“I can’t bear the idea of making images that will only reiterate that my subjects are simply Asians, minorities, victims, inferiors, the persecuted," says the Indonesian photographer
“Leonard Suryajaya really is the child of a transnational world,” says his nominator, Vogue Italia photo editor Chiara Bardelli Nonino. “A queer boy born of Chinese parents in conservative Indonesia, he was raised by a Muslim nanny and educated in Catholic schools, despite coming from a Buddhist household. It’s safe to say that he understood very early on the meaning of otherness.”
Growing up surrounded by oppression in a country where violent religious and ethnic clashes were commonplace and close at hand, Suryajaya was constrained by strict traditional and conservative values that condemned homosexuality. He needed to get out. He turned 18, alone, on a flight bound for the United States, leaving behind his family and his old life in Indonesia.
After finding photography in the third year of his undergraduate theatre studies at California State University, Suryajaya began to ask questions he was unable to pose back home. Using stills, installation and film, his work juxtaposes diverse cultural perspectives of identity and presents them within the scope of ‘normality’, inclusive of everyone.
“I don’t want to make photographs that socially profile my subjects,” he says. “I can’t bear the idea of making images that will only reiterate that my subjects are simply Asians, minorities, victims, inferiors, the persecuted. What good is it to me if my work only tells the viewers and reminds my subjects that they are individuals who have gone through trauma?”
The vibrant aesthetic and peculiar performances of his characters might be unsettling to some but by relying on “elements of humour, purposeful confusion and absurdity to challenge any preconceived ideas about other people”, he hopes to intrigue and encourage their questioning. “I want to entice the viewer with candy and then slap them,” he says.
Suryajaya returns to Indonesia once a year. His partner and members of his family often feature in inherently personal, staged scenes – such as in his most recent work Bunda, which translates as Mother in Indonesian. His last trip was made immediately after Donald Trump was elected as US president. He hopes to observe the impact of the new administration on individuals with complex and internationally layered identities like himself, not least because Indonesia has one of the largest Muslim populations in the world.
Suryajaya graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with an MA in Fine Art in 2015; his work has achieved recognition thus far through solo exhibitions at local institutions such as the Chicago Artists Coalition at Expo Chicago, and further afield in Indonesia. Last year he received the Robert Giard Foundation Fellowship.
“By leaving his subjects the freedom to actively participate in both this intimate exploration and in the final result of it, he allows the viewer to eventually understand that the photograph itself is merely a stage of a much more complex art process, and by no means the only important one,” says Bardelli Nonino.