Compassion photojournalist Hutama Limarta sees the complexities and hardships of childhood poverty in Indonesia daily. But he also sees the beauty—in the children, the landscape, the culture and the hope offered through the local church.

Have you ever wondered where Compassion's stories come from? In this interview with Hutama, we uncover the journey of a story in Indonesia. Read his creative solutions for gathering stories during COVID-19 lockdowns, and learn how our perspective of poverty may be different to those living in it every day.

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Could you introduce yourself and share where you're from and where you're based at the moment?

Hutama: My name is Hutama Limarta, but people usually call me Tama. I am from Indonesia and am based in Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia. I love the beauty of the natural landscape here as well as the cultural diversity. And last but not least, I love the food!

Could you share a little bit about your role with Compassion and how it began?

Hutama: In Compassion, my role is a photojournalist. I collect beautiful stories and pictures of children and their families from Compassion centres in Indonesia. In Indonesia we have two photojournalists—one for the west region and another for the east region. I am stationed for the west region.

I was looking for a job opening in 2020 that would suit my passion for storytelling and travelling. When I saw a job opening for a Compassion photojournalist position on LinkedIn, I had no hesitation in applying.

How has your life and work has been impacted by COVID 19?

Hutama: COVID-19 has impacted how people usually travel in Indonesia. Travel has been restricted locally and this was really hard considering my work is done by travelling. When I had to go out to the field, I had concerns that my family could catch COVID-19.

Last month I contracted COVID-19 for the first time. Thank God it was not severe and my recovery was fast. But because of the quarantine I had to do, it made a mess of the work schedule I had planned out before. Some major projects had to be postponed due to my sickness.

During lockdowns in Indonesia, I got pictures for my stories by asking the local church partners to help. Thankfully, many of our church partners’ youth and staff are able to operate cameras.

In addition to that, I also conducted Zoom calls with children for the interview process. The children can get internet connection at the Compassion centres.

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What is the journey of capturing a story for Compassion? How does it begin?

Hutama: After I know which topic I am looking for, I would start by contacting the partnership facilitators or PFs. Sometimes I would ask several PFs to find one story. Then I would begin to plan how many days I need to travel and capture the story in the field. Some locations in Indonesia need more travel days than others because our islands are divided by the sea. I have gone to places where I had to take a motorcycle and a boat where cars could not pass. Some centres are located in the urban areas where we can see urban poverty.

When I reach the centre, I connect with the centre director and the staff before I visit the child.

I always have the church partner staff with me while visiting children and their family. It takes time and trust to learn a child or a family’s story.

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You must sometimes find yourself connecting with children, families and staff about personal or sensitive topics. How do you build relationships and safe spaces for families to share in this way? What works well and what can be challenging?

Hutama: First of all, before meeting the children, I will speak about my intent and the content I am looking for with the Partnership Facilitator. Then the children can decide whether they are willing to be visited. I also show them all pictures I have taken of them before I leave, just to make sure that the photographs taken are within our guidelines.

I once met with a youth whose hand had been amputated. Before I took a photo, she requested not to be photographed. I told her that I won’t show the parts of her body that she wasn’t willing to show. Afterwards, I showed her all the photographs taken. Communication and building trust are important.

What do you wish supporters in Australia knew about Compassion and poverty in Indonesia?

Hutama: Most people living in poverty in Indonesia don’t know they are living in it. Due to the unevenness of economic levels in Indonesia, children outside the major cities have limited knowledge of what they can pursue in life. For example, children in villages see that being labour workers in a manufacturing factory is somewhat of an achievement, while children in urban areas would think that opening a business or having an entrepreneurial spirit is an achievement. Those are completely different points of view, which I think can affect how they choose their path in life.

There’s also no motivation from the parents to drive their children to break free from the poverty cycle. Local centre staff in rural areas told me that parents don’t push their children to pursue a high level of education. That’s because they think their children will inherit their jobs, even though there are many chances to get there, such as through government-funded scholarships. But I also have seen parents of fishermen—in Indonesia, fishermen are considered a low-income job family—who encourage their children to have a master's degree in university.

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What is the impact of sponsorship in your experience?

Hutama: Sponsorship does impact children. The most obvious impacts are in health and education. I think those two aspects are important in releasing children from poverty.

I visited a child recently who had this powerful story: she’s only eight and she’s been diagnosed with heart failure. The child easily runs out of breath when she plays or runs, and she is physically weaker compared to her peers. Her parents don’t know what caused the heart failure, and they don’t understand the gravity of this situation. This heart failure can cause death in the future if it’s not well-treated. So, the local church partner educated the parents and took the initiative to submit an intervention funding request to have the child operated on next month.

What would you say to an Australian supporter who is hesitant about starting a sponsorship with Compassion?

Hutama: I have seen and heard how sponsorship can change lives of children. A child from parents who worked as scavengers can study until university level. A child was saved from spreading tumours through Compassion. Those stories happen because of sponsorships and the local church.


Words and photography by Hutama Limarta. Interview by Rachel Howlett.