Roman Eyes, Indonesian Heart: Interview with Stefano Romano, Author of “Kampungku Indonesia”

Is it possible to feel a land as our own homeland, without being one? For Stefano Romano, a photographer based in Rome, Italy, the answer is “yes” if the land is Indonesia. That’s the first sentence he wrote in the Preface to his first photo-book to be published in Indonesia by Penerbit Mizan in July 2016, titled Kampungku Indonesia (My Own Private Indonesia).

Stefano started working as a photographer in 2009 with migrant communities from Bangladesh in Rome. Since then he never stopped taking pictures, getting in touch with other foreign communities, especially of Southeast Asia and
other, which are united by the fact that they are countries with muslim majority population. From that moment he became interested to learn about Islam which coincided with the deepening of his photographer's work.

His interest is specifically triggered by his observations as a photographer when shooting a woman in hijab. According to Stefano, the face of veiled women emitting special, unique light, and he wants the light for himself. After studying Islam for approximately two years, Stefano decided to become a muslim in 2010, then married a muslim women from Indonesia. Therefore in articles about Stefano, he is often referred to as "a photographer who discovered Islam through the lens of camera."

On this occasion, we talked with Stefano about his works and his experience as a photographer as well as his views and expectations with the publication of his first book in Indonesia.  

What is the most interesting experience you have had in photographing migrant communities in Rome for years? 

Every communities have their own interesting side. I started with Bangladesh community in 2009. Now I follow almost all Asian, Middle Eastern and South America communities here in Rome. I could tell for hours about interesting stories or events happened in all this long time. In fact I also teach about it.

I'm attracted by faith, to see how different cultures feel the faith and the prayers of believers, like in a beautiful photo-book by Monika Bulaj, Genti di Dio (People of God). I always say to my students that being a photographer does not make us rich in money.  But the richness that come to us from knowing all people and their traditions is invaluable.

King of Hearts (Thailand), 2015
Anyway to answer this first question, in recent time, I was really touched to see how Thailand people are loved and love their King so much. I was to take photo of  a big event "King of Hearts" to celebrate birthday of the King and when a screen in front of hundreds of people show the life and work of the King, I saw all people started cry. It was really touching.

I like also all events that are not so easy to find in Rome like traditional wedding, funeral ceremonies, and the likes. Events that are closed only to parents but I was lucky to attend because they know me and feel me as part of them.

How did you prepare to enter into a new communities, how do you usually get access for the first time?

Depends on how close I am to that culture, usually I search information before, studied their culture, but nothing is better than to talk and see the people and the community directly. Because you can learn about a rite or history of a country, but then there is adaptation of a people to the land that hosts them. This is for me one of the most important point and source of inspiration: how tradition and adaptation getting mixed.

Like when I was in Bantul, Yogyakarta, and I visited the Ganjuran Church: an amazing mix of ancient Hindu tradition with Christian contamination. Well, some foreigner communities in Rome must do the same, melting their tradition, saving the soul and adapting to new land, a never-ending challenge. And this is never written in a book: you just have to see and live on your skin immersed with them. Camera is only the last part of all this topic. You can’t take a good photo of a foreigner community if you don’t experience this. 

You said that photography is your personal way to fight prejudices, how is it done and what kind of prejudice you usually find between communities?

This is good question, because prejudices are not only from Italian to foreigners but also among foreigners communities themselves. And I think this is more terrible than prejudices from Italian; we already know in Italy there are some racists, for political interest or just for ignorance.

But when I feel prejudices come from a community for another it makes me really angry: who could say they are the best or the better? All people come here  to work, to suffer, to make money to send home for the better life of family in original lands, so why should one against another? 

However, the problem of prejudices does not belong to a race, or a country, but comes from ignorance of individual people. So our duty is to always fight every prejudices, in any way we can, by photo, articles, words, seminar, caress. Everything to make our world better.

In Italy the biggest prejudices are against Islam and Romanian, the Gypsy people. Me also, when I started taking photos, I have the same prejudices. But we must always be cruel to our prejudices, because if we have prejudices it will show up in our photos.

I become a muslim precisely because I want to learn more to fight prejudices, and one of the biggest is about hijab. Almost all people in Italy think that muslimah wear hijab because they are forced by husband or family. But when I started to take portrait of muslimah in Rome I asked them the meaning and reason they wear hijab, and I find another truth, totally different.

So I  become unrestrainably taking portraits of muslim women in Italy, just to share how it was totally wrong. A muslim woman wear hijab on her own discretion as sign of faith, as protection and also like a sign of beauty. This research bring me close to Indonesian community in Rome, met my wife and become muallaf after 2 years of studies.

Now I collaborate with the Islamic Cultural Center of Grand Mosque of Rome, because they trust my way and my vision. And as a journalist, I tell about Islamic events and rituals in order to fight this prejudices. But, after what happened in Brussels and Paris, we make a lot of steps back after progress of last ten years. Now all become difficult again for muslim in Italy.

Maryam of Romania
About Romanian people, they are a poor community in Italy. So sometimes some of them doing bad and easily become thieves. There are a lot of people that hate them. So the only way is to find some stories to say that not all Gypsy are bad. Again it is a question of hearts, not of skins.

Stefano visited Indonesia in 2010-2011 and in 2014, coincides with Ramadan, Eid, and the week of Indonesian Independence Day. In both visits, Stefano captured many moments from his perspective as an Italian man who saw the lives of Indonesian people and the muslims here. At the same time Stefano shared his knowledge in several events of photography workshops with communities in Jakarta and Yogyakarta. A selection of photos from these visit that is now presented in his photo-book, along with an interesting story behind the portraits.

This year Stefano will return to Indonesia from July 4 to 28 September 2016 and will use part of his time for book-launch events, doing some photography workshop in Jakarta, Bandung and Surabaya. The following conversation is about the publication his book of Indonesian which was his dream for a long time.

What do you like most from the book?

I like so much the long adventure to make this book. I still remember emails we sent day by day choosing photos with crew of Mizan. It was really hard and the time was really short, but every time I touch the book I remember that moments. Then it’s really a good book, with high quality paper, the colors are really good, and I use really strong color with a lot of saturation, so the printer make a good work.

This is from the material side, but sure what I like most is that this book realized my dreams. In Italy I have published a lot of photos in magazines, newspaper, websites, calendars and as illustration for other books, but tt's so strange that my first photo-book is published in Indonesia. It seems to be linked to destiny, as I wrote in the introduction of the book: I feel to have Indonesian blood in my veins and was an Indonesian in my past life. When my Indonesian photographer friends look at my photos they always say that it seems  like I am an Indonesian, I show the real Indonesian life. For me this is a big compliments, and when I see the pages of the book I always try to see with eyes of Indonesian if it is liked or not, if it feels like intimate or not.

What is your expectation with the publication?

My expectation above all is that all readers can feel from my photos my deep love to Indonesia, not as places or landscapes, but  most of all my love for the people, especially the people of kampung to whom I dedicated this book. Every day in Rome I miss Indonesia, I miss to walk in kampung and take photos of them. And I’m so worried that modern Jakarta would delete this kind of life, so I try with my book to show what all Indonesian already knows, but that I hope will never be forgotten, because for me this is the soul of Indonesia. I cannot imagine a future in Jakarta with only all big malls or skyscrapers. So this book is a gift from my heart to all Indonesian to love and protect always the simple life of its people

What is your plan for the next book?

In my next book I hope I will cover other parts of Indonesia, because Kampungku Indonesia only cover some parts of Jawa, but we called "Indonesia" because it’s a metaphor about the people who come from all other cities in Indonesia. One day I would like to see all kampung and visit other islands. It's not easy and expensive, but let's see how this book will go.

During my holiday in the coming months, I want to focus, as told before, about changes of life, how modernity attack traditions. Try to be a witness of changes, like what Scott Merrillees did with his beautiful trilogy books about old architecture and places in Jakarta. Because our present is always melted with our past: forgetting the past means to build an empty future. Dedicated with all my love to people of kampung.***


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