The Art of Looking At Things

Memories of the Sacred

A Photo Essay

By Rio Helmi


How do you capture the invisible? That is the peculiar art of a photographer. It’s peculiar because phenomena are so diverse and rich in details. Contrary to what most people might like to believe, this openness of the visible, while it provides a broad scope of subjects at one’s disposal, is in itself self-limiting. The visible can be seductively alluring in its naked visibility but unplumbed in its unsayable depth is meaningless. Also the visible is laden with the confluent memories of local and global communities. As with a painter, before a photographer clicks the shutter, he or she is already burdened with a million images, all powerfully alive in his or her systems. These images were not necessarily engendered visually. They could be compounded through a lifetime of stories read or told. Every visible object aimed through the lens is in this sense directed by a specific genealogy of narratives. (photo No.36 Kintamani Shadow) Two Balinese women bearing the Canang Sari (Offerings) trays on their heads, handholding a child in the middle. They’re heading into the inner court of Batur Temple. The photograph captures them from their backs. A long shaft of light trails behind them. The shadow of one of the women is projected in the tapering frame of light. This epigrammatic shot is evocative of a rich repository of images and reminiscences. All that is required is a recount of the materials in the photograph and a story or stories will be constructed. To further compound the difficulty, one should also bear in mind that a camera is by nature limited by the mechanism of its lens. The largest format lenses, for instance, can capture only so much of the phenomena.

These are then the photographer’s predicaments. Or if you like, his or her challenges. On hand, he or she has got a set of tools in his or her favor. For instance, a camera can capture a raindrop before it hits the ground. Or vividly captures the rain’s shattering impact against the ground. It can also capture the fleeting mood of an individual that the eye is impossible to see. And in digital age, a photographer is equipped with all sorts of finishing tools. The photographer can reshape, retouch and reformat a photograph.

Unfortunately, all these advantages don’t help much to make one a great photographer. A great photographer forces a way out of a jam when confronted with the unsayable of the sayable in the visible or when the sayable in the visible is so overpowering for the unsayable to emerge. In this way, the surface of a photograph is never the ground for contention. A bad photographer or a painter dabbles with colors, angles and a thousand experiments with the strokes. But these are merely techniques. We know that techniques as with any amount of technical equipments at the disposal of a photographer don’t make art. The true photographic art recomposes the bits and pieces that emerge out of the space of impossibility between the sayable and unsayable of the visible.

There are glimpses of this forceful suture in Rio Helmi’s photo essay Memories of The Sacred. First, Helmi sets himself up difficult tasks. How to convoke memories of the sacred in a ritualistic community, well celebrated, rich in textures, colors and exotic traditions, when he, being long time resident of Ubud, knows well enough that his every attempt at the unsayable of the visible will be overwhelmed? How to subtract a fresh perspective from a story that has been told a million times? How above all to approach his subjects? By the eye of a mystic, an aesthete, the distant aloofness of a transient or the eloquence of an enchanted proselyte?

Of the first of these self-imposed benchmarks, Helmi clears a path by presenting the entire collection of his photo essay in umber, tawny and copper hues (earthy colors), almost to the point of taking out any possible tinge of pigment that sticks out too impressively. The resulting presentation draws you closer and invites you to revel in the beguiling richness underneath the busy surface. Don’t expect to be swept away by Helmi’s pyrotechnics in photography. He doesn’t seem at all interested in trying to impress you with his mastery of the photographic art, but one can see the profound sense of involvement in each frame he takes, the intensity sometimes is akin to an artist becoming one with his subject. Of the second predicament, he doesn’t tell you a grand tale or a tale that builds to a grand narrative. Instead, he picks organic moments, moments in which he and his subjects, whether they are conscious of it or not, converge on a common ground at which something unexpected happens. (See photo no 57 Lempad’s Ashes. A close-up shot of the hands of family members crushing the ashes of the effigy in a rite of the dead. In a double spread, three-quarter size of a national newspaper, a watch, modern and broken, foregrounds the frame. The watch is broken, but time steals surreptitiously into this traditional world.) In the final analysis, Helmi’s approach is his faith in the moment, in his subjects to bring out the unexpected. One sees this throughout the entire collection, assembled from his thirty-year immersion in the art of photography. His subdued gesture as a result brings out the refulgent liveliness from each subject on the frame.  The book’s power lies not in the impressive portrayal of the myriad enchantments of a culture, but in its unassuming yet elucidating probe of its subjects.

Memories of The Sacred is a remarkable testament of a time passed, brought to bear with the present shift. It’s as if Helmi were asking us to participate in this passing of time, not so much to mourn its passage, but to make our best efforts to look more conscientiously to our surrounds. He’s literally warning us: time has a way of stealing something most precious of you or yours while you’re lulled by the rhythm of its march.

A version of this article was published in Now Jakarta December 2010

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