The Striking Colours of Indonesian Markets

Malang market woman, East Java, Inge Colijn

Women working in the markets of East Java

By Inge Colijn

Prompted by a colleague, Inge Colijn, a passionate street photographer, finally overcame her reluctance and travelled to Indonesia. Her reluctance was partly the result of complicated feelings about her father’s relationship to Holland’s colonial past. Inge visited East Java, where she took photographs of women working in the markets. We see the lives of the women market workers through her photographs. As Andy Hall, the Observer photojournalist, remarked: ‘Inge’s use of well-composed colour is striking and admirable. Her pictures are full of human warmth and fun.’


I am fascinated by Indonesia. It is made up of 17,500 islands. Indonesia is the biggest archipelago in the world. Indonesia spreads over three time zones and parts of it, like Java, are very densely populated. Many people forget Indonesia is the country with the largest Muslim population in the world.


Blitar market woman, East Java, Inge Colijn ©

Women have a much more prominent place in society in Indonesia than they do in the Middle-East. In East Java, especially, people’s worldview is strongly coloured by ancient Indonesian beliefs, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Women have a much more prominent place in society in Indonesia

Women are not forced to stay at home in Indonesia, they go out to work and make a living for their family. This is particularly true of the women married to fishermen, or small farmers. The women will sell their produce on the local markets. Women sell all sorts of things in Indonesian markets: onions, bananas, fish … they may even work as fully fledged butchers. Younger women, often better educated, sometimes work in shops and offices. It is many of the older Indonesian women who work in markets.


Malang market women, East Java, Inge Colijn ©

I have always had a complicated relationship with Indonesia. I actually only went there for the first time in March 2017. The pictures you see here were taken during my third visit, between July and August of 2019.


Some women become fully-fledged butchers, East Java, Inge Colijn ©

There were two reasons for my ambivalence. In the first place, traveling to Indonesia while my dad was still alive felt a bit like betrayal because I knew it had been his dream.


Surabaya market women, East Java, Inge Colijn ©

My father dreamed of going to Indonesia in 1947. He wanted to experience Indonesian culture, but he would have done so as a soldier. He was in the marines at the time of the infamous politionele acties‘.


Surabaya market woman, East Java, Inge Colijn ©

Surabaya market woman, East Java, Inge Colijn ©

My father was excited by the possibility of going to Indonesia, but to his chagrin, his battalion was the one kept behind in the Netherlands. He tried to join the troops who were sailing off to ‘Nederlands Indie” as it was called, but needed the approval of his father. He wasn’t 21. His father, my grandfather wouldn’t give in. I am very grateful that he wasn’t allowed to fight for Dutch colonialism.


Surabaya market woman, East Java, Inge Colijn ©

My relationship with Indonesia was complicated further by the fact that I studied Cultural Anthropology at Leiden University. Despite the fact that I was so attracted to Indonesia and even though I had the opportunity, there were so many people who seemed to know so much more about it than me that I felt at a great disadvantage. This feeling affected my confidence and made me decide to stay far away from taking any course on the subject.


Malang market woman, East Java, Inge Colijn ©

Malang market woman, East Java, Inge Colijn ©

Finally, in 2017, I overcame my reservations and decided to go – encouraged by a UNHCR colleague in Colombo.

I loved Indonesia immediately, not least because the people there are approachable and friendly.


Inge Colijn

Inge Colijn took up photography as a teenager. Later, as a student of ethnography, she studied Ethnographic Photography. While working for UNHCR, Inge carried a camera with her in the field, but photography was always an afterthought to her main job. After retiring from the UNHCR, Inge enrolled in photography workshops and got excited about street photography. She is part of a group of travelling street photographers and the photos here were taken on a visit she made to Indonesia in 2019 with her group.