April 1st, 2019
Introducing: Leonard Suryajaya
In the first of our new series, “Introducing,” which highlights exciting new voices in photography, Aperture speaks with a queer, Indonesian photographer who makes explosive pictures of his family.
By Cassidy Paul
For Leonard Suryajaya, feeling like an outsider was the norm. Growing up in Indonesia as a Chinese minority, Suryajaya was a Buddhist raised by a Muslim nanny and educated in Christian schools. It was when he came into his own sexuality as a queer man that he realized the weight of living in a country that suppressed his freedom of expression and condemned homosexuality, and at the age of eighteen he fled for America.
It wasn’t until 2015, a year after coming out to his mother during a trip back home, that Suryajaya began to explore the complexities of his identity in his work. Traveling to Indonesia once a year, he started photographing various members of his family and his partner, Peter, in elaborately staged scenes drawn from experiences in his youth.
The resulting images in his series Don’t Hold On to Your Bones are vibrant, humorous, dizzying, and deeply personal. In them the absurd meets the everyday—from his father seated among a sea of trophies to his mother posed as a Buddhist figure to a family outing at the beach—and each item and figure seem both at war and at peace with one another. “I relied on my camera to process,” Suryajaya explains. “Photographing my family allowed me to acknowledge my longing to settle the contradictions I experienced about myself.”
Suryajaya knew from the onset he wanted the series to be collaborative, hoping to form a new level of intimacy with his family through the act of photographing. Each frame was approached with a loose concept, allowing his family members and himself to organically create the image together in front of his 4-by-5 camera. Describing the experience on set, he notes, “Everything changes when my family enters. It becomes a bargain and promise between me and them in the end.”
One subject in particular stands out among the rest. Suryajaya’s partner, who is white, is interspersed among his family throughout the series. In one image, Peter and Suryajaya’s mother sit on the bed together, wrapped in a duvet that matches the wallpaper in the background. Their heads rest on one another and they stare lovingly into the camera, which Suryajaya stands behind, directing. “Peter’s role is fluid and complicated,” he explains. “Sometimes he is a muse, an object of desire, a matter of convenience. Other times, he is my partner, helper, supporter, collaborator. Most of the time, he is a stand-in for me.”
At the heart of Suryajaya’s work is a desire to understand the intricacies of his own complicated layers of identity, while working against the backdrop of his cultural and familial expectations. “I’m a queer immigrant to the United States who fled constant cultural and social clashes in Indonesia,” he says. “When I’m home, I feel like I am still a kid struggling to express my autonomy. Naturally, the camera is the only thing that leaves me with any sense of independence.”
Cassidy Paul is the social media editor of Aperture Foundation. All images courtesy the artist.