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ᝰ THE STORY
Mbah Warsinah is a Javanese woman living in a small hamlet in Boyolali, Central Java. At 93 years old, Mbah Warsinah retains a vitality, strength, and energy that is rare to find among the elderlies of our time. That is what I noticed about this extraordinary woman the first time I had seen her. This nonagenarian with astonishing charisma takes exceptional care of her great-granddaughters. She always has a pair of rubber bands on her left wrist to tie their hair into a ponytail in case they need it before leaving for school.
Mbah Warsinah always feels happy and most alive when she is surrounded by nature. Despite her advanced age, she can regularly be found outside taking care of her rice field or her cow whom she devotes special importance. On the day this image was made, I rode my motorcycle to her village and knocked on her door but got greeted by her daughter instead. My good mood did not measure up to what I heard after my question. "But she is not at home; she is still working outside!", said the daughter with a tone that implied a totally normal thing for a woman of over 90 years old. I was stunned and had mixed feelings between weird and unbelievable at the same time.
After her daughter gave me directions on where Mbah Warsinah was, I took a determined step to go back to my motorcycle and ride to the new location. I immediately noticed her from afar before I arrived at my destination. Her look was radiant, and her slim silhouette was still moving fairly fast through the tall grass. It seemed she instantly looked and felt twenty years younger. Luckily, my prompt arrival timely matched with her plan as she was just about to finish her daily tasks. I had met Mbah Warsinah long ago and several times before I took this photograph, but despite this long absence, her memory remained sharp and when she saw me again, she instinctively recognized me. I offered her a lift back home on my motorcycle which she accepted. But as I shared with her my intention to take her portrait, she politely declined it, retorting that she was tired, dirty, and ugly! I found myself replying: "It is okay for me. You can do your things first, Mbah. I understand."
Taking Mbah Warsinah back home from her field
Back home, I waited for her outside while getting my camera ready. After her quick shower, Mbah Warsinah proudly sported one of her favorite kebayas, which implicitly made me understand that she had agreed to be taken in photo. The kebaya is this traditional blouse originating from the Majapahit empire (one of the last major Hindu-Buddhist empires) and is usually worn by Indonesian women on various occasions along with a sarong, a rectangular piece of fabric wrapped and tied around the waist. But Mbah Warsinah never misses a single occasion for not wearing it.
On Mbah Warsinah's sarong, we can see the parang pattern which has an important philosophical meaning and value. This batik pattern is one of the oldest in Indonesia. Parang gives us the advice to never give up, just like the ocean waves that never stop moving before they crash along the seashore. The parang also depicts a relationship that never breaks, both in terms of striving for self-improvement, struggling for prosperity, and forming genuine family bonds. Such an amazing meaning! There was no more suitable person than Mbah Warsinah who should have worn it on that day!
Mbah Warsinah decided to sit right in front of her house's doorstep. Even though we started to exchange some words, she did not seem to pay much attention to my presence. She was oddly busy untangling her very beautiful long white, still-wet hair, as if anxious to look perfectly presentable in front of the photographer who was going to take her picture. And then, at some point, something happened that almost felt unreal. Writing back those lines instantly takes me back to the moment and sends me again goosebumps down my spine right before I clicked this picture. She suddenly dropped her comb and slowly began to stare at me with the most penetrating gaze I had ever seen in my life. It was as if her soul could speak to mine by whispering "Tell me, what is it exactly that you want to tell me?". Her eyes were peeling the layers of my skin and absorbed me to the point that time became frozen for a few seconds, perhaps the longest seconds of my life. What a moment! The moment when this photo became unique and iconic.
I had always been attracted by this woman's essence and energy. Of course, her long white hair helped to give a stunning combination. But on that very day, the strength of her gaze and what her wrinkles could express were revealing so much. The way she was, the way she behaved, the way she sat, the way she stared all made it for a once-in-a-lifetime catch.
Giving Mbah Warsinah a little gift for Eid Mubarak (several months after her photo was taken)
It is this kind of interaction I had with Mbah Warsinah that takes photography beyond its initial objective. And it was this encounter that inspired me to make more impactful portraits. But the one of Mbah Warsinah truly stands out. And one cannot help but never feel bored looking at her.
Mbah Warsinah is one of the most iconic photographs that I have taken in my career. The Javanese woman gave her last breath on September 2021. She may no longer be with us physically, but will still and forever incarnate her nation and her country as a whole. She is a symbol, a strength on her own, and a unique character that depicts so well the resilience of this country’s elderlies.
Mbah Warsinah made the cover of my first coffee table book, BEYOND: Java. She has also been featured in numerous media and appeared in several press articles worldwide.
📍Boyolali, Central Java 🗓 2018