Documenting “The Year of Living Dangerously”

The photographic assignment for the 1999 Black Swan Theatre Festival of Perth’s stage adaptation of Christopher Koch’s novel, The Year of Living Dangerously was one of the most complex, challenging and rewarding assignments I have undertaken. The brief was to capture the photo archive of a central character in the story – Billy Kwan – a Chinese Australian achondroplastic who was living in Indonesia working as a news cameraman.  Billy Kwan was passionate about Indonesia’s poor and had documented their lives in still photographic images. I studied the novel and with director Andrew Ross and co-adapter Dickon Oxenburgh, we made a plot of images that would be projected onstage as part of Billy Kwan’s archive documenting his immersion in the lives of the wong cilik (the little people), along with his descent into mental instability. Christopher Koch’s novel is set in 1964 and 1965, so the photographs had to have a mid-sixties photography look and feel. Furthermore I needed to get inside this this deeply compassionate and disturbed character, to become his eyes. For ten days in 1998, in the final moments of reformasi, I work with the Indonesian and Australian creative team and some of the actors. We shot in Surabaya which still had many undeveloped areas which could read as Jakarta three decades earlier.

Although these images capture the extreme poverty of the area, I was struck by the elegant dignity and welcoming generosity of the residents of the city’s poorest urban kampungs.