Rony Zakaria’s “Men, Mountains, and The Sea” – an Q & A

Men, Mountains & The Sea is the second book by photographer Rony Zakaria. As Indonesia located at the ring of fire, it is home of more than 100 volcanoes and over 100,000 km of coastlines. Rony documented the relationship between people and nature in communities living on the mountains and near the sea. The photographs were taken during 10 year period from 2008-2017 and has been exhibited in photo festivals and galleries worldwide.

I know Rony Zakaria for a long time but only from a distance, he is already quite well known as an young and exciting photographer in Indonesia photo communities. “Encounters”, his first book is also well received when it is released and “Men, Mountains, and The Sea” itself has been exhibited many years before the book or even the project is finally finished. With all these, of course the expectation for his next book is quite big.

From a few years back we get to know each other more, due to our interests in photobooks. What will follow is just a small talk out of my curiosity regarding his new book.

Hi mas Rony, congratulations on your second book, Men, Mountains, and the Sea. What initially interest you to start this project? 

Men, Mountains & The Sea actually started when I visited Yogyakarta in 2008. A friend invited me to visit and to stay at his place. At this time I was just starting out as a photographer, naïve, and full of energy, I was eager to see new things and photograph everything. My eyes were fresh.

So, I went and stayed for three weeks in Yogyakarta. Before the trip I read a bit about the myth of Mt. Merapi, the Sultanate and the Southern sea forming an invincible axis line. I found that story fascinating and curious to see it myself. 

Mt. Merapi and  Parangtritis (where the southern sea is), were both magical and I am fascinated with how the people connect, trying to keep the harmony between them and everything else existing there, “everything else” which we simplify as nature. Afterwards I look for other places in Indonesia where similar connection and harmony exist.

The project itself has floated around for quite some time. I noticed some of it is already being published in Lens blog, New York Times in 2015. Why it took so long to realized it into a book? Did you still take new photos for this project after 2015? How do you know that the project is “finished”?

When I first started the project I didn’t have any thought to do a book. It was only after the work exhibited in Europe, in Photoquai biannale and Recontres d’Arles, a lot of people started to encourage me to making Men, Mountains & the Sea as a book. But then when the idea of the book started, I felt I still have a few places I want to go and photograph. I didn’t feel the project is finished yet. So my mind was still focused on where to go next. 

Only in 2017 after I managed to go to all the places, I could shift my focus into making the work into a book form. I knew then that the project was “finished” because I realized that I would only be repeating myself, making the same kind of pictures if I force myself to continue, it would be only aesthetics and less curiosity. I was also starting to begin a couple new projects that I am starting to be interested more, so it was a good time to close that chapter.

The book itself took quite some time to be realized because a few things, one thing of course was the financial side, it is a self-published book, so I have to bear solely the production cost. Another thing, which is a more important factor, was that despite I’m very much excited to make the book, I knew from experience that rushing it just for the sake of having a book is not a wise idea. So there were a lot of decisions along the way where we really took our time to think through before finally deciding: the editing, the choice of cover, the paper, etc. It was a long and painful process to undergo but in the end you get the result and did not regret it. It’s like hiking a mountain, without the never-ending slopes you wouldn’t truly appreciate the summit.

Your first book “Encounter” is, in a way, represent a more urban and modern Indonesia. While “Men, Mountains, and the Sea” has more traditional sides of Indonesia in it. What is your opinion on both of these way of life still being present in Indonesian lives? 

I think both “the modern” and “the traditional” are equally important way of life in Indonesia. I was born and raised in Jakarta so I am very much familiar with the fast paced and modern side way of living. The city can give you so much but on the other hand it sucks your energy so fast and will definitely eat you alive if you stand still and do nothing. 

And while “Men, Mountains & the Sea”, as you said it, represents a more traditional side, it is very much connected with the urban life. As a city boy myself, I long for something different than urban life, an opposite, to take my time, to feel instead of reason, to connect rather than to compete. These values wouldn’t feel important without their opposing sides. 

You are very hands on on both the production process of your books, “Encounters” and “Men, Mountains, and The Sea” How do you compare the production on both of them? I understand that for “Men, Mountains, and The Sea” you worked with a designer, a publisher, and a production facility that are all based not in Indonesia. Can you share us your experience in this process? 

Both books were a total learning process for me. Without “Encounters” I wouldn’t be able to learn the things I would do and did not do in “Men, Mountains & the Sea”. 

The reason I decided to work with a designer, publisher and a printer who are all based abroad were because I didn’t want to just follow the usual path of when a photographer in Indonesia want to print a book by using the same printer, using the same designer, using the same editor, just because it supposed to be that way. I want to see my options and choose the ones suitable for my book. And it just happens that everyone involved, except me, are based outside Indonesia.

I managed to find a moderate size printer in Singapore specialized in graphic art books suggested by my co-publisher 6by6press. They did a marvelous job printing the book and I was happy because they were very professional to attend to every concern and issues during the printing process. The book designer, Duncan Whyte, was recommended by a friend in London and I really liked his previous design work with Mack books and Steidl. I think he did a superb job in making the work alive as a book.

Not to diminish the effort to produce a book, but lately in Indonesia “Making a photobook is easier than selling it”, do you think those words ring true? 

It is partly true.  It is true because after the book is produced the work is not yet done; it’s a long half way to go. And also I think “how to sell your book” should be well thought of before the book is out, making it part of the process in making the book, and not just to count entirely on luck and chance. 

The Indonesia photo book scene, as you may know, had a promising start in its early years in 2012-2014 when Indonesian photo books were blooming; self-published books came out regularly, and a lot of people bought photo books. I remembered publishing Encounters in early 2013 and to my surprise 200 books were sold in the first two days. The book was out of print within 6 months. I would never imagine the same thing happened again now. There’re simply too many photo books right now. But we have to be optimistic.

Men, Mountains, and The Sea is available at the following links:



Delivery date in late Nov / early Dec 2019

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