by Maria Luci
Running through western Indonesia, The Citarum River plays an important roll in the lives of those who live along its banks. Almost five million reside in the river’s basin, and its waters support locals through agriculture, fishing, cooking and bathing. It’s also one of the most polluted rivers in the world.
Recently, Greenpeace decided to bring attention to toxic state of the Citarum. To do so, they enlisted the help of Jakarta-based documentary photographer, Andri Tambunan. Greenpeace’s director of photography had become familiar with Andri’s work after judging and awarding Andri the Reminders Project Asian Photographers Grant. Andri is drawn to documenting social issues and layered stories; he prides himself on investing a great deal of time and effort into his photo essays, which allows him to capture “rare moments of intimacy, vulnerability and sincerity.” It was this passion and talent that made Andri the perfect photographer to take on the Citarum.
Andri received the assignment just 48 hours before he needed to ship out. With so little time to prepare, he threw himself into research and planning. Greenpeace asked for photographs that would connect the audience to those impacted by the river’s pollution. He would be spending time with families who live along the river, as well as the illegal dumping of toxic waste and the culprits behind it. Andri adds, “They wanted me to convey the importance of the Citarum River to the families and communities that depend on it for their daily needs and livelihoods.”
Once at the river, Andri spent a week with several local families, documenting their daily activities and taking portraits. He says, “Fortunately, Greenpeace had already established a great rapport with the families in those communities. Many were hospitable and showed us around. We didn’t encounter any hostility while shooting. But one of the challenges was photographing the dump sites undetected because the factories could send their enforces to rough us up, or even worse, threaten to hurt the families that helped us.” Luckily, Andri got away with his photographs undetected, his only issue coming from falling off a ladder and bruising his ribs while trying to get a higher vantage point.
Along the way he met some interesting people, including a village elder whose part time job is fishing dead bodies out of the river—”he keeps a log of all the bodies he’s recovered.” Andri also learned that 80% of the water in Jakarta, where he lives, comes from the Citarum River. “I only drink bottle water now, because boiling the water will not get rid of the metal trapped inside.” But most importantly, he captured the culprits behind the polluting, including one of the biggest and most popular clothing companies in the world, GAP Inc.
Andri’s pictures are now being used in a Greenpeace campaign to promote detoxing the river. It specifically calls out GAP Inc and has brought attention to the locals’ plight. Brands like Victoria’s Secret, Benneton Group, Zara, Mango, Esprit and Levi’s have all committed to “detoxing”, and Greenpeace hopes their campaign will convince current polluting offenders to do the same.