Creating a Bali Photo Tour – Behind the Scenes, Part 2

 

In Part 2 of this critically acclaimed series (hey, my Mom likes it!) we take you back to Bali to the east side for a gorgeous rice terrace trek & shoot. Hijinks ensue when we crash a Bali Aga wedding reception filled with charming young ladies, and conclude with a hidden gem rice terrace and volcano landscape. To read Part 1 first, here you go!

Since some of you won’t, I’ll include some more personal backstory before we dive into the things mentioned above. There is a little overlap, but told in a different way. Here goes.

I first traveled to Indonesia in 2002 (Jakarta, Bali, Lombok) in July / August. I was still on the freelancer’s road from a gig in India with Samsara Films, shooting stills for the Maha Kumbh Mela in January 2001. The purpose of the trip was two-fold: to photograph the Gus Dur street protests in Jakarta (beside the living legend himself, James Nachtwey, as it turned out) and to look for land to buy on Bali. Bali photo tours had not yet entered my consciousness.

It was quiet then on Bali, believe it or not. This was still a couple of months before the tragic bombing at the Sari bar, a place I enjoyed hanging out in to knock back a Jungle Juice or two when stuck in Kuta. But it was still quiet, the result of the Asian economic crisis and its hangover. The Indonesian Rupiah had collapsed from 4500 to 12, 500 against the USD, and everything was amazingly cheap. So you’d think the place would be packed, but it wasn’t. It was nice. After the attack it dropped off a cliff. My Bali friends were very upset and worried for the future. Average monthly salaries for hotel and restaurant workers in Ubud were $40 USD per month. (Today they are north of $200).

Brilliant Balinese photographer and great character – Dukun Jawa. Photo: Benn Stevens

To say Bali has recovered over the last two decades would be a gross understatement. The quiet streets of Ubud are now packed with tourist hordes, and the place is gushing with cash & traffic. Ubud, the town itself anyway, has been tarnished by over tourism. Many Balinese agree with me, even though many wouldn’t have it any other way.

This is a long and winding way to come to the point – that major tourist sites like Tanah Lot are so packed in primetime as to make them not worth visiting on a Hidden Bali photo tour. The challenge with Bali is designing an itinerary that avoids the tourist hordes, gets off the beaten path and into the true heart of the island culture, while at the same time finding ways to photograph at least some of its iconic locations in compelling ways.

For most Bali photo tours, or “would be” photo tours, the tourist challenge is enough to scare them off. That’s why you don’t see the ‘big boys’ here. For Luminous Journeys, we saw not only the challenge, but the opportunity to fill the vacuum. A place this beautiful and culturally rich deserves to be photographed with reverence & grace, not with I-phones at packed tourist sites & events.

And this is precisely the kind of otherwise unobtainable photo tour opportunity we intended at the outset to bring to our guests. This was essential to David Lazar’s vision, and one of the reasons he and LJ are such a good match. We are rip-roaringly passionate about delivering the highest quality photography adventures possible. This has been true in Myanmar where we began almost a decade ago, continued with Bali, and to be horn-tootingly obvious, everywhere else we have established photo tour workshops!

Oh by the way, I found that land I was looking for back in 2002. It was a quiet place, 3 acres on the north side near the top of a ridge with 300 degree views over the Java Sea and its active volcanoes. It and its fruit and coffee trees were glorious! And dirt cheap to boot. But not dirt cheap enough. My financing fell through. I was crestfallen. But I’m back now. Looking for a new quiet place. A much more expensive, new quiet place.
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Tenganan is a well known, picturesque rice terrace area with Mt. Agung volcano serving as dramatic backdrop were tailor made for our Bali photo tour. Known or not, it receives few visitors, at least in the off season when we run the trip.

Entering the terrace area with the sea at our backs to the south and Agung on our right to the east, we passed through a small village and onto the rim of what amounts to a single deep gorge partially divided by three large headlands. The trek is easy going along the rim and small canal that irrigates the rice paddies below. Easy unless you want to venture down the terraces, which can be tricky. It’s steep and many of the berms are thin. One needs to choose a route carefully and be pretty good at walking a ‘balance beam’. The farmers here, even ones in their 70’s, do it with ease!

Once down in the achingly beautiful terraces with the sound of numerous little waterfalls fed into the paddies from bamboo pipes, the feeling is one of peace and tranquility enough to consider a career change. Landscape ops abound along the rim however, so there is no reel need make a descent. With a decent zoom you can add workers into your frame without having to climb down to get close. There will be plenty of up close and personal opportunities in the rice fields later in the photo tour at Pupuan, where it isn’t so steep.

About halfway in, Bali photo tour leader David Lazar and I asked our brilliant guide, Pande Sura, to go back to the SUV and pick us up round at the other entrance/exit, as only makes sense if the group is to make the full trek. From start to finish, including photography, the trek takes about 90 minutes, finishing off with by crossing a bamboo bridge over the river that feeds the canal that feeds the bamboo pipes that feed the rice.

On the other side of the Tenganan rice terraces, about a 30-minute drive, are the last remaining villages of Bali’s original inhabitants, the Bali Aga. The main village is definitely a tourist stop, but again little visited in the off season and certainly worthy of a visit, especially for photographers.

Bali Aga in ceremonial dress

Lazar found several interesting exterior sets among the ancient temples, and the interior/exteriors of the houses, most of which double as ‘shops’, offer a fantastic array of rich backgrounds for ambitious low-light portraitists. Since the Bali Aga these days don’t normally walk around in their traditional finery, we knew to make the most of it we’d need to hire some local models to spend some time with us, the shoots to be arranged of course by David and his Bali sidekick, Indonesian master Rarindra Prakarsa. Pande found us a gentlemen whose teenagers just happened to fit the bill, and they will be our models here come the first tour. Plus whatever our intrepid photographer guests can discover on their own! Like the beautiful Bali Aga pictured below.

Bali Aga beauty on Bali

The next Bali Aga village thankfully had no tourist shops, but it did have a fantastic jungle temple which we hoped to use as a set. Unfortunately, it’s off limits to foreigners, with no special arrangements possible. Fortunately, the Bali Aga wedding reception we ran into, was not.

The house was festooned with Bali Aga wedding regalia, which we stopped to admire and possibly use part of as background for the young lad hanging out in front. While David cajoled the lad to pose with his requisite travel portraitist’s charm, the owner of the house, father of the bride, invited us in. As it turned out the wedding was long over and most of the 400 guests had departed the reception. Happily for me, there was still several tons of food left. Happily for David, there were several fetching young Bali Aga ladies left, and they were thrilled to pose for the dashing young photographer! So we both did what we do best.

Bali Aga bridesmaids

Portraits safely tucked away, the day was wearing on and it was time to make the ascent to a place called Mahagiri on the western slopes of the mighty Mt. Agung. We had finally found the location where an awesome photo was taken from a very different rice terrace/Mt. Agung perspective. The reason almost nobody knew this location, was that the land had only recently been developed and the view opened up. But before we head for Mahagiri, we had to pick up a special guest from the airport in Denpasar.
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“Where’s Rarindra?”, I asked Lazar before first light. The clouds were so heavy I couldn’t tell if the sun has risen above the horizon behind the Agung volcano or not. Rarindra Prakarsa had arrived from Jakarta the previous afternoon. None of us had met the acclaimed artist in person, so we were excited to finally shake hands with Indonesia’s most influential fine art travel photographer.

But this morning he was nowhere in sight. No light, no “R.P.”. So we ventured to the shooting location without him. It was only a one minute walk and on the new hotel’s grounds, so we didn’t exactly abandon him. On cue ten minutes later, as light crept ever so faintly into the sky, R.P. crept onto the scene. He looked at the cloud cover in a mumbling Bahasa smile.
“Not good”, I said.

“Not yet”, he said. For some odd reason I took his words as gospel. It will get good. Of course it would, we’re photographers! The evidence overhead said not a chance, but I mean hey, this guy is a master, right? And masters know things we mere mortals do not. Like divining light.

In about 20 minutes RP divination came true, and most of the clouds had dissipated. The sun’s rays shone though from the southeast, creating spotlights and illuminating sections of rice terraces, while the largest area remained in the shadow of Agung. It was an impossible exposure situation – either you got the sky and the volcano, or you got the rice fields, but you couldn’t get both in one exposure w/o a graduated filter, which no one had brought! No way around it, two correctly exposed frames – top & bottom – would have to be combined in post. Tour Note: Bring graduated ND filter.

Although our expensive light capturing contraptions couldn’t handle the light, our eyes certainly could – and what a fantastically beautiful scene, so perfect for Bali photo tours. The hotel had only been open a couple of months, and we were the only guests there to enjoy breakfast after the shoot. So this is not a scene that has been captured a million times yet, not even by Balinese shooters. But from the number of empty tables, it was clear they had high expectations for the future. With this view and being only 10 minutes from the Mother Temple of Besakih, why shouldn’t they? Anyway this was definitely a great discovery, and an easy call to make the shooting schedule.

Photo: David Lazar

Rarindra had just returned from a 3-day workshop in Qatar, and told us all about it over Bali coffee and omelets and bacon and fruit, which has to be the best fruit on the planet. Basically it was daily classroom instruction for 50 attendees on his various shooting techniques and post processing. A couple of desert shoots in 120 degree morning heat followed. RP had nothing to do with choosing the locations, and could only smile and shake his head at the choices, which he described as “flat, sandy nothing.” Well, we won’t have that problem here!

The Besakih temple complex is the holy of holies for Balinese Hindus, who make up most of the population. It stands high on the western slopes of Agung and commands great, sweeping views. Our guide Pande gave us the historical rundown as we wandered around taking photographs. The area is quite large and in sections, so Lazar & RP soon agreed this would be a good opportunity for tour participants to engage in a free shoot. There is usually a ceremony going on somewhere, and kids or priests dressed in all white are quite amenable to having their portrait taken.

Next on the docket in Part 3 – Glorious volcanic Lake Batur scenes followed by a jungle trek to some incredibly beautiful waterfalls in North Bali.

End Part 2 – Creating a Bali Photo Tour – Behind the Scenes – Please check out our next Bali photo tour extravaganza, which runs September 19 – 30, 2021. Don’t delay, sign ups have already begun!

David Lazar with Rarindra Prakarsa
Left to right – David Lazar, Pande Sura, Rarindra Prakarsa

Bennett Stevens Written by:

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