Over the past few weeks, it’s unlikely that Jason Childs had much time to consider the absurdity of commuting to work on a jet-ski. “The traffic on Bali is so horrendous, it’s really the way to go,” he said later.
With unseasonal offshore winds blowing on Bali’s east coast and a World Tour contest at Keramas, June was a hectic month for Childs. It represented a sort of convergence of all that drew him to the island more than two decades ago, and all that might cause him to return permanently to Australia, his native country.
When TSJ caught up with him for this interview, after his portfolio in issue 22.4, he was still recovering from three weeks of 18-hour workdays. The period of calm in his schedule gave him time to explain how he’d managed to restock his unpublished photo reserves in a single month. But, more importantly, it also gave him time to discuss some of the absurdities that come with making one’s home as a photographer on Bali in 2013. –Kyle DeNuccio
Childs re-ups his photo stock courtesy of Bali’s Marlon Gerber, locking in beneath the Hindu gods Rama and Lakshamana. Photo: Childs
What freesurfs or single waves stand out in your memory after having the World Tour on Bali for three weeks?
There is this one crazy right-hander that John John [Florence] and a few other guys were surfing with a one-meter tide. Normally you need water under it. You need a high tide—at least a two-meter tide. I’ve seen really good surfers out there get skinned and have their asses kicked and cut up. Looking in from the jet-ski, I could see that the reef in front of John John was completely dry. Made [Sumerta], my assistant, was driving where there is no channel. So it felt like sitting in the barrel with John John.
Then I got another session off the jet-ski at a spot that I thought wasn’t surf-able but Rizal [Tanjung] told me to come shoot him and Kelly [Slater]. It was a wave I hadn’t shot before. Then I also shot Kelly at his favorite wave in Indonesia. It’s a tricky spot to shoot. I have friends who live for that wave and they said it was the best day in at least ten years. It was pretty cool to see Kelly surf it. The waves were four-to-six-foot, with eight-foot sets. I just wish that I had been able to rip that GoPro out of his hand. There were a lot of waves he didn’t make because he was filming the barrel. He would have made it without the camera. What can you do, though? He’s having a good time. You can’t really direct him into anything.
The good thing was only a few photographers who live here knew how good the waves were up the coast from Keramas. But once a lot of photographers realize how good [those waves are], it’s going to make my job a lot harder.
Having a full-time assistant is pretty rare among surf photographers. How has that advantage impacted your work?
Made’s all-time because I’ve taught him to take photos. Having him shooting one angle allows me to roam and has really opened things up. So if I shoot water, he can shoot land.
He’s also by far and away the best jet-ski driver here in Bali. He’s in his early 30s now, so he’s worked with me for nearly the entire time I’ve been here—over 20 years—since he was a kid in high school. He started driving the zodiac for me and he’s progressed to becoming a jet-ski mechanic by trade.
When the surf’s good, he drives for me. I can drive and shoot pretty well but driving and shooting with one eye is a lot more difficult than someone driving with the peripheral vision of two eyes; I’m pretty indebted to Made. He has put me in the spot for some of the most amazing shots I’ve taken. He pushes things, makes sure that I get the shot, and he’ll be just as bummed as me if I miss it.
Made Sumerta provides invaluable assistance as a jet-ski mechanic and driver for Childs, whose peripheral vision his limited due to his blindness in one eye. Additionally, Sumerta’s skills as a photographer help to document sessions with depth. Photo: Lance Slabbert
Over the past two decades, you’ve witnessed the rapid development on Bali. What changes are most striking?
The other day, Made said to me, “In five years time we’re going to be back to canoes and paddles. We’re not going to be able to drive the jet-ski because of the amount of trash we suck up from the water.” It already has us stopping all the time to pull stuff out. Just the other night we thought it was going to take hours to get home because we couldn’t get the trash cleared from the jet-ski. Made started saying to me, “What’s the future?”
I used to be the one saying, “Oh, give me the old Bali back.” For a long time, I just heard Westerners saying that. Now the Balinese are starting to say it because they see how all of this development actually isn’t progress.
The scary thing for them is the land prices are going through the roof. So that’s cool if you own land and you have some to sell. But if you only have a little bit of land, you won’t have enough money to pay the land taxes. You’ll be forced to sell. For a Balinese person who lives with their whole extended family, once the space fills up, it isn’t just like you can just move to another suburb; their lives revolve around that community, family, and their attachment to that local temple.
So it’s going to have huge cultural impacts. I see a lot of conflict and a lot of anguish and a lot of resentment coming. You see the people who want to sell their land and get instant money. They don’t know what to do with it. So they spend more on ceremonies. But then when the money’s gone, what are these people going to do?
I suppose the saving grace for the Balinese is that they live in the present. They don’t look too far ahead. So maybe that gives them a different perspective on things: “That’s just the way it is,” or something. Whereas we get so wrapped up in worrying about the future and building something that will last forever. For instance, the temples that they build, they don’t build them to last forever. And when they have enough money, they pull them down and build them again.
I photographed the south coast of Bali the other week, where developers are carving down the cliffs, the limestone, to put in these ugly buildings. And they’re totally illegal but people can’t see them unless they’re in a boat. I don’t think those photos will make a difference, but perhaps later, having these images of what the coast was like before and what’s happening to it will have some value for the government to consider.
What do those changes mean for you? When your two boys are adults, will Bali still be a desirable place to make a home?
The traffic got so horrendous last year that my childrens’ 13-kilometer trip to school was taking an hour to an hour and a half. And on a day of peak traffic it can take three hours to drive 13 kilometers. So we sold our house [at Jimbaran] and moved back to Legian.
Growing up in Australia, my wife and I realize that we live such a privileged life here. My kids have grown up here, and they have no idea that in Australia when you wake up, you do your own washing, you make your own coffee and your own breakfast. Newer expats, it seems like, can take it for granted. It’s new colonialism here. How many places in the world can you live where you have a driver and a staff?
Bali wasn’t cool 20 years ago, when it was a place for surfers and hippies. But now people have their drivers and someone to look after their kids and a whole life they’ve moved from Australia. A lot of them don’t assimilate at all. They have no idea where their staff lives, how they live, and they don’t want to. Balinese friends of mine talk about it—seeing that elitist attitude. I think we’ve been lucky to be able to rent houses from Balinese as opposed to another Westerner, to help us get to know the people here.
My plan is that in another five or six years my boys will go back to Australia. I’ve lived a really self-indulgent life here in Bali, so I want to take the time to give my kids all of the opportunities that my parents gave me. They need to understand where they came from, where their parents came from—their heritage.
They were born here and we’ve done all of the Hindu ceremonies, blessings for the boys when they were born, out of respect for our staff—they guide our children and love them. This is a great place for kids but for teenagers it’s the worst place in the world because Bali is so loose—drugs, alcohol, motorbikes. Nearly every person, down to a 12-year-old kid has a motorbike. Kids don’t ride push-bikes as much or take public transportation. If you’ve got money, you can do anything you want, and there aren’t the same laws to protect children.
Childs background as a photojournalist lead him to chronicle the resilience of the Indonesian people: (left) a Hindu purification ceremony after the 2002 Bali bombings; (right) a village mosque in Banda Aceh, the last building standing after the 2004 tsunami. Photos: Childs
If you didn’t have kids, do you think you might be able to find another Bali somewhere out in the archipelago?
People say, “Lombok, Lombok, Lombok.” Beauty-wise, there are so many amazing places in Indonesia, but they’re not Hindu islands; that culture is so rich here and intertwined with day-to-day life. There’s nowhere else like Bali. I like Sumba and I’ve spent a lot of time there. If I didn’t have children, that would be my escape, and I’d come back to Bali for all of the things it’s got.
Rizal has this amazing place in Java and it’s like stepping back in time. Until I went there, I had this misperception of Java as polluted, brown water. But it was pristine beaches and blue water. You can go for a walk or go fishing without seeing people.
You have a really strong background as a photojournalist at The Age. How has that experience influenced your work as a surf photographer?
I was really lucky to have a hardnosed, disciplined grounding in photography. Sometimes it’s to the detriment of not being as creative as some of the other guys. But, in saying that, I never miss that definitive moment.
I always shot the hard news in Bali. That has always been a wake-up call. We had a tsunami, Bali bombings twice. The second bombing we were there and involved within minutes. It was 200 meters from my house. I covered the bombing trials for newspapers. And my shot of the bombings was on the front page of The New York Times. That was a bizarre night.
As much as I hated covering hard news, I think it was a good leveler for me. It makes me appreciate my days on the beach. Seeing the consistent resilience of the people here is incredible, too.
Ry Craike throws a Bukit-shaped arc at Uluwatu. Photo: Jason Childs/A-Frame
You told me that you’ve been logging some 18-hour workdays over the last month. When the swell is hitting on Bali, how do you spend one of those days?
If I’m going over to Keramas, on the east coast, we’ll put the ski in at Nusa Dua. I’ll pick up Made at quarter to five while it’s still dark, to wheel the jet-ski down to the beach. It’s usually about a 30-minute drive on the ski but the traffic is so horrendous in Bali it’s really the way to go. Plus, it makes the ride way more fun. When we cruise the east coast early in the morning, sunrise is coming up on that side of the island, so you’re seeing Mount Agung, which overshadows Bali. That’s the biggest volcano. It’s still active.
On a full day, when there’s a big swell, we usually shoot until 11 or 12 o’clock. We’ll drive the ski back to where we launched, hook it up, drive 20 minutes to the other side of the island, to Jimbaran. Then you can get to Padang for the dropping tide. It’s still really cool to cruise along the Bukit Peninsula, which is only about a 15-minute run on the jet-ski.
That’s a dream day. Once I get home, I can never help myself. It’s pretty rare that I don’t [upload] the flashcards to see what I shot. I think it’s a sign that I still love photography as much as I always have. Usually, after that, it will be about 11 at night and I’ll have a hard time sleeping for an hour or two because it’s hard to unwind from a day like that.