It was destiny for photographer Edward Suhadi, when he met Anies Baswedan during a TEDxJakarta event in 2010.
On that fateful day, Anies talked about a project he initiated in 2008, Indonesia Mengajar (Indonesia Teach), which sends Indonesia’s best university graduates to teach elementary school students in remote areas for a year. The young teachers are stripped of their city comforts, living in villages with minimum electricity (sometimes none) and a limited supply of water.
Touched by the intention behind the program, Edward introduced himself to Anies. The following year, he took a sabbatical leave to visit young teachers at South Halmahera in North Maluku, a three-hour flight and 12-hour boat trip from Jakarta.
“As a big city guy, to [take] pictures where there’s hardly electricity, I had to sleep on the floor, and when a goat came in to my room, it was quite a life-changing experience,” Edward said.
Edward had his first solo photography exhibition “Lagu Baru” (“New Song”) at Forme Gallery in Wijaya, South Jakarta, last weekend. It featured more than 50 photos that he took during his stay in Halmahera.
“Indonesians see the same old crime and disappointments everyday, corruption, violence and discrimination, all the same old songs,” he said, explaining that he called it “Lagu Baru” because he thinks Indonesia Mengajar represents change.
Edward followed the life of young teachers and their students in South Halmahera, from the classroom to the outdoor playground, and captured their daily lives with his camera.
Being both a wedding and pet photographer, Edward has proven himself to be a good communicator, putting children at ease in front of a camera.
Indonesia Mengajar covers five remote areas in Indonesia, from Riau and East Kalimantan to Halmahera. Through the program, two batches of young teachers are sent off every year. Teachers who aspire to participate must apply to the organization themselves.
About 50 selected teachers are given seven weeks of training on leadership and teaching skills. As part of the preparation, they are also sent to a mountain in Bogor with only basic survival tools for three days so that they can get a taste of remote life before they depart.
On Monday, Indonesia Mengajar sent its fifth batch.
Organizations including the University of Indonesia and Bandung Institute of Technology have replicated the concept and formed their own projects. As the head of Indonesia Mengajar, Anies said he did not mind that the new projects had emerged separately from his own.
“We don’t want to be a big organization because we want to focus on action more than management,” he said.
Rahmat Danu Andika, one of the young teachers who met Edward in Halmahera, said that living in such a faraway place requires mental preparation, as these villages don’t have the rhythm of busy cities.
“It’s not only about the lack of facilities. These villages also get really quiet after dark,” he said. “It takes a while to get used to it.”
Rahmat said it was amazing how well Edward fitted into the community. The first afternoon he arrived, Edward said he had already connected with the children and introduced them to his camera.
“Most of them had never seen that kind of equipment before,” he said.
Edward created a short documentary to bring his images alive. Excerpts from the film are available on YouTube (search for his name to find it).
Anies, who opened “Lagu Baru” on Friday, said the event was beyond a photography exhibition as it was the result of Edward donating time and skill to the project, the same way young teachers devote a year of their life to teach children.
“It is a concrete visual for Indonesians to see a different side of their country,” Anies said. “This is proof of how education succeeds and how Edward succeeded in using his own educational background.”
“Lagu Baru” held an open auction on Monday, led by career coach and TEDxJakarta speaker Rene Suhardono, with all profits going to Indonesia Mengajar.
Anies praised Edward for his initiative, adding that organizing an exhibition was not something the group planned to do, but instead it evolved naturally.
“Sincerity is contagious, and Edward did this because he found out about what we do and then asked himself what he could do,” Anies said. “I hope people who came to the exhibition will also ask themselves what they can do next.”