Rio Helmi’s work has been exhibited globally, published in a number of photobooks and graced the likes of Vanity Fair, Vogue and The New York Times. One of Asia’s most eminent snappers, his love for photography was born from flicking through his father’s old albums.
“My dad was an avid amateur photographer,” says Bali-based Rio. “He had the most fascinating images of his and my mother’s travels from the late 30s right up until the 60s. When I was 11, I spent Christmas with my godfather’s family in Switzerland. There had been a coup in Indonesia, there was no news from my parents and we nervously adjusted ourselves to the possibility that they were dead. My godfather’s daughter entertained me by taking me into her darkroom. I was fascinated as the images appeared under the red safelight, these strange looking people that I thought were American Indians turned out to be Tibetan refugees. Unbeknownst to me, I was introduced to two very important things in my life that day: photography and Tibet. It was years after – the late 70s – that I got seriously into photography, and not until the early 80s that I became more seriously involved with the Tibetans after meeting the Dalai Lama.”
Since 1978, Rio’s specialist subject has been Asia, Indonesia especially, focussing on landscapes, and both remote tribal people and modern urban life. He’s also spent a great deal of time in Europe. I ask why he chose Bali to settle.
“I first came here with my family to visit when I was eight and it made a huge impression on me. After high school in Europe I became disenchanted with the west so once home in Jakarta I couldn’t get Bali out of my head. I talked to a family friend of mine into coming with me overland and in 1971 we made our way across Java to Bali. It was a bit of an adventure, but being in Bali was even more so. It was very different then. You couldn’t live the semi-modern existence that exists now. Nature, the rich textures of Balinese culture, the people, all that stuff that has become the cliché of travel brochures and websites was real back then. So I got stuck!”
Rio’s upbringing, raised with what he describes as a fine mix of love and tough discipline, was certainly an interesting and seemingly privileged one, born to an Indonesian diplomat father and a Turkish mother. “On the one hand, it was a privileged life – ambassadorial residences with butler, driver, cook and so on,” he says. “My mother, a daughter of a Pasha, loved entertaining. My father was born into a small, jungle-bound village in Lampung, Sumatra. It was a highly patriarchal clan and he forged himself into a well-educated, fluently multi-lingual man of the world. From him I learnt that being multi-lingual is an indispensable asset.” The privilege, adds Rio, diminished living in Jakarta during the Sukarno (Indonesia’s first president) era and he spent more time with his extended clan. “It was important for my dad and it also gave me a larger sense of belonging rather than just simply be a nuclear family.”
Rio admits he never felt as drawn to his Turkish roots, even though he made numerous visits to that country too. “In the end I was an enfant terrible,” he says. “We were in Europe in the second half of the sixties and my teens were intoxicated – in more ways than one – with the whole youth rebellion: Woodstock, Flower Power, Hendrix, Joplin, the Stones, soul and anti-Vietnam. Unlike now, nothing was segregated and all the countercultures swirled round each other and what a heady mix it was. I was swept out of this mold that my poor father had been creating for me. When I refused to go to university we stopped talking for about eight years.” They finally reconciled after Rio returned to Bali after a time spent in India and the Himalayas: “In retrospect, I hardly think I deserved his forgiveness, yet such was the largeness of the man’s heart. Not to mention he fell in love with his grandchildren.”
The erstwhile “enfant terrible” has long since swapped bohemianism for Buddhism, a decision, he muses, he wishes he’d made much earlier. “The Buddha’s wisdom displays itself by the minute,” says Rio. “My whole life view revolves around it and as I get older I see more in its value. But I’m not a very good Buddhist so I don’t always see it very clearly. However, my experience in Buddhism has really been made possible through the mentorship of my very patient teachers, HH the Dalai Lama and the Venerable Dagpo Rinpoche, and through them I have had the opportunity to get closer to a true understanding. Both of them are extremely generous, and also very importantly, are quite able to bridge the classic world of Buddhism and the modern reality of our lives. It’s very important to have a teacher, a mentor.”
BALI IS PREDOMINANTLY HINDU WITHIN A PREDOMINANTLY MUSLIM NATION. IS THAT SOMETHING THAT GIVES IT A DIFFERENT FEEL?
“Obviously, but it’s not really Hinduism like in India. It’s a mix of things. Anyway ‘Hinduism’ is a British invention from the 18th century. The poor missionaries had never encountered such a plethora of beliefs as they did in India, so they just used an old Persian term that uses the river Indus as its referent: Hindustan and the Hindus. Most Indians today have come to accept this as their ‘ancient religion’, and the terms like Vedanta, Advaita, Waisnawa, Sivaite became ‘sects’ of Hinduism.” This is relevant, says Rio, because when Indonesia became a republic, Bali, which had always boasted a rich array of religion and tradition, had to make a choice in order to have their belief system acknowledged by the new administration: “The Balinese had to opt for one of the so-called accepted five religions. There was a strong element that wanted Indonesia to be all Muslim, which we are not. So, after much agonising, the Balinese intelligentsia and priesthood went with Hinduism. Yes, Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world, but we are not constitutionally a Muslim nation. So not only does Bali have a ‘different feel’ because it is culturally and religiously so different and exotic, but there is a fierce sense of identity, pride and ‘resistance’ too.”
While researching I came across an interview Rio gave concerning the Jakarta riots of 1998 which he covered as a photojournalist. In it, he told of how he found some Muslim clerics defending a group of Chinese. There have been similar instances since such as Muslims defending Christians during the Arab Spring. I ask Rio of he feels such occurrences get enough press attention, and, if he believes that they are helpful in diffusing wider tensions.
“The mainstream press can sometimes be so shallow it’s hardly a stream, more like a puddle. Perhaps they’re scared that if they present something to the public which requires thought they’ll lose their ratings.” Violence and sensation, alas, he laments, are what so often sell. “Personally I think it’s important not only to show Muslims defending Christians and vice versa, Jews in Israel defending the rights of Muslim Arabs but also to show the personal aspect of that in detail. We need to refocus on our humanity.
“Politics has a way of consuming everything in its way, and that just spells disaster for mankind. We live in very, very labile times. What is coming just around the corner is a probable catastrophe of epic proportions. Food and water shortages, habitat destruction, environmental tragedies, wars. If we could just pull ourselves together, we actually have the human resources to collectively avoid these disasters. Sure, we need to acknowledge and report the negative, but we need also to show in an equally powerful way examples of much more enlightened behaviour. Published images are a very powerful element in shaping people’s realities.”
A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS?
“Some are. But some really great paragraphs are worth ten of those pictures.”
Rio also writes, in both English and Indonesian (he actually speaks five languages fluently). He’s a regular blogger at the Huffington Post and also founded the website ubundnowandthen.com, an ode to his hometown of Ubud. I ask about the biggest changes to his homeland over the past three decades.
“There are so many, I don’t know where to start. Socially, economically, environmentally, culturally and politically it’s a completely different place from the one I came to live in during the 70s. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish and isolate these elements, they blur into each other. But at the same time you also have quite a few of much more worldly, better educated, bright young people coming up who are committed to creating better alternatives. Currently the Balinese are in the biggest state of ferment and change since the Majapahit ‘invaders’ came across from Java way back in 14th Century.”
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT ANY FAVOURITE SPOTS IN BALI?
“There are a few, especially in the more remote places, but nowadays so many have been trashed I keep them to myself. I say this with a smile, but I do mean it too!”
The photographer even has his very own dedicated spot, which is no doubt the favourite of many others, a café within a gallery which showcases his work: “My youngest daughter, Soma, a film maker, thought it would be a great idea, so we ran with it. It’s fun. People come in to see the prints and they get to have brunch or coffee and relax.”
EVERYONE THINKS THEY’RE A PHOTOGRAPHER NOWADAYS. IS THAT FRUSTRATING FOR YOU AND HAS THE PREVALENCE OF THE AMATEUR SNAPPER MADE YOUR JOB HARDER?
“Well, it’s a little tricky to use a broad brush on this because there is also a lot of new talent unleashed by the convenience of digital. But what does rankle sometimes is the lack of discipline that this new ease on the craft side allows. There is a lack of respect not only for the craftsmanship and but also a disregard for the entire lexicon and history of photography. Back in the 90s I remember a conversation with the late René Burri of Magnum who pointed out that our profession as photojournalists and documentarians would never be the same.
“Some of the great photographers I know personally – who are also great people – like John Stanmeyer, Mike Yamashita and James Nachtwey do workshops and Michael Freeman produces books by the wheelbarrow load. To survive with all the amateur snappers you need marketing, however that isn’t to say that that is the essence of their success. These guys work hard. Another positive side of the workshops is that the language of photography develops and they pass on their know-how to the digital snappers, giving those who have real talent a leg up. As I speak there is a hundred-person-plus Foundry workshop going on in Ubud. Just being a great photographer is not enough. Not everyone is good at marketing or establishing presence, I certainly am not. In Indonesia we have some great new photographers coming up. So that is a strong positive.”
OBVIOUSLY PHOTOGRAPHERS NEED A GREAT EYE, BUT IS THERE ALSO AN ELEMENT OF LUCK, OF BEING IN THE RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME, OR DO YOU MAKE YOUR OWN LUCK?
“Luck is kind of a meaningless word for me. I use it lightly, but never seriously. What is really important is having a well-honed skill set: discipline, preparedness, a great eye, an acute awareness of conditions, good timing, and open mind. What some people call luck for me is more about being open to what is immediately there. My most mediocre shots come from being bound by a rigid concept or simply being inattentive. Things change constantly. You go to the exact same place twice and it is not the same. So it’s really a result of a state of mind. If you are open and in tune you will see something there and adapt. Sure some days are tougher, but that’s normal.”
Anyway, Rio adds that his Buddhist beliefs don’t allow for luck. “I have come to understand that everything is caused by other things and conditions,” he says. “ Things don’t just happen by themselves. That changes the formula!”