massimo mastrorillo – indonesia: check-in at room 101

[slidepress gallery=’massimomastrorillo-indonesia2′]

Hover over the image for navigation and full screen controls

Massimo Mastrorillo

Indonesia: Check-in At Room 101

play this essay


This is a short selection from the on going long term project “Indonesia: check in at room 101” which began in 2005,  the day after the tsunami.

Taking a cue from the phrase “Room 101 contains the worst things in the world” from the novel “1984” by George Orwell, this project wants to tell that man, like Indonesia, seems to have lost on all  fronts.  One of these fronts is his environment:  Sidoarjo, the exploitation of resources and the intolerable levels of pollution in the Province of Riau, the deforestation in Kalimantan and in Papua.  Former American President Nixon defined Indonesia as “the largest booty in Southeast Asia” and in 1967 this loot was distributed to some of the largest Western companies. The future of Indonesia seems to be the footprint of a boot that has kicked in the face of humanity.



Massimo Mastrorillo was born in Turin, Italy, and lives in Rome. He worked on long term projects about the Kurdish Diaspora and the poverty in Mozambique. From the year 2005 to the year 2007 he worked on his project The Lives of the Cities, a documentary project about 9 cities in the world. In the year 2005 he began also a long term project on the tsunami aftermath and the environment in Indonesia. This is an ongoing project. He is actually working on other two long term projects: “White Murder”, about the problem of death on the working places in Italy and “The Lands of Shattered Dreams”. Among the awards he received: the World Press Photo, the Pictures of the Year International, the Best of Photojournalism, the PDN’s Photo Annual Contest In Photojournalism, the International Photography Awards, the FNAC Prize Attenzione Talento Fotografico 2007, the International Photographer of the Year at the 5th Annual Lucie Awards, the Sony World Photography Awards.


Related links

Massimo Mastrorillo/a>


Editor’s Note: Please only one comment per person under this essay.. Further discussions should take place under Dialogue..

Many thanks… david alan harvey

34 Responses to “massimo mastrorillo – indonesia: check-in at room 101”

  • Misery, suffering, destruction.

    Hoped I would see something different at the photographers web site, but it is so slow I gave up.

  • good pictures and some stories worth telling. but i’m kind of getting tired of the western photojournalist cliche of going to a 3rd world country and making out like everybody there is miserable and getting beaten down by the injustice of the world.

    i’m not disputing any of massimo’s observations, but surely there is a more sophisticated way to tell a story of a country? surely not everyone in indonesia is downtrodden and miserable? there must be success stories of people who have battled against adversity and are now doing pretty damn well thank you very much. but then i guess this isn’t what people want to see.

    whatever, i think i have a form of viewing fatigue when it comes to this kind of work and approach to a subject – while i can appreciate the skill and technique of the photographer, his eye for composition and his obvious commitment to the project, i guess i’m frustrated by the predictability of the photographer/subject relationship in this instance.

  • agree with ben..
    how many more Nachtweys do we need ?
    we already got Jim..!:)
    it sells though and people should survive…

  • There are some really nice images here. If that can be said of photography of horrible situations. There were only one or two I would have dropped.

    I think it would be interesting to include images of more affluent people and places (if there is such a thing) to the contrast the extremes in the country.

  • “How many more Nachtweys do we need???”

    If it wasn’t Panos writing that I’d laugh.
    Unfortunately Panos probably is serious.

    The answer Panos is AS MANY AS WE CAN GET!!!

    Yes, Massimo’s work is depressing and perhaps a bit one dimensional. We don’t necessarily need to be hit over the head to get the point.

    One thing for sure though, you can’t deny his talent.
    Compelling images, excellent technique, great composition.

  • While I do think a lot of images in this slide are powerful, I have to say I agree with Ben in that this slide makes *the whole* Indonesia seem really bad, likening it to Room 101 which is supposed to contain “all the worst things in the world” and how the country “seems to have lost on all fronts”. I’m sorry Massimo, but I’m Indonesian and I don’t agree with that statements at all, and I think the way you say it is very disrespectful towards all the Indonesians who are trying their best in their own different ways to make the country a better place. It’s as if you ignored the efforts altogether and simply gave the final verdict that the country is a failure with no hope of improvements. I refuse to believe that, and I’m sure every person who loves their country would share that belief.

  • This browbeating method of trying to change lives is no longer a constructive method of communication in this day and age. Time for the so called PJ photographers to move on and stop trying to apply past methods to a new world……..
    The people who are affected by this situation don’t give a rat’s arse about images and stories like this let alone view them, they are too busy as they have to get on with life……… As photographers talk about how talented someone is at taking these types of images the public has moved on and got on with the business of living. Sorry but the people out there are ignoring you as you and your work are no longer relevant to their lives

  • I’m afraid I’m another compassion-fatigued viewer of essays like this one. As Ben says, it is technically fine and the story is certainly worth telling. And as DAH says, the photographer is obviously committed to doing his part to bring attetion to the injustices and suffering in Indonesia in hopes for change. But how many essays like this can we see before going on overload? To be honest I only made it halfway through before feeling like I was seeing the same thing over and over. I’m sure it was a cumulative reaction, one that has been building for a long time.

    I agree with Ben that we have got to find new ways to show suffering like this, at least if we hope to make a difference. Multimedia perhaps. Maybe a darkened room with photos shown on the walls in conjuncion with poetry and dance. I don’t know. It’s just that, for me, this kind of straight B&W photojournalism has to be mighty special to get to me now.

    Massimo, my critique is nothing personal. As I say my response to work like yours has been building for a long time. I appreciate your sensitivity to the imbalances in Indonesia and to the people’s suffering and your efforts to be an agent of change. May your efforts meet with success.


  • The work is really compelling to me. Close and personal. Definitely takes the viewer into the photograph rather than locking us all out to only look at them. I was positively surprised by the work in its entirety after the cover image, which sort of gave me a different idea of what the work would be about. I really like this work. I’d rather see more work of this standard from anywhere in the world than less of it… sure beats the repetitive and disparaging comments about people’s work that keeps appearing here. I sincerely believe that work of this kind is equally about photography as it is the subject, and being a photographer I will be the first to admit this in regards to my own work. Selfish? Perhaps, but I strongly believe it is better to go, interact, talk, listen, be allowed, photograph and produce the images. Its a choice of subject, but its also a personal photography project in every sense of the world. The work may not, or may, change someone’s attitudes, views, or increase their knowlwdge, awarness of a specific place in time. But surely the photographer talked to people and listened. One can not underestimate the personal influence a foreigner’s visit can have on some individuals in regions of poverty and disasters, such as we viewers are presented here in this work. Critics, please think ‘smaller’ about the effects an interested and committed photographer’s or artist’s visit can have on a place and the people who live there. Massimo’s interest and committment speaks volumes to me on a social and a persoanl level. I believe he should be encouraged and commended. And these are good pictures.

  • I agree with Cathy. And Patricia. Technically fantastic, interesting and sensitive observation, love the black and white, but where is Massimo in this work? I think that Massimo must have strong voice to put forth such great compositions, but I didn’t feel his presence in the work. Does that make sense? It’s soo good, but lacking emotion…it could be great with a personal stamp. Onward and upward, Massimo. I applaud your efforts and hope that your work effects change.

  • i liked it.
    on a technical and professional level, i thought it was very strong. some very striking images that could hold their own as singles. i also didn’t think it repeated itself too much and kept my interest.
    whether or not this is another ‘Nachtwey’ is beyond the point for me.

  • Many of the images are visually stunning, and technically excellent. In reading the introduction of the piece I was immediately drawn in. The challenge I think is connecting the dots. The policies of the West have led to the exploitation of many 3rd world countries. In many works of this style of PJ we see the devastation and suffering and only talk about the root cause. The challenge is to photographically link the cause and effect. We now recognize that the consumption driven, growth/debt fueled economies of the West not only cause suffering and devastation to the less fortunate, but now threaten the very survival of life as we know it on the planet. How can we as photographers make the link between cause and effect and also offer a way forward, hope for a better future?

    The only other comment I have is that I thought Burn was for emerging photographers, it seems many of the essays are by award winning photographers who have already emerged. If the idea is to develop new ideas in photography and provide an incubator for emerging artists shouldn’t that be the focus of content published here? Regardless I am thankful that there is a venue to view and comment on outstanding photography here on Burn.

  • I don’t think its one-dimensional in that the situation really is hopeless in Indonesia. I am from asia and the extent of government corruption in indonesia is extremely entrenched, and the rest of the country doesn’t really care as they are distracted by material goods and pop culture. So what’s new. What this PJ is documenting is important as the people die off due to man’s greed.

  • Very strong, very nice… a reportage with old feeling of grainy film.

  • It looks quite a harsh treatment of the images – for me, too much noise in the images generally and what appears to be the processing certainly adds drama and mood but I wonder given the theme you are pursuing is such treatment fair? If one sets out to find that humanity has ‘lost’ then you most definitely will, however it doesn’t mean that humanity has actually lost – perhaps just your view at that moment in time.

    Is there not tender moments to capture in Indonesia? We judge other parts of the world by predominately western standards.

    I wonder is the photographic essay or composition like an piece of academic research – we have to be incredibly careful as to bias which may be present particularly when there is a point or mission to the production? – which is probably why peer review such as Burn is important, and as a photographer you can learn vast amounts in such detail.

    Overall for this set I find the images with too much of an over processed look. Apologies if this isn’t the case but it is how it appears to me. Having said that they are interesting images nonetheless.

    Kind regards.

  • I believe that “strong themes” is a trap for any photographer. Most of the times a photographer can’t stand the waight of subjects like this one. At least Massimo’s composotion is great!

  • Amazing excellent pictures, but again I’d agree with the fact that the subject matter is like a road walked a millions of time.

    It’s weird to think this, when looking at these amazing photographs, but perhaps this is where the role of photojournalism has drastically changed over the years. I am sure that even five years ago we would have responded differently to this photo essay, but now, this is not anymore good enough for us. It seems like viewing a remake of a beautiful classic movie, technically perfect, or close to, but where the story is no different than what we already know.

    I think that the problem is not much related to the report of sufferance and extreme decay, but rather to the pointless outlook of it.

    Still the pictures remain in my opinion really powerful, and since this is an ongoing project, maybe we’ll see this work develop into something deeper and more intriguing?

    However, I must congratulate with Massimo for his beautiful photographic sensitivity.

  • I agree in overall with Ben, and it gives me that feeling that the same beaten track is being beaten again. It’s like an essay you’d see in 1988, but with Indonesia replacing Vietnam or whatever. I do think that some of the photographs do allow for a slightly richer and more ambiguous narrative such as 16 or 25, in which the disaster is right there in the photograph but takes a few seconds before you perceive it. Maybe a lighter edit could suite more modern palates.

  • Massimo – incredible power and vision in the panoramic earthscapes. For me, your way of communicating the situation is most effective in this type of ‘referring’ rather than telling.and though some of the other images work very well too, I think your voice has a certain subtle shout that comes through in the earthscapes that makes then unique.

    frank Michael: “The only other comment I have is that I thought Burn was for emerging photographers”..burn is perhaps FOR the eyes of emerging (aka growing, learning) photographers, but that doesn’t mean that only younger, less developed photographers are shown. Established photographers work is shown too, to an audience of emerging photographers and others.

  • #20
    is so beautiful…
    would be interesting to see this
    further developed…
    especially your
    earthscapes :)

  • Excellent, excellent work. Felicitazioni.

  • The usage of Orwell’s room 101 is out of context. But I still love Massimo’s photography.
    Well executed

  • The captions are preachy — they tell the viewer how to interpret the pictures — and too many of them use the phrase “no hope.” Yes, I understand that there are suffering people in Indonesia, but this essay doesn’t bring me any closer to them. There are no stories within the story, just the broad-brush presentation of poverty and hopelessness.

    Who are these people? What are their names? What do they do with their lives besides standing around and looking hopeless?

  • Congratulations on being published here Massimo.

    I applaud your efforts here. Yes, there is a lot of “been there done that going on here, and it is a shame that is that we are all becoming hardened by the flood of such images. However, wether we realize it or not, we are literaly witnessing the collapse of the world as we know it. I’m not being melodramatic.

    Every issue of NatGeo is now a sorry record of what was, or is soon to be gone.

    I’m struggling with what kind of record I want to leave to those who come after me, and for the moment have chosen to try and express the joy and love I feel in being alive. I don’t have the heart to go to the very dark places where Massimo and others like him go. But it is important. As we rush headlong toward the cliff, this stuff needs to be recorded.

  • There are some really gorgeous photographs here. It would probably be easier to say which ones I did not care for (such as #18), since I love so many. Just beautiful are # 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 12, 16, 17, 19, 20, 22, 24, and 25. Whether this subject matter has been done before is irrelevant to me.

  • Powerful work Massimo. Great! Love the mixed formats.

  • Thanks EMCD point taken :)

  • I wonder why one gets so much praise for composition when most of the shots look as though they were weren’t composed but shot from the hip, and some as though they were self-consconsciously cropped later. (Not that there is anything inherently wrong with these techniques). The former technique is something I feel I’m seeing a lot of in photojournalism. This also suggests that the photographer hasn’t established a connection with the people he’s photographing. This is what it looks like to me anyway. The 60 year old woman raising her head from her pillow looks like the picture was shot through keyhole. At least I am sure the camera was secreted. Her expression says to me, not “solitary and suffering”, but that she’s just been disturbed from her rest. This work doesn’t give me the impression of the photographer being a fly on the wall but of photographer as a stranger and intruder, which he most probably is anyway. Even so, there are some shots I like, such as the first one in the series (regardless of how it was composed) and the empty landscapes. I think I prefer this work more as individual shots than as an essay. But in general, I think it lacks heart. I don’t feel so good about writing such a lot of negative words about someone’s work but my words apply to a lot of what I am seeing in photojournalism. There are examples of compassionate and well composed photography out there. I’d like to see more of that in here.

  • A photographer, yes, but hard to see a personality in these serviceable pictures. The high contrast and noise, not to speak of the “de rigueur” B&W, do not add any quality for me either. No judgement on your quality as photographer, I am sure you have done better work.

    The text and captions are even worse. If Indonesia was so much the worse off, Mrs Suharto, or cohort, would be president for life, not the widow of a dictator whose quick irrelevance after deposal showed that Indonesia is hardly stuck in one gear, that of a corrupt standstill.

  • I find the essay too cynical to be constructive.

    When the news of the “garbage-slide” reached me, I knew it would be a embarrassment for Indonesia. Other topics such as inequality Papua, urban poverty, rebuilding of Aceh, corruption ‘culture’, environmental degradation are only a few of the issues faced here, which leave negative impressions. We see it everyday, we live it here.

    Often I feel sick of it, very sick. The problems, what the people of Indonesia become, wondering how we even got here. But life has to go on. If me and my people succumb to contempt and pity for our own conditions, we cannot progress. I admit, many -if not most, of us have become numb, struggling for dear life yet accepting life (and death) as something which cannot be changed. Some of us continue to take profit of other people’s misery. But many of us, although may be a small part, are giving our heart and soul to see that Indonesia really progress, everyday. The essay is unfair in that it neglects the latter people and the positive changes that is happening. Indonesia for me is both heaven and hell in different contexts.

    The photographer has the liberty to express his/her point of view. I respect this. The viewers also are free to decide whether to agree with the photographer. But as someone with more experience in living in the subject area, the photographers perspective’s is not a fair one, too contemptuous and offensive for me, especially the text and captions. There are many bad things happening here, but one must not neglect the good things.

    On another note, one can also question about how to judge the degrading humanity. Corruption, inequality, ignorance, as pointed out in the essay, can give some clue. But one can also look at phenomenons such as (I’m sorry if I offend anyone) greed, how technology (I think) in some ways degrades human interactions, and carnality (I don’t know if I use the right word).

    Yes, I’m an Indonesian living in the country. I was the last questioner in Mr. Massimo’s presentation in Jakarta last year.

    Speaking about the pictures, I personally like the landscapes in Aceh.



  • re: Panos – I don’t think these photos necessarily all resemble Nachtwey. In any case if some do, who cares. I admire any photographer who can shoot like him. Your photos also have elements of many other photographers. I mean seriously…can any of us do something completely different than our predecessors?

    I like the way Massimo has mixed styles, the journalistic well composed photos, alongside the broad landscapes. Perhaps it tells a story, perhaps not. In any case Massimo is a talented photographer who sees things that not everyone can.

    re: the idea that we’ve already seen these photos of poverty, disaster etc. yes..over and over. but it’s the truth. I hope photographers continue to shoot this kind of work.

  • Massimo, as many have said here, visually speaking, most of your photographs are great. I acknowledge that deeply. But many of the information are quite misleading and some were incorrect, which can be corrected easily if only you recheck the info with the locals or maybe by simply asking to your fixer.

    First, about the series part in Papua. You mentioned about the heath condition there and stated that “Papuan have the lowest health status, in the whole of Indonesia”. I want to ask if there was an official report stating about this? And if there was, which origanization stated this? if you can’t provide this, you may just simply made this up to dramatize the story. Yes, there were several cases of malnutrition and there was a famine break back in 2005 in Yahukimo district, in Papua.

    If you researched enough, perhaps you could use this historical fact in your caption rather than an “anonymous” and yet very serious accusation. Plus for your information, the separatist rebel group in Papua you mentioned in your picture number 11 is OPM (Organisasi Papua Merdeka – Organization of Papua Independence) not OBM which what you wrote in your caption, whatever that abbreviation means.

    Secondly,in your sixth picture you captured an old lady who was getting up from her bed. You called her expression “portrays solitude and suffering”. Well, I don’t see suffering from her face, more a shocking face. But this is a relative opinion and I won’t argue much about this. But perhaps you could get her testimony if the place is a true “hell” for her, rather than just telling it yourself. To call the place dehumanize and unsuitable is for me a weak statement as you don’t give the visual information of its environment.

    Lastly, I want to strongly ask about your statement in the captions that say “..where people live appallingly in poor conditions and with NO HOPE AT ALL”. THIS is a strong statement. How dare you say that these people have no hope at all! Perhaps you didn’t research before going to place you called “shantytowns”. Yes, there are several low-class residencies areas in Jakarta but most its residents were working class people not just criminals or destitute people. I would be more appreciative of your great pictures if complemented with real facts, statistics, not just by dramatized statements of yourself.

    I am not upset if someone told something bad about my country as long it is true and not being exaggerated. Journalists, moreover photojournalists are given the privilege to access the lives of other people so they can tell their story and maybe, just maybe provoke from the society for a change in their life. But if the messenger itself told everyone that these people don’t have any hope at all, would anybody help as it would not change anything at all?

    You pushed yourself to hard Massimo. For someone who just spent one month in Indonesia each year, and 2-3 days in each places (you and your fixed told this during the presentation of your work in Jakarta last year), I don’t think you are representative enough to give these written statements.

  • Good eyes for graphic details and different situations, but I wish the story seemed less confused. I don’t know what these panorama landscapes are supposed to tell and especially I don’t understand why this panorama format is being used in this essay, doesn’t really seem necessary to get the point across. Maybe you could keep a couple of them, but right know they are too many. And what I realise from these pictures is that I get more curious about the people you photograph – the creepy man in #11 would be great to create a lengthier story of, but that’s probably a whole different idea than this essay is based on.

    Thanks for sharing!

Comments are currently closed.