For the past ten years, Ed Wray has been a photographer for the Associated Press, based in several capitals in Southeast Asia, most recently as Chief photographer in Jakarta. He approaches his work with a keen eye toward transformational situations – “in between” states where people are affected by the energies that change a situation from what was to what will be. We asked him about his Monkey Town series which he photographed in Jakarta.
How and why did you start photographing the monkeys?
‘Performing monkeys are quite common on the streets of Jakarta and I hadn’t really paid much attention to them until the handlers started putting baby doll heads on their monkeys. The handlers are always looking for a new way to attract people and I hadn’t seen the baby doll heads appear until a couple of years ago.
‘The sight struck me as so completely surreal. Bizarre, but also surreal in the sense that it struck me that their was some meaning to the juxtaposition of the baby doll heads on the monkey that couldn’t be put into words. I was visually fascinated by the sight.’
How did you find the monkeys and their owners?
‘I asked around about where the monkeys came from and was told that there was a famous neighborhood where many of the monkey handlers lived. Eventually I followed one of the monkey handlers home.’
How did you develop relationships with the owners and were they open to him documenting their lives?
‘Indonesians are generally quite open and friendly and the handlers were frequently quite proud of their monkeys so it didn’t take much convincing to let me photograph them. But they were a bit wary that I would interfere with their business, which I tried not to do.’
Where were the photos taken? Is it common for people to own/train monkeys in this way?
‘Most of the pictures were taken in and around the streets of Jakarta and in a neighborhood/urban village known as Kampung Monyet (monkey village). Performing monkeys or Topeng Monyet are commonly seen on the streets and in neighborhoods, although there are not that many people who train and put on performances. At a guess I would say that in Jakarta, a city of over 10 million, they number in the hundreds.
‘In the neighborhoods the monkey handlers play traditional gamelan music to attract a crowd and then make a short performance and collect small change from the kids or their parents. It’s a cheap form of entertainment for the neighborhood kids. The handlers that work their monkeys on the streets just wait for passing pedestrians or cars to give them money.’
What are the monkey’s trained for? Why do they wear masks?
‘The monkeys are trained to perform tricks, basically mimicking human behavior which I thought was quite interesting. In Jakarta a crowd favorite is when the monkey is commanded to pray in Islamic style. They are also taught to ride small wooden motorcycles, smoke cigarettes, pull carts and numerous other tricks.
‘As for the masks, the name Topeng Monyet means literally Masked Monkey in Indonesian language and its been a tradition for a very long time. I think some of the handlers started putting baby doll masks on the heads of their monkeys because it was something novel and different from the traditional masks which come from Indonesia’s dance performance tradition.’
How did you feel when you were photographing the monkeys?
‘Mostly I was fascinated by the very creepy sight. Baby doll masks suggested to me the baby doll’s used in dozens of horror films.
‘I did feel quite sorry for the monkeys. There was a particular monkey who had recently had a baby and her handler made her and her baby stand and perform in traffic. The poor monkey was trying to wave to cars with one hand, keep her hyperactive baby from jumping into traffic with the other, all the while being jerked by a chain around her neck. I generally wouldn’t describe most of the handlers as cruel people – though this I thought was very cruel.
‘While it was mainly a visual fascination with the surreal side of the Topeng Monyet that led me to this story, I’d also like to mention that I looked at this not so much as a story about cruelty to animals, though it certainly is, but as a look at the sometimes terrible things people are forced to do in extreme poverty. It’s a very sad situation.
Did the monkeys react to the camera?
‘The monkeys are naturally quite curious but they are also, I think, in a state of high anxiety particularly when they are performing. I think that mostly they were reacting to the handler jerking on their chain. Some of them can be a bit aggressive so I was always a bit careful around them.’
How long did you work on the project?
‘I worked on the project for about six months. Some weeks, I’d come to the neighborhood a few times a week to see what was going on and to go out with a handler, and then there were some weeks when I was traveling or busy with other work and didn’t see them at all.’
Do you think Indonesian or Southeast Asian viewers would see this project differently than American viewers?
‘That’s a really interesting question and one which I tested out on a number of friends. Most Indonesian’s are quite familiar with the sight of these monkeys and thought that the pictures were either funny or just interesting. The reaction I typically got from westerners was that it was extremely creepy, and once past that initial reaction, they felt very sad for the animals.
‘Some of these pictures were posted on the web and I later saw some reaction from Indonesian’s commenting that it was a shame that many of the reactions from westerners focused on the cruelty to the monkeys without giving much thought to the terrible poverty that led the handlers to make a living in the way that they do.’
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