A shot in the dark

Andri Tambunan

“Fishtail Mountain From the Annapurna Sanctuary Trail, 6,993m or 22,900 ft (Nepal)” by Andri Tambunan, archival C-print, 2008.

“Fishtail Mountain From the Annapurna Sanctuary Trail, 6,993m or 22,900 ft (Nepal)” by Andri Tambunan, archival C-print, 2008.

Part of the proceeds from sold photos will aid recent natural-disaster victims in Indonesia, the Philippines and Samoa.

Beatnik Studios

723 S St.
Sacramento, CA 95811

(916) 400-4281

Some say owning a home is the American Dream, but that’s what Andri Tambunan had, and the 20-something was still unhappy. So he quit his job, cashed in his 401(k), sold his house, picked up a camera and went abroad. Originally from Indonesia—he immigrated stateside with his family to Elk Grove when he was still a young boy—he recently returned to take photographs of the beauty and struggles of life there, as well as Bali, China, Nepal and India. He’s showing these photographs in Growth, a solo show at Beatnik Studios this month.

You do documentary photography?

Basically, I want to tell a story that hasn’t been told that I think needs to be told … to educate the public, to create awareness.

[In Indonesia] there’s a sulfur mine … they have no safety equipments, and the fumes, you can’t breathe. I almost died a couple of times: I almost fell off a cliff.

How’d it smell?

Unbearable. You can’t breathe. Luckily, someone knew that I was in trouble and just grabbed me and took me to safety. There was no visibility [in the mine]. The only reason I got [some photos] is that I closed my eyes and kept shooting.

So you were shooting blind?

I was. Another thing I did in Indonesia was an HIV/AIDS epidemic thing in Papua. I read somewhere it has the highest HIV/AIDS infection rate in Asia. … There’s low, low education in terms of condom use; there’s hardly any condoms available. … And also there’s a strong taboo against condom use, and there’s polygamy and husbands that cheat on their wives. A lot of young women, I’m talking age 12, 13, 14, who are becoming prostitutes. There’s stories of children being buried alive because they have HIV/AIDS.

So how’d you find people to shoot since there was such a stigma?

I worked with Family Health International, funded by, believe it or not, the Clinton administration, and I worked with local [nongovernmental organizations] as well. I contacted them, and they were able to get me access and introduce me to who has HIV/AIDS and wants to tell their story. … What I believe sometimes is that people want their stories to be told because they don’t have a voice to do that. So I don’t think of it as me exploiting their struggle. … If people want to buy this photo, I will donate all the proceeds back to Family Health International.

What other countries have you been to?

India. I happened to be there during the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. That was a total accident.

Well, I don’t think anyone could’ve known, other than the attackers.

That’s right. I love India. That’s the first time I was in Mumbai, and I almost got killed as well, as the terrorists opened fire at a restaurant.

Why do you keep on getting almost killed?

I almost got killed five or six times on this trip. I don’t look for trouble, but trouble finds me. I may have a guardian angel. But in Mumbai, [the terrorists] started shooting at Leopold Cafe. … I was about to be at that restaurant, but my friends and I decided to go to a different restaurant because the beer was cheaper. (Laughs.)

So cheap beer saved your life?

Exactly. We had beer, but I left about 10 minutes later. I went to an Internet cafe … right across the street from Leopold Cafe, and that’s when the shooting happened. … I was one of the first photographers to arrive. … I just had my little point and shoot, so I started taking pictures with that, and after that, I rushed back to my room to grab my equipment. This was my first time shooting conflict.

How did you feel when you were shooting a dead body?

I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t feel any sadness or emotion. Just my heart pumping really hard and remember I have to document this … because I’m witness to this … I feel a duty. It’s not like I’m the bravest guy, what I did was really reckless, but sometimes you have to do it.

But you would do it again?

I would, but I would definitely pack a bulletproof vest or something, because a couple of journalists got shot. I’m lucky I wasn’t one of them.

What’s next for you then?

What I’m trying to do right now is to get my career aligned. I would love to maybe move to New York or San Francisco. I might even go abroad and live in Vietnam or somewhere in Southeast Asia.

So you’re going to have a bulletproof vest by then?

(Laughs.) I might not need it—no, I might need it. I’m not sure. We’ll see. … Hopefully I can sell a lot of photos so I can buy a bulletproof vest or a helmet or something. To tell you the truth, I don’t know where I’m going to be. … I just sold my house, mainly because I don’t want that attachment. … I’m [photographing] full time, and I don’t have much money in my bank account, but I love doing what I do.