Bureau Chief

Thirty years of imagery from photographer Jason Child’s Indonesian tenure.

Light / Dark

Into the Archipelago 

Photo practices, muses, and viewpoints behind the lens with the former-expat shooter.  

As told to Matt George

Jason Childs spent most of his career as a photographer working, living, and raising a family on the island of Bali, one of the most exotic surfing crossroads on the globe. Across three decades there—his axis for exploring the Indonesian archipelago at large—his main focus was on not only capturing iconic images of an extraordinary place, but also learning about what it means to make a surfing life in a foreign land. Now living back in his native Australia, Childs remains deeply connected to and is reflective of his experiences. The following thoughts were shared during a conversation at Made’s Warung—a culinary and social hub in Seminyak—during one of his many recent return visits. The accompanying photographs are the product of his work.

Mega Semadhi, Padang Padang, 2007. It was big, thick, sort of messy, with double-ups everywhere. Pretty much out of control. Mega just found this perfect moment of calm within the chaos. His prayer wasn’t set up. I didn’t ask him to do it. It just sort of happened. But it’s fitting, since Mega is now a high priest at the temple at Uluwatu.

Connection is what it’s all about with the Balinese surfers. I was automatically invited into a tight community. We all seemed to have time for each other. And we were hungry for it. I was so lucky to be welcomed into that world when surfing felt so new here.

My first time in Bali was 1989. I was 22 years old. The seed was sown. Five weeks going nuts every night, shooting, surfing. Then I went to Nias for another five weeks—epic. I got my first covers, Tracks and Waves, a Surfing magazine poster. Remember them? So Indonesia bit me on the first trip. And then my wife-to-be and I moved here in 1993. It wasn’t my idea to come here and be the only full-time photographer. It was hers. So I have a lot to thank my darling for.

We lived in a little bungalow—no TV, no car. We shared a scooter. A big night out was a beer and fried rice at a local café. And then [Balinese pro surfer] Rizal Tandjung would pick me up in the mornings, and we would tear around and go shoot anything we could find. Right from the start we had a connection, Riz and me, a special bond. He became my brother. He still is.

Rizal Tandjung, Padang Padang, 2013. Everyone’s usually looking to get barreled on this section, but Rizal knows exactly which waves—and exactly which line to take on them—when it’s better to come around and crack the lip. This would be the best wave in the set, too. Rizal gets his pick out there whenever he decides to paddle into the lineup, and that’s how it should be. Padang sees lots of great surfers come through, but the locals—and Riz especially—know the wave like nobody else.

There were no color issues, no distance, no wallet envy. It was a surf society and I was so lucky to have a great deal to contribute to it by documenting the revolution and giving the locals the top priority instead of the visiting surfers. There was a strong sense of pride in what I was doing, and they were benefiting. They were becoming more than just hosts; they were becoming royalty. And I think that perception survives today. 

Rizal, Made Kasim, Made Switra, Wayan Ganti, Ketut Menda, Wayan Suwenda—so many to name. From the early days, they ruled, especially at Padang Padang. And the new generation still does: Adi Bol Putra, Garut Widiarta, Raditya Rondi, Mega Semadhi. These surfers are better than the visitors that come through. They’re worldclass. If I get going, I know I’ll talk about shooting Kelly [Slater] and Andy [Irons] as the best of the best, but at Padang, the jewel in the crown here in Bali, the best guys in the water will always be the Indonesians.

Discovery and exploration are hard work. You have to really want it, especially if you’re hunting it down with a camera, because there is so much more to be concerned with than just finding a fantasy wave. Tearing around with all that equipment—it felt like those first explorers who discovered the source of the Nile or something. 

Timmy Turner, Apocalypse, 2002. Let this photo serve as a reminder that when you put in the hard yards, you get the reward. The situations they put themselves in were so heavy, at Apocalypse especially, which can often have an evil feeling to it when it’s big. If something were to go wrong, there was no way to get them any sort of immediate medical attention. They easily could’ve died, and I’m always struck by how calm Timmy looks in this photo considering those circumstances. When I left the island, I hand-carried all the rolls of film to Singapore and had them processed and checked before I sent them off to the magazines. I wasn’t letting those rolls of film out of my sight. I knew that what I’d witnessed, which was a throwback to the early days of surf exploration, was something that I maybe would never get to see or shoot again.

I was obsessed with the wave called Apocalypse, yes, but I only really got it perfect a few times. And I got that shot of Mikala [Jones], may he rest in peace. I’m so glad I was able to get that shot of him in an ultimate moment of doing what he loved. That’s what photography can do if you do it right. It can capture those ultimate moments of vibrant human lives.

My experience in Nias—living in a hut, vivid dreams, waking up and writing them down and being present with the place and the people and the wave itself. My mind was so relaxed and my photography showed it. It changed the direction of my life. I learned a lot about taking responsibility for myself, too. The potential of that—but always with an eye on taking care of the people around me as well. We ended up sponsoring a boy from Nias and getting him into proper school. The biggest lesson at Nias was if you take something out, you gotta put something in.

My work in Sumba with the NIHI resort and its foundation has taught me that it’s just about the only place that has been saved from itself. It hasn’t turned into a surf ghetto with all the evils that can bring. The impact of that resort has gone out directly into the community—schools, medicine, education, hope.  I feel really proud to be part of something that has had real impact. If that means people from the outside can’t surf the break without permission, well—the resort’s positive impact far outweighs the inconvenience someone suffers when they sail up and have to pay the community respect to play in their waves.

I was late for the Mentawai experience. But maybe that was a good thing. Jeff Divine at Surfer called and asked if I wanted to go  on a trip with Andy Irons, Chris Ward, Shea and Cory Lopez, and the Beschen brothers. Was he kidding? I shot 140 rolls of film.  Film, mind you. To this day, the finest film I ever shot. 

My first trip to G-Land was the Quiksilver Pro ’95. I’ve never experienced G-Land like that again. There was real jungle magic then. Amazing days of surf and light and brotherhood. Everyone, absolutely everyone, knew how blessed we were to be living in that moment.

Back in the day, shooting with film taught me discipline. I grew up with manual-focus cameras, processing my own stuff, printing my own stuff. It taught you to seek that definitive moment, since one moment is never going to happen again. No Photoshop, nothing back then. You had to be pure and clean. It was hard, honest work. 

I often think, Why did I not shoot more artistic stuff? But remember, we were shooting blind. With film, you never saw your photos for months, until they came out in the magazine. Looking back, the whole system of shooting rolls and rolls and sending them off undeveloped to the magazine was not good for my photography—not seeing the results right away. That was probably the only negative thing about being in Indonesia. There was no Bali Pro lab. Everything had to go to Singapore or the mags. That was a big thing we were up against. I think in the digital age we forget what that was like. And we lament, “Oh, why didn’t I do this?” and “Why didn’t I do that?” Remember, there were only 36 frames a roll. Swim out, shoot 36 frames, swim in, open the housing, start over. Think of the waves we missed. That hurts too. But the positive side? We had to be in rhythm with the ocean, just like the surfers, so that we missed the fewest sets. So, in a strange way, it was good for my surfing, and that was cool.

I learned from Kelly that time waits for no man—except him. Ha! But we always scored, and when he turns it on, you know you are going to get the best photos ever. As frustrating as it could be sitting on a jet ski waiting for him to show up, you had to weigh things: Do you want to shoot with everybody else and all the photogs? Or do you want one exclusive session with Kelly? The reward was guaranteed covers and a meaningful friendship with the greatest surfer ever to live.

What I learned from Andy was that he loved Bali and he loved his friends here. And that he really did have an affinity with Bali. The wildness of Andy fit the wildness of this place. Not many surfers from outside have mastered Keramas. But when Andy surfed it, he was in command—relaxed and connected. So easy to shoot. He would dictate to the wave the way he wanted to surf it. It was such uncommon surfing, so stylish and creative. I’ve never seen anyone surf Keramas like Andy. And not just one time, but every time he paddled out. Once, Andy showed up at Keramas to meet the Billabong team and pick up his new trunks so we could shoot the new ad. But the team wasn’t there, so Andy just went out in his underwear and we still got cover shots. I learned that if Andy was there, you’d better be too.

Andy Irons, Keramas, 2006. I’ve seen a lot of surfers—a lot of really great surfers—come all the way to Bali to surf Keramas. Lots of them surfed it well, but no one was as in tune with the wave as Andy was. From the very first moment he paddled out there, he knew every single line to take no matter what the wave threw at him. And the bigger it got, the better he got. 

You need a mentor, and Jack McCoy was mine. How lucky was that? He had an ability in the water that no one else has ever equaled. Untouchable during his era. He taught me about what it takes between photographer and surfer when you’re shooting with the best. You had to relax and trust each other to get the shot. And we always did.

Unlike anywhere else in the world, you have to love the culture in Bali as much as the surf. Otherwise, you’re missing half the game. I’m still coming back here and doing what I love, and it’s been over 30 years now. That doesn’t happen by accident. That comes from a connection with the culture. I was able to photograph the youthful soul of Indonesian surfing. And that is a straight-up blessing.

Dane Reynolds, Mentawais, 2009. This spot was one of photographer Jason Kenworthy’s little secrets. It’s just down from Lance’s Left, nothing more than a little closeout beachbreak. But because of how dense the jungle is back there, the surfers really pop out when they do airs. And we’d tell the guys to just race as fast as possible and then punt as high as they could. A lot of covers, spreads, posters, and ads got made with that approach. On this day, it was Dane, Dusty Payne, Julian Wilson, and Taj Burrow out, so Kenworthy, myself, and my assistant had lots of opportunities to click away. As a shooter, that’s one of the most important things—opportunity, which Indo provides as much as anywhere else on Earth.

My most precious photos are the ones of the Morotai kids. The innocence of their surfing—unadulterated, no influences, so clean. I don’t think there has been a cover in the history of Surfer like that. It was the purest cover. Not advertiser driven. It was the allure of it all. The imagination—what these kids with their homemade wooden boards were doing. The whole experience was the magic of a first contact with a pure surfing culture that you had no idea existed.

I never considered myself an expat. I was a tourist. A long-term tourist with a lot of local friends. That’s the truth of it. It was such a privilege to be in Bali and to be doing what I love and to be accepted. As much as I put in, I got much more back. I got to belong to a place. Having since moved back to Australia, that’s the one thing I miss: the smiles and the warmth of the people. And, of course, the lighting and the perfect waves all day, every day.

After the 2002 Bali bombings, living there taught me you can’t control the world. You can make decisions about how you want to live, but Bali taught me how to live without fear. The tsunamis, the earthquakes—I’ve been through it all. It changed the way I lived, but it did not stop me from living. 

Some people get to scratch the surface of life. Indonesia forces you to dive into it. And in a material sense it teaches you the difference between what you want and what you need. 

You cannot live the dream Bali life without a love at your side. You need someone to share it with. And my wife, Michelle, was a saint in that department. 

It’s been a real honor to shoot Indonesian surfers, from the originals to the contemporary. I remember, when I first heard about surfing in Bali, that the local people described it as dancing on the waves. And that really put it on me. And once I arrived, I saw it was true. 

Bali is a calling. Do it right and your very identity will be infused into the island. I can’t close the door on it. And I won’t. 

Mikala Jones, Apocalypse, 2012. On my first trip to Hawaii, his father, Dr. Jones, who’s a dentist, cleaned my wife’s and my teeth and didn’t charge us any money. He just said, “If Mikala ever comes to Bali, can you please look after him?” Mikala ended up moving there, and he was always chasing waves other people couldn’t find or thought were too dangerous. I like to think this photo speaks to who he was in those ways. Rest in peace. 

[Feature Image Caption: Dreamland, circa 1990s, before the locals were forced to sell their land for cheap—or simply forced to vacate.]