It’s no secret that Jakarta is a city of extremes. On a Saturday night, you can spot party people brushing past neglected street kids. Luxurious shopping malls and skyscrapers can be found side by side with kampungs . To many of its inhabitants, Jakarta is either heaven or hell, but hardly ever something in between.
The city has fascinated Belgian journalist and photographer Thibault Gregoire since he arrived in 2006. His newly published book of photographs, “One Day In Jakarta,” follows Jakartans of all ages, ethnicities and walks of life over the course of a day, from the early morning when many Muslims rise for prayer, to late at night after the most persevering clubbers crawl into bed.
A graduate of journalism studies in Brussels, Gregoire worked for 10 years as a freelance journalist in Africa and the Caribbean while also doing projects for nongovernmental and international organizations. He eventually found his way here when his Indonesian-Belgian wife relocated here for a job.
“I was first a reporter, but even back then, I would always bring my camera along,” he said. “Soon, photography became as important to me as writing.”
When Gregoire first arrived in Jakarta, he visited the usual tourist attractions. He began to explore more remote areas and often found himself talking to the locals after he learned some Indonesian. “I would take my camera every time and after two years, I had thousands of pictures,” he said. “When I would show my pictures to friends, they’d often say to me, ‘Hey, you should make a book.’ ”
As photography books on Jakarta are rare, Gregoire decided to listen to his friends’ advice. Gramedia showed great interest in his project, as did the French Cultural Center (CCF), which helped him mount an exhibition held at Galeri Antara. The exhibition not only included Gregoire’s works — Jakarta through the lens of a foreigner — but also pictures of Indonesian photographers who offered their photographic perspectives on Europe.
Gregoire’s book doesn’t need many words or explanations; the photographs tell a visual story. The time of the day is printed next to each photograph. In captions, he simply describes the picture. In some pages, he includes quotes by Jakartans on their work and daily lives and what they like and dislike about living in the Big Durian.
Gregoire manages to capture just about every aspect of this city. The photographs show trash pickers, kite-flying children, traditional markets, buskers alongside demonstrators at the Hotel Indonesia traffic circle, Buddhists praying in Chinatown and erotic dancers at popular nightclub Red Square.
“I had thousands of pictures, but only 150 pages in the book,” Gregoire said. The final selection are a mix of his favorites and those that he felt were important.
“There were photos that I absolutely wanted in the book because they were so strong,” he said. “But I had to respect the 24-hour theme of the book.”
One photo captures a young couple, pictured from behind, sitting together at Taman Menteng in Central Jakarta, a popular spot for seeking a bit of solitude in the middle of the hectic city.
Another, taken at 4 a.m., shows a durian vendor in a blue tent at Pasar Minggu sleeping on a wooden plank bed covered by a sarong.
Gregoire says he has never known any city like Jakarta. “You can walk on Jalan Thamrin one minute, then take a shortcut and suddenly stand in the middle of a kampung,” he said. “There is no real frontier and I think that’s amazing.”
He loves the fact that the capital is such a melting pot. “I don’t have one single favorite place in Jakarta,” he said. “But I always like places that are lively. That could mean around Sarinah at six in the evening, or in Mangga Besar during the night.”
He said he rarely encountered difficulty when he went around to take photos. He’d normally strike up a conversation first with his subjects to explain what he was doing. “You only need permission in some of the high-end places,” he said, laughing.
Gregoire said it was also difficult for him to single out one photo as his favorite.
“Of course, I think some are more beautiful than others,” he said. “But mostly, I prefer the ones that have a great story behind them.”
‘One Day in Jakarta’
Published by KPG