The Last Breath of the Prince

Ngamen Explanation: A scene of ngamen, how they call the dance on the streets for collecting money, how it was 100 years ago in the province.

Ngamen by Diego Zapatero – modern reproduction of 100-year-old dance


In my work, I travel Southeast Asia to seek out the deepest and most genuine stories to substantiate my photo documentary projects. Step-by-step I was led towards my passion of cultural exploring, by heritage, and from a keen interest in Indonesian culture. I would like to define my work as anthropologic visual stories; that´s what I am interested in. It is necessary to know the context and the history, also the traditions, before starting anything.

Right now, towards the end of 2014, I am about to wrap up a project on a ancient traditional mask performance in Gunung Sewu (Thousand Mountains) on the volcanic island of Java, Indonesia. A story, through a dance performance, lives on in Java, with roots and elements originating from an ancient, pre-Hindu creation mythology, and retold in the 21st century in ever fewer rural villages in East and Central Java. The Panji Cycle, as it is known, is virtually a vast, nondescript mass of stories essential to its central theme. Versions were since adopted by the royalty, reigning over what was once the Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit Kingdom, and refined into perfection as to the execution of the movements and in masks and costumes. This development in turn inspired a folk version of itinerary dancing groups called the “Topeng ngamen”. The Panji tales have been a widespread inspiration in Indonesian traditional dance, far beyond the island of Java.

Brojonoto by Diego Zapatero - Masked actor representing the relative and companion of Prince Panji

Brojonoto by Diego Zapatero – Masked actor representing the relative and companion of Prince Panji


Sadly, the syncretism, once characteristic of Javanese mysticism, bridging superficial differences and bringing understanding between people, is, with increased mobility, easy access to popular information, materialism, and perhaps also the present strife between religious groups, fading away rapidly in a modernizing Indonesia. The Panji mask dance is today performed by small groups in villages in East and Central Java, and in the Special Province of Yogyakarta, the cultural cradle of Indonesia. In Yogyakarta there are only two active groups left performing the pure varieties of the “Topeng Ngamen” dance, in addition to a limited version played within the walls of the royal “Kraton“, the Sultan’s Palace. One of these two groups performs the play only once every three years now, in a ceremony to secure the steady flow of water from a sacred well in an otherwise dry environment.

With time, I started to research the topic, and I found a big collection of Dutch journals from the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. The journals had photos taken in the colonial period, in old studios, with a technique modern photographers don´t use anymore. That made me feel something and I thought maybe it could be the moment to start a project.

The Two Romances by Diego Zapatero - Prince Panji with Princess Dewi Sekartaji and family members

The Two Romances by Diego Zapatero – Actors representing Prince Panji, Princess Dewi Sekartaji and family members


On this particular occasion, the whole project was closer to a movie shooting than a photographic one, from the design of theatre backgrounds based in old motifs, carpets, and the fact that I had to build a big tent with the help of villagers for the shooting. It was a white tent, where the natural light enters inside, but softer, simulating the lighting of the photography studios with big windows on the top of 150 years ago. The light was the key to create that feeling in the photographs, mostly poses because of the slow shutter speed. And this is right now at the core of what I want to express with my photography. About the digital editing, it was just black-and-white conversion with sepia toning, some grain and frames taken from old photos. – Diego Zapatero (text by Narve Rio)

These images are available as a print by emailing Zapatero here. See more of his work at his website, Read his blog (in Spanish) at Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

Equipment and settings: Nikon D800 – Image: Brojonoto – AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D prime lens (1/320th @ f/2.5 – ISO 100) – Image: Ngamen – AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D prime lens (1/160th @ f/1.6 – ISO 100) – Image: The Two Romances – AF Nikkor 35mm f/2D prime lens (1/80th @ f/6.3 – ISO 400)