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[Photo Diaries]: A Backpacker in Bali

Esme Barrell

One of the most difficult parts of backpacking is the constrained luggage limit; a professional camera didn’t quite make the cut so during my Bali travels I had to rely on my I-phone and Boots disposable cameras. But at the same time that’s part of the simplicity of backpacking that makes it so appealing. Over summer I spent a month in Bali with a friend (including 16 hours in Kuala Lumpur airport) and split our time into a few days per town, each having their own unique personality. There’s Ubud, Eat Pray Love capital full of vegan food and yoga, Ahmed in the East for diving, Lovina for jungles and untouched nature, the hedonistic Gili islands and Canggu for those who like surfing, coffee shops and techno in converted skating parks. So I think the thing that came through most when looking back on my hundreds of photographs from the trip is that there isn’t one fixed image of Bali to document – place and people and constantly inconsistent whilst backpacking.

The film photos from the Sekumpul Waterfalls actually came about accidentally. We’d arrived on site under grey skies and torrential rain and on fearing that my phone wouldn’t survive the three-hour trek in my (very un-waterproof) backpack I decided to leave it in the car. I’d pretty much forgotten about my disposable cameras prior to this, but on this occasion they were coincidentally all I had in my bumbag. Then when I got the film developed the individual shots didn’t quite capture the full scale of the waterfalls, so I experimented with piecing them together to represent both this colossal jungle landscape but also the route we’d taken on the trek. It was very multi-layered – lots of hill climbs and winding paths, each view stop giving a completely altered view of the scene and I think this sense of distorted perspective comes through in the juxtaposition of the individual photographs. So very unplanned and experimental but turning out to be my favourite images from Bali, although I think with creative work it’s often the pieces you don’t put pressure on and just have fun with that pleasantly surprise you.

I’ve selected these particular 11 photographs because when nostalgically looking back on my month in Bali they remind me of the freedom and simplicity of life there; packing up and deciding where next to go the night before, laughing, drinking, dancing and enjoying food with social groups who would slowly come and go and enjoying the time to come out of ourselves and be spontaneous in the present moment. This spirit was how the whole trip came about, my friend and I booked flights a few weeks before and planned only our first three days of accommodation. The rest we just moved where we wanted to and with the ever-changing people we met with the liberty of just having to grab your backpack and set off. It was quite surreal.

The photographs from the morning Ubud markets were taken during our first exposure to local Balinese culture, which came about much later in our trip than I’d imagined. They started at 7am and mainly attracted locals for their fresh cooking ingredients, fabrics and Canang sari- daily Hindu offerings made from woven banana leaves and flowers, lit with incense and decorated all over the streets.


Many parts of Bali like Ubud and Kuta have become huge holiday destinations for backpackers, honeymooners and party-goers and it wasn’t until we travelled North to Lovina that we experienced the real Bali. But this contrast was quite nice as we were able to see both faces of the country. Even on the topic of photography, it was quite surprising how you could be on a small island in Indonesia but still have to dodge selfie-takers on the streets see Snapchat documentation as the widespread norm. Interestingly some locals capitalised upon this manic photo-taking as a form of tourism by charging a small fee for snaps of people in Balinese costumes or views at popular spots. But the importance of a photograph should in no way be dismissed, as they are perhaps our best way of re-evoking the spirit and feeling of and re-experiencing a memory.

(That of Bali very much needed to remedy the long days of final year essay writing).

My own work is self-labelled as documentary photography, out of a lack of a better title. By carrying a camera daily, I aim to embody the spirit of the Brownie in making the means to photography ready to me at every moment, without obstruction – by doing so, I can take a photograph of anything that captures my eye and interests me enough to preserve. Any of us can do this these days, with a camera readily available in our pockets around the clock – and many of us do so without even thinking about it. Next time you take your phone out to take a photograph, whether it is of your friends or of something that caught your eye, think about how you are participating in the act of documenting your life through photography. Make prints of your favourites, display them on your walls, share them with your friends and family. Follow the tradition of those who came before you and took their own snapshots documenting their lives. Everyone is a documentary photographer today, and this is a good thing.

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