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June 18, 2017

Randy Brown

Lake Toba: A Cultural and Environmental Crossroads

Lake Toba: Northern Sumatra

USA Indonesia Documentary


The Batak people of the highlands of North Sumatra are a culture in transition. Seeking the opportunities of increased economic development while on a parallel path of preserving traditional values are, to some, at cross purposes. Centuries of living in village based, sustainable, communities have been increasingly challenged by the modernity of development, desire for higher incomes, and the influences of the Indonesian government and Chinese investment. Recently entering this conversation, even though Batak culture is 45% Christian, is the influence of the Great Mosque of Medan, especially in regards to tourism.


Added to this, as Indonesia is the largest Muslim country by population, especially in Northern Sumatra, is the impact of increasing and positive influence from that community through the impact of the Great Mosque of Medan and its satellite mosques in neighboring towns and villages, as it applies to development policy, especially in tourism, and traditional culture.


One of the center points of these issues, in the Toba Caldera, sits Lake Toba, the largest volcanic-tectonic lake on the planet, roughly measuring 100 by 30 kilometers and the site of the largest known volcanic eruption in the last 25 million years and ringed by a robust community of villagers seeking a better life while maintaining their culture. The contrast of striking beauty, resource depletion, and the resulting pressure on traditional culture are a perfect storm for ideological conflict.


In proposal is a six-week project and the continuation of an in-progress documentary project addressing the impact of development and the Traditional Batak culture of North Sumatra, Lake Toba, and environs. Previously working with the Anthropology Department at the University of Denver and the Ford Foundations Jakarta Filed office, I had the privilege, through a five-week period, of photographing a broad assignment which took me to this region as well as Java, Nias Island, and Borneo.


My passion in this project is to document the larger conversation between Batak leaders, efforts by the Indonesian government to increase tourism, rapidly developing industrial fish farming on the lake itself which has resulted in massive fish kills due to non-sustainable practices, as well as the remarkable impact of development on the traditions of the Batak people. 


Through my previous and future work on this project is the addressing the narrative of the universality of this larger, global process. While the underlying issue is a compression of traditional life for the Batak culture, I will explore questions that consider “cultural evolution”, to look pointedly, sharply, at the socio/cultural issue itself. In this case, what is the aesthetic, what do the evolutionary changes look like? How does tourism and industrial development, Islamic values, the creation of jobs, loss of water quality through industrial fish farming, and equatorial deforestation, impact the environment and thusly, culture? Finally, do these inevitable pressure points create disconnected, cultural islands surrounded by modernity?


In regards to the mechanics of this project, including medical, I will draw on previous experience in the region through established contacts with Canopy Indonesia, whose mission is sustainable tourism, the University of Denver Department of Anthropology, and The Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design where I serve as the Chair of the BFA in Photography.


Funds will be directed primarily toward travel costs, including transportation, $2,100, accommodation, $2,000, and incidentals such as local transportation, logistics advising, professional Visa & incidentals, $900.


Currently I serve as the Department Chair of the BFA in Photography as the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design in Denver, Colorado. Through both my 30 years of professional work as a photographer and my position at the college, my goal is to create visual and written narratives that tell a compelling story. From these stories, and specifically the Lake Toba Project, it is my intent to insert a perspective into the larger, perhaps global dialogue of the near logarithmic changes in traditional culture.


There is significant opportunity in this project to be a resource for further academic studies in the areas of Cultural Anthropology and photojournalism/documentary, interviewing and photographing all stakeholders beginning in Medan and en route to Lake Toba.  Additionally, as I am focused on globalization and its impact on traditional culture, the project will serve as a resource in identifying the areas of cultural sustainability where the threats have specific impact on the environment, investigating a possible link between the endangerment of culture and the threats to plant and animal based species.