional Indonesian vernacular design, antique, recycled building parts and a healthy dose of Modernism. We also managed a couple of beach days.
Even for Southeast Asia, Bali is unique. It is both a physical and cultural island in the middle of the Indonesian archipelago. The Balinese are proudly Hindu, and that ancient religion and culture is ubiquitous. Seeking and creating beauty is one of the paths to holiness in Hinduism, a value ingrained in most Balinese. Urban ugliness gives way to serene bucolic beauty at every turn. There is a reason why Bali is a UNESCO World Heritage site.