Words & Photographs by Deanna Ng, interviews by Irfan Kortschak.
Last year, while shooting in Indonesia for a Micro-Financing project, I had to go to my client’s office, which was located in Bank Indonesia. Bank Indonesia is the regulating body for all the banks in Indonesia. It was 6.30am in the morning and I had to run in to sign a document before heading out to the villages to shoot.
A photographer’s outfit is carefully thought out for the sake of functionality. Since I was going to be out in the rural areas, I had the good sense to wear:
- Three quarter pants so that my bottom of my pants won’t get dirty on the dusty roads. Laundry is a bitch when you’re on the move that you can’t get it dry in time.
- Trekking shoes – Brown so that if it gets dirty, you can’t tell.
- Dri-fit t-shirt – I sweat like a pig. Not kidding.
But Client forgot to tell me that there’s a STRICT dress code at Bank Indonesia, even at 6.30am in the morning. Office Wear only. I was stopped by the security, of course. The security guard called my client’s office and thankfully, the person that I was meeting managed to convince the security that I was not a Hobo and will just be in and out of the office. Nobody will see me in my rags.
I understand the security guards’ position. Bank Indonesia is an important organization in Indonesia. It has a certain image to upkeep as the top financial institution in the country.
But it got me thinking too. I was told that most of the Micro-financing institutions cater to the clients for the exact same reason. They can’t afford to dress well to walk into a big commercial bank. Most of them wear flip-flops in their villages and sometimes, that pair of flip flops is all they have. I know it’s hard to imagine but for the brief moment, when the security guard turned me away despite my pleas that I was legit and when I asked him to verify my claim by calling my client, I wondered how the villagers feel when they try to step into a swanky bank and get turned away.
Micro-financing in Indonesia is a big business. Most of us are familiar with the Grameen Banking System, created by Nobel Prize Winner Professor Muhammad Yunus from Bangladesh. Images of poor village women in Grameen group, who take loan amounts of 1 million rupiahs (USD$110), comes to mind. On the other side of the scale, we also see larger loans amounts of 100- 300 million rupiahs, which are normally approved by managers or commissioners, falling under the category of the Micro-Financing in Indonesia.
However. Due to the sheer size of Indonesia’s population of more than 235 million and the huge number of more than 40 million Micro and Small Enterprises (MSEs), the lack of access to capital and financial services remains a major constraint for many Indonesian households and enterprises. It’s also hard to define Micro-Financing in one word in Indonesia. Different MF systems are designed to catered for the different needs of the Indonesians in different areas of the country.
On the other hand, I‘m in awe of the stories of the women who working in Micro-Financing. There’s always a sense of community and social responsibility that humbles me. They have a saying in Indonesia that money kept in a mother’s sarong is more secure than a dad. A mother will spend it on the family whereas the father will spend it on himself. A Sarong is a piece of cloth that is wrapped around the waist by both men and women and worn as a bottom in some parts of South East Asia. Ok, I know it’s stereotyping the men as bums. I can’t help but think about all the men that I’ve seen hanging out at the Warongs (Street Food stalls) in the middle of the day.
I don’t know about the Westerner’s perception of Asian Women. Perhaps the readers of this article can drop me an email ([email protected]) on their perception. Growing up in Singapore, which is a patriarchal society, I’ve always known that in the women holds the power in the house, even though it’s a man’s world. What really surprised me was to learn from my German client that she thought my pictures made the Indonesian Women look empowered, particularly, the Muslim women. Maybe it’s the negative press that Muslims have received post 9/11.
To be honest, it has never occurred to me that they were disempowered. In Japanese households, the wives control the purse strings at home. A few Thai Friends that I knew are what I call “Chili Padis”. Tiny, red, hot chillis that burn your tongue. Similar to these chillis, the ladies to me are small and demure but feisty as hell.
Some of the women that I’ve met on this project are among the most empowered that I’ve met. There’s no denying that some of these women are working because they want to help out with the household finances. What really surprised me was the fact that their husbands are the ones who are supporting and encouraging them to further themselves in their professional life. Before you dismiss what I’m saying as feminist propaganda, let’s call a spade a spade. It’s not uncommon in Singapore that women are the ones, who have to give up their careers for their families.
In the villages, you’ll find field staff, who are committed to community service, even though it doesn’t pay well. At the highest level of the hierarchy, there are women directors and commissioners who advocates for the poor. At the client level, hardworking and strong women ,who are making the best of their situations to provide for a family.
It’s hard to imagine that a loan of USD$100 can make a difference in someone’s life. Something, that is so basic in their lives as a sarong that clothes them or tempeh that many of the poor eat as a substitute for protein, depends on it. I’ve struggled with the edit of this series of pictures for a very long time. A part of me really wanted to focus on the women that are involved in Micro-Financing but at the same time, I think Micro-Financing is not just about the women. It’s really a means of making a living when you have nothing to your name.
Please find more photographs on Deanna Ng website.