Binsar’s Story: A Photographer in Aceh
By Nursafri, Sophie Boudre, and Wayne Sharpe
(December 23, 2005)
His body is relatively small, but his working spirit is extraordinary. His camera is always with him wherever he goes. That’s Binsar Bakkara, a photographer from Associated Press who moved to Aceh to learn photojournalism before the tsunami changed life in that Indonesian province forever.
The Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of one year ago devastated coastal regions of several countries, but they were most brutal in Aceh, the northernmost province of Sumatra, Indonesia. Approximately 180,000 people were killed in Aceh province, buildings along hundreds of kilometers of coastline were destroyed, and 500,000 people were made homeless. Many journalists lost their lives as well, and those who survived, like Binsar, a news photographer from the neighboring province of North Sumatra, were tasked with showing the world the aftermath of the tragedy.
Binsar Bakkara spent his childhood minding his family’s cattle and traveling one hour by canoe to his elementary school each day. When he grew up he moved from his village to the city of Medan to major in Communications at the University of North Sumatra. Binsar spent his spare time climbing mountains with other campus nature lovers and dabbling in journalism. He started his journalism career while studying at the university by sending articles to print media in Jakarta, mostly about his climbing trips. After finishing his studies, Binsar was determined to become a photojournalist.
Knowing that journalists, especially photojournalists, must go to where the news is happening, Binsar moved to Aceh in July of 2003. Aceh has never been an easy place to be a journalist. The Free Aceh Movement (known as GAM in Indonesia) fought to separate Aceh from Indonesia for 30 years, until a tentative peace agreement was signed in August 2005. Together, the Free Aceh Movement and the Indonesian national army were responsible for 12,000 deaths. Journalists with the courage to report on this conflict could never be sure if it was the rebels or the army that was trying to kill them when their vehicles were strafed with bullets. Binsar quickly found work as a stringer for Associated Press.
When the tsunami struck, Binsar was having a holiday break in his hometown in North Sumatra. One day after the tsunami he hurried back to Banda Aceh, to find that all of his camera equipment and photographs were swept away by the waves. “Everything’s out of our control, no human being could be able to imagine what happened that day,” was all that he could say about his first day back in Banda Aceh.
Binsar was grateful to be alive, but frustrated to be a journalist in the midst of the story of his lifetime, but without his own cameras with which to work. This all changed when Binsar met the Aceh staff of Internews and one of the founding members of the VII photo agency, John Stanmeyer. VII is a leading photojournalism agency created by seven of the world’s leading news photographers. John Stanmeyer works for the Paris-based agency from his base on the island of Bali, where he runs workshops for photojournalists from around the world. Inspired by his experience photographing the aftermath of the tsunami, John contacted Internews to offer a free spot in his next training course to an Acehnese journalist, if Internews could pay the journalist’s travel and lodging. Internews knew of Binsar and his predicament, and invited Binsar to send what photos he could to John to see if his skills would match with other professionals from Hong Kong and New York who would attend the workshop. John saw great potential in Binsar, and Internews flew him to Bali for the two week intensive seminar.
According to Stanmeyer, not only did Binsar hold his own in the class, he was the star. “He had a difficult start but with solid pushing…he pulled off a brilliant story (about cultural diversity in Bali) that drew huge cheers during the final night’s projects,” Stanmeyer said. After hearing that Binsar lost all of his camera equipment in the tsunami, and while watching Binsar work during a temple ceremony, a photographer from New York pulled John aside one night. He said, “This guy from Aceh, Binsar, really has talent. I watched him work with his camera today and realized he’s got tremendous talent and potential.”
The photographer then handed John a Canon D10 with motorwinder, which John presented to Binsar in Aceh after the workshop.
Stanmeyer feels Binsar stood out in his course because he is exceptionally passionate and so wants to learn more about visual communication. “His experience with Associated Press has been excellent,” John said, “but because Indonesia doesn’t have a broad country infrastructure to teach photojournalism, it was obvious Binsar needed and therefore gained much by being able to attend the workshop in Bali.”
Binsar says he never wept for losing his possessions in the tsunami because thousands of Acehnese lost so much more, including entire families. He says he does find sadness, however, while covering the aftermath of the tsunami in the field. Among photojournalists in Aceh, Binsar is known as “BinSky”, but nobody knows who started that name, and Binsar will not comment on it. Many of his photos have the sky as background; maybe that is why the others call him BinSky.
“I don’t have special dreams of what to become after this,” explained Binsar. “I just want to master photojournalism, not only as personal satisfaction, but also it is my pride to be able to explain facts to the public through photographs.”
When asked why he always keeps his camera with him (even when he sleeps), Binsar shares his most important and hard learned lesson.
“Moments can happen at any time, and no one can predict….”
Nursafri is a radio journalist and former editor with Internews’ daily radio program Peuneugah Aceh, a daily roundup of Rehabilitation and Reconstruction news relayed by 30 radio stations throughout Aceh.
Sophie Boudre was Internews’ Humantarian Training Advisor for Aceh for most of 2005.
Wayne Sharpe is the Director of Internews in Indonesia.