The World of Indonesia’s Street KidsThe Age [Melbourne]
Monday 13 March 2000
By LINDSAY MURDOCH
The baby sits in rags among the filth, a commodity for sale. A beggar pays a little money and buys a tragic bundle to cry when cars pull up at the traffic lights.
Sixteen-year-old Agung, who took the picture, knows the scam; he’s also from the streets of Jakarta. Misery is everywhere here, seen through street kids’ eyes as part of a unique project, called A Child’s Eye, to record what the United Nations Children’s Fund warns could be the loss of an entire generation of children.
"About one third of children under five years old, or almost eight million children, are malnourished," says Stephen Woodhouse, the fund’s representative in Jakarta, referring to the impact of the 1997 collapse of Indonesia’s economy.
Indonesia’s Government estimates 17 million families do not have enough to eat in the world’s fourth-most-populous nation despite its rich natural resources.
The number of people begging in Jakarta’s streets has soared. Suffering the greatest setback of any country in South-East Asia, there are 20 million newly poor Indonesians - those earning less than $1 a day.
According to estimates by the International Labor Organisation, almost two thirds of Indonesia’s 210 million people are now living below the poverty line, a reversal that the World Bank has described as "the most dramatic economic collapse anywhere in 50 years'’.
In other photographs for A Child’s Eye, children scavenge for food in a mountain of trash, their skin black, scarves barely keeping out the stench. Sometimes bulldozers push more trash down the slope, burying those who are too slow to react.
"We were at work and the bulldozers came. Not everyone managed to escape," reads a caption under a photograph taken by an 11-year-old girl, Tariah.
British photojournalist Jonathan Perugia, who launched the A Child’s Eye project when he handed out cameras to 30 street children, says about 150 photographs they produced were amazing.
"They shot in a way no professional photographer could," he says. "They had the access. They saw people who were suffering the same as them."
The images are often intimate, sometimes shocking.
Glue-sniffing boys lie stunned on pavements. "Still some left," reads a caption under a photograph taken by Andre, 16.
A deformed boy walks on his hands and knees through motorbikes, a cap askew on his head. "This is a crippled man with his imperfect body begging for money to buy one spoonful of rice," says the photographer, Agung. "He has been abandoned by his family."
Agung himself was abandoned by his parents when he was nine. Now he sings and plays the guitar at intersections, one of thousands.
A tiny girl stares at passing vehicles under an expressway; maybe somebody will stop. She will then start to sing, hoping the driver will hand over a few rupiah.
These are images of life: mostly bad times, but sometimes there is fun. Two girls in a children’s shelter share a mirror and put on lipstick.
Winah, 12, snapped a skinny girl sitting on the shoulders of her blind, squatting mother.
Karmin, 13, snapped a child taking a bath in a polluted canal and another of two children among the rubbish, eating leftovers.
Ucil, 16, took a picture of a street transvestite, his best friend. "I like teasing her when she spots me on the street,’ he says. "She would immediately call me. We’ve got a lot in common . . . we sing for money on the street."
Supri, 17, snapped two boys holding each other. "This picture shows friendship . . . hugging is not only for a dating couple," he says. "These two kids were just hugging like brothers. Together they always walk from one dark alley to another, which is always full of rats running around. They are like people with no money or job."
Perugia, 33, says that through workshops supported by university, local photographer and non-government-organisation networks, street children were shown how to use simple pocket cameras.
"I told them this is your chance to tell your story," he says. "They took to the idea with extraordinary enthusiasm . . . they were honest and forthright in what they saw."
Perugia says the aim of the project was to raise the children’s self-esteem, help them climb out of the poverty trap and heighten public awareness of the suffering.
A Child’s Eye is a non-profit organisation dedicated to supporting children’s arts, education and welfare, which was founded last year by Guruh Sukarno Putra, the brother of Indonesia’s Vice-President, Megawati Sukarnoputri, and a leading Jakarta charity worker, Choki Rezia.
Only one camera went missing. "I think even that was genuinely lost," Perugia says.
The photographs have won wide praise after being put on display at the National Gallery in Jakarta and in Bali.
Perugia hopes to display them in Sydney during the Olympic Games. He also plans to copy the project in the East Timorese capital, Dili, where he has worked as a photographer and says he has seen increasing suffering among children.
UNICEF’s Stephen Woodhouse says the street children are resilient. "But there are now more than six million Indonesian children who are not even completing junior school," he says. "We are seeing the emergence of a lost generation. . .malnutrition in early childhood is robbing these children of mental and physical capacity to compete in the marketplace." Agung says he is proud to be a street kid. "But one day I would like to be a photographer," he says.