On his 11th birthday, Hengki Koentjoro’s mother gave him a Kodak pocket camera as a present. Even though Hengki was young and the camera was more of a toy to him than anything else, he was hooked.
“I fell in love with the idea of preserving what I was seeing,” said Hengki about the beginning of his love affair with photography. “From that moment forward, I began documenting, photographically, the activities of my family, as well as the community surrounding me.”
Hengki, who was born in 1963 in Semarang, Central Java, eventually moved to Santa Barbara, California, where he studied video production and photography.
Now based in Jakarta, where he lives with his wife and three children, he works as a freelance videographer and editor, specializing in nature documentaries and corporate profiles, while still pursuing his passion for black-and-white photography. Hengki said he believed his “true purpose in life’s journey of expression” was photography.
Hengki took his skills as a photographer to another level by becoming a master of underwater photography, capturing fascinating ocean life through his lens. Perhaps this was a logical step for someone who has been fond of diving his entire life and holds a deep admiration for the ocean.
While he continues to take photographs on land, it is Hengki’s underwater shots that have many people mesmerized.
“I am very fortunate to live in Indonesia,” he said. “We have approximately 17,000 islands with great marine biodiversity. The ocean is an important place to me. Despite its shifting tides, its anger and gentleness, it has taught me to ‘go with the flow.’
“ I have learned to fear it and to respect its power but to also enjoy its many facets ,” he added. “I aim to reflect, or rather capture, the many personas of the ocean in my photography.”
Hengki’s abilities as a swimmer and diver have allowed him to fully embrace ocean life. His photographs reveal a loving eye for the play of shadows and light, and perfectly convey his lifelong fascination for the sea. Hengki’s works speak of simple perfection, whether he has captured a swarm of fish or a group of boys playing in the water around a surf board.
The fact that he has chosen black-and-white photography as his preferred medium, strengthens the underlying tone of fear and danger in some of his works. When asked why he prefers black-and-white over color photography, Hengki refers to one of America’s most famous photographers and environmentalists.
“Ansel Adams is an inspiration for me,” he said. “I’ve been studying and learning his trademark method, called the zone system.
“This system teaches that the perfect photograph should expose all tones ranging from the blackest black to the whitest white. This awareness of an image’s contrast is an element I consider in every photograph I take.”
Hengki might have been taking underwater photographs for many years, but it is not a common pastime for the average person because of the expensive equipment required.
But according to Leo Rustandi, a freelance diving instructor at the Bubbles Dive Center in South Jakarta who also teaches underwater photography classes, this has changed in recent years.
Leo said that more and more people have become interested in underwater photography classes, and it seems like it may become a trend.
“There are so many new divers who want to take a picture of themselves underwater,” he said. “That’s normally how it starts. But I always suggest that they take it to the next level.”
Leo went to an international school in Singapore, where he picked up diving as an extra-curricular activity. Even though he enjoyed it, he wasn’t able to continue because his parents disapproved of his hobby.
“Probably, back then, they just thought it was too dangerous,” he said.
However, the fact that his parents disagreed didn’t stop him once he was grown up.
“As soon as I made my own money, I started diving again,” he said.
Since Leo had always been fond of photography, the step from diving to taking pictures underwater was a logical one.
“It’s just very intriguing,” he said. “It’s like a whole new world waiting to be found.”
Leo’s classes consist of two different parts. “The thing about underwater photography is that you have to have good buoyancy, since you float and are not able to put your feet on the ground. That’s why a buoyancy clinic is part of the class,” he said. “In the second part, I explain how to edit. I also show the participants how to take care of their cameras.”
Fortunately, Leo said, underwater photography is not limited solely to those who have their diving license. Snorkelers can have a shot, too.
As a snorkeler, however, options as a photographer are more limited, because you must to come up for air more often, while a scuba diver can stay underwater for two hours, Leo explained.
“[Snorkellers] use a more compact camera, while scuba divers can use a professional DSLR,” Leo said.
The main difference between these two cameras is that a compact camera has one attached lens, while a DSLR can take different lenses, result in higher image quality.
Even though diving has become routine for Hengki, he said he still considered underwater photography as something unique, even magical .
“You are an alien down there, you are in a three dimensional space and your feet do not touch the ground, therefore you must be flying,” he said. “It is a great feeling.”
Of course, as a skilled underwater photographer, Hengki is also a talented diver.
“The ability to control your buoyancy is of the utmost importance, this gives you the ability to hover over your subject with ease and precision,” Hengki explained. “But you have to dive safely before you can take pictures. The amount of time you spend underwater mainly depends on your diving skills. The rule is safety first, then fun.”
Even though Hengki is based in Jakarta, his work frequently takes him all over the country, giving him the opportunity to add more photographs to his already thick and impressive portfolio.
“Only 25 percent of diving spots have been fully explored in Indonesia, so it’s difficult to say [which one is the best],” Hengki said. “However, if you are a lover of biodiversity, Raja Ampat is considered among the most beautiful.”
He said he was sure that new fascinating sites would be discovered in the near future.
“How great it is to live on the biggest archipelago nation on earth?” Hengki said. “It just never stops.”