Aboard a Pelni ship An Olaf Willoughby interview with Carl Valiquet

This month’s Olaf Willoughby interview is with Carl Valiquet, a photographer who chanced upon his project whilst observing how the ship on which he was travelling became a metaphor for it’s own journey amongst the Indonesian islands.

To start can you give me an overview of your project, its title & what is its main theme?

I came upon this project, “Pelni* passengers” quite by accident. I have taken a couple of trips on a Pelni passenger ship. On both trips I booked a 1st class cabin. The cabin has two single beds, a fan, air conditioning, a table, a toilet and a wardrobe to hang clothes. 3 meals a day are included in the price of the ticket.

When I left the harbour of Surabaya, the ship was almost empty but at every port of call, more and more passengers, carrying, what it seemed as their whole life belongings, embarked. It wasn’t long before the only porthole of my cabin was soon covered by boxes and suitcases belonging to the passengers who had set up camp on the passageway on the outside.
On the third morning I opened my door to go for breakfast and had to skip over sleeping passengers that were now crowding the 1st class corridor. People slept everywhere. Some woman had set up mini markets on the different decks. The men played cards and the children ran between the passengers.

The ship had become a microcosm of the Country of Indonesia, populated by many people of different Islands, speaking different dialects and it was this metaphor that sparked my idea to document the trip.

*Pelni is the national shipping company of Indonesia. Currently Pelni operates 26 ships; 23 of these are passenger ships that serve a variety of routes and connect the main islands of Indonesia from Sumatra to Papua. (Wiki)

And how does that theme develop as a story throughout the project?

The people turn the ship into a living organism that reproduces their hometown. The signs warning the passengers not to sleep on the decks or in the first class hallways are ignored. No one complains. Indonesians are very forgiving.

With the M9 and a 28mm Summicron lens attached, I walked from group to group, sometimes taking overall views, other times taking group and individual portraits. My goal was to give an idea of the cultural differences in personal space, how Indonesians easily live together in small quarters, sharing space with their neighbours.

Is the project purely for yourself or do you have a commercial or cause related end in mind?

Currently this project is purely for myself. Indonesia is a Country of Islands. The Pelni ships travel to the most important ones. All the way from Banda Aceh on the far west of Sumatra to Marauke on the Island of Papua. I took these images 3 years ago and have lived in Indonesia since then. Now that I am more fluent in the language and more aware of the culture, I am going to repeat the journey shooting more in a reportage style.

What photographic choices have you made; colour palette, composition, use of flash….etc. 

I had just bought the Leica M9 and was getting used to it. In the past I used an M6 loaded with black and white film. For this project I wanted to shoot b&w, so I set the M9 to .JPG black & white. As I looked at the image on the rear screen, I saw the photographs in B&W. It gave me the illusion of having an M6 with an instant read out. I did some images in color .dng and thought I would change the colors to b&w. But later I decided to give myself no option but to shoot in black and white.

When I reshoot I’ll use Raw + B&W .jpg. Experience has taught me the M9 full color Raw image transforms better into black and white. The raw (dng) file has more information and tonal values than the compressed b&w jpg. My dream would be to continue this project using a Leica Monochrom.

I did not use flash. I shot at 400 asa. This way the noise usually produced at this ASA rating on the M9 looks more like film grain.

I made these images contrasty and dark because in my opinion this treatment suits itself to the subject matter. The whiteness of the ship’s walls, the high contrast of the light produced by the open sea and sun, the groups of people taking refuge in the shade of the stairs.

What is your vision for the project and how will you judge if you’ve been successful?

In all honesty I must say that I feel the reportage is incomplete. I would love to return and approach my subjects in a less hurried manner. At the time I felt shy to walk between the groups of people, without speaking to them (except using body language) as my Indonesian was very poor. I took these photographs in bursts of 10 or 15 minutes, retiring to my cabin to catch my breath and raise enough energy to go out and encounter the people once more. Three years ago I felt very much like a stranger in Indonesia. This is not the case any more.

Did any particular person or body of work influence or inspire you?

When I was a working as an advertising photographer in Montreal, Canada I was inspired by the works of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon for my commercial work. When I went out travelling, Robert Frank’s images motivated me. Since the ‘90’s, I am inspired by Sebastiao Salgado.

I shot a documentary in Indonesia and the first place I went to was Ijen Volcano in East Java to film the sulphur carriers. Mr. Salgado’s images of Ijen inspired me greatly. Here is a link to a 30 minute documentary titled ‘Day In. Day Out’. This short film is a montage of still and moving images that depict the laborious struggle of workers living on different islands of Indonesia.

Not all projects are smooth sailing. Have you had any setbacks and what were your learnings?

For a project photographed on a ship, I can say with a smile that the project was smooth sailing. I learned that there is more than meets the eye on these crowded ships and in writing this interview for the Leica Blog I became aware that of that depth and the further opportunities.

About Carl Valiquet:

In the year 1963, I developed my first images in a darkroom snuggled in a church basement in Montreal West. I was 18 years old and was instantly hooked by the medium. I opened my first studio in 1970 and worked as an advertising photographer in Montreal for more than 35 years. I’ve always ways tried to travel and create personal work while making a living as a commercial photographer. I became a member of the Leica meet about a year ago and find it a stimulating source of creative seeing.

To know more about Carl Valiquet, please visit his official website.

About Olaf Willoughby:

Olaf Willoughby is a photographer, writer and researcher. He is co-founder of The Leica Meet, a Facebook page and website growing at warp speed to over 10,000 members. In 2016, Olaf has co-taught numerous workshops including ‘Visual Conversations’, a creative photography workshop with Eileen McCarney Muldoon at Maine Media College in Rockport as well as being exhibited in both London and New York.

If you have an intriguing project or body of work that we might feature, completed or in progress, contact Olaf at: olaffwilloughby@gmail.com or www.olafwilloughby.com  

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2 comments

  • Thank you, very enjoyable and informative about an area sea transport that doesn’t generate much coverage! Thank you MR WILLOUGHBY for encouraging all the photographers that you feature.

  • Hi, thanks for wonderful pictures, it looks familiar to me, and I enjoyed them all. I think the title should have been PELNI instead of PEINI, although the text refers to Pelni. PELNI stands for PELAYARAN NASIONAL INDONESIA, and Carl has accurately explained about this national shipping company. Thanks Carl for bringing up pictures on Indonesia to the world, thanks Olaf for the interview. BTW, I could not even dream of owning a M9, I am now happy enough to afford a C112, at least for now.

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