Take a peek into Alessia Gunawan’s otherworldly photographs
The Italian-Indonesian photographer talks to us about internet culture, living parallel lives and exploring interconnected contemporary culture.
- Alif Ibrahim
- 16 December 2020
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
From idol culture to gated communities, the work of Alessia Gunawan often takes on an otherworldly feel. Her photographs look staged and there is a sense of uneasiness if you look for too long. Looking at her photographs often feels like you’ve been let into a room that you’re not meant to be in, but one that invites you to stick around. The gaze that her camera settles on is calculated, an uncanny capture of the everyday. Are we still in the world as we know it, or are we somewhere else?
An Italian-Indonesian photographer, currently based in Milan, Alessia recently completed a degree in photography at Écal. Born in Jakarta, she moved to Lecce in the south of Italy at the age of nine. This move, from the Indonesian city with over nine million inhabitants to one whose population barely scrapes a hundred thousand, came with inevitable changes. The move, though it came with beautiful memories, felt limiting to Alessia.
What stayed constant, however, was her presence on the early internet. “I spent most of my time on the internet, a place I knew before, where I was mostly playing games and looking at blogs, as any voyeuristic nine year-old would,” Alessia tells It’s Nice that. “Soon, I became very fascinated by how people were documenting and choosing to broadcast their lives.” She’s sure that other small-town millennials who spent time on the internet had the same experience: a window to worlds that are vastly different from one’s own.
“At one point, out of boredom, I decided to steal my parents’ camera and create my own photographic journal,” she explains. “I was mainly interested in the performative aspect and I took advantage of it.” This meant dressing up in eccentric clothes she loved, ones she didn’t dare wear out in public but felt good in. She indulged herself in dramatic narratives and alter egos. She lived parallel lives.
It’s these activities developed from fooling around with photography that Alessia returns to in her recent work. “I never took myself that seriously and that was the fun of it. It helped me get out of my shell and soon enough, I started photographing my friends in the same way,” she says. A focused practice emerged during her time in London while she was studying photography at the University of Westminster. “Studying the medium’s effectiveness and the importance of semiotics was revealing. I believe that we should all acknowledge the weight of images and the processes behind creating them,” she says, noting that visual language has become the primary mode of communication today. “We should be aware of their context, who or what we portray, whose voice we are narrating and the ethics behind our intentions.”
Her latest self-initiated work is a short film titled Counter Faith. In it, she uses personal narration to understand what drives the construction of gated communities in Indonesia. “I was interested in the different ways one can engage with documentary as I was exploring my own personal experience while developing the research,” she says. “I’ve always asked myself: where do we place ourselves as narrators?”
Although she felt stifled by how theory-heavy her undergraduate education was, it sparked Alessia to look for stimuli elsewhere. “London was the perfect place. The city’s energy and the people were something that I had never witnessed before,” she says. “It offers you the world through its multicultural society and most of the people I met enjoyed the excitement of sharing their experiences to build towards a more sustainable DIY community.” It was then that she realised that not much is needed to make something. It only took the willingness to share, to participate and to witness your surroundings.
“When researching for a project, for example, I write, take videos and photographs. They all help me understand the subject better in their own way,” she says of how she develops her projects. “I really appreciate what tools that different media can give. I see them more as mediums rather than endpoints.” But Alessia doesn’t see herself as an individual in the creative process. The collaborative aspect is what lifts the experience for her. “A great shoot is never done by oneself but by the whole team. When you’re all enjoying it, you can definitely see it in the results,” she says.
Perhaps there is a sense of interconnectedness in her work, having to see what experiences she’s had in common despite never being able to stay still in one location. Speaking of her time in Milan, she says: “I’m craving to be somewhere new, where things are not so familiar and where it is up to you to create that space for yourself.” Perhaps this thread doesn’t manifest in her aesthetics: Alessia claims that she does not see a single style that connects her work. But for her, this emerges in the themes she explores, a goal to “unveil the various aspects of the globalised and seemingly connected contemporary culture.”
Alessia Gunawan: Applied Mascara (Copyright © Alessia Gunawan, 2020)