Asra and His Midas Touch of Stage Photography

You might not know Muhammad Asranur, but you must have seen some of his stage photographs. Asra or mostly known as @cantsaynotohope on the twitter-land, is the man behind some of the best concert photos in Indonesia. Started his career accidentally in SPIN, he has become one of the most notable in Indonesia’s stage photography. In 2011, he released a photobook called ‘Backstage Pass‘ and now he is doing a project with some bands, such as Pandai Besi. In this interview, he shared the journey of his career, tips, and his perspective of stage photography in Indonesia.

Hi Asra.What have you been up to lately?

Hallo. I’ve been working with Pandai Besi and organizing events at @atamerica. I also take part in mixing and mastering of Max Havelaar’s album. I have finished the mixing of Monday Math Class, about to get its art cover done, I’d assume it’ll be up in just a few months. And lastly, I’m working on the keyboards for Sajama Cut’s upcoming album.

I see, it seems you have tons of things to do! Well, we’d like to talk about the stage photography.You started your career as aphotographer in San Francisco for SPIN Magazine. Can you tell us how it started?

I was working as a freelancer for SPIN’s San Francisco. There were like 4 people, and I was one of them. It was pretty accidentaI, I never had any idea that I would end up being a photographer, but I used to see photographs in magazines and for some reason it seemed to be quite fun. Then I started using my pocket camera, I went to 4-5 concerts in a week to take some pictures (of them). There was a lot of concerts, almost every night, so I took pictures and people seem to notice. One of the things that made me stand-out was the fact that I was called ‘Muhammad’, with the name like that, and being Asian, and I was always around, so the word gets around. I started my freelance work in SPIN with the help of a friend, his roommate was looking for a photographer and he recommended me.

In 2011, You released a book entitled “Backstage Pass”. How did it start? Was it because you already have a great number of photos in your “photo bank” or?

It was actually the publisher’s idea. It’s Aul’s idea, Aul is the keyboardist of Everybody Loves Irene. He used to work at UNKL, he had the first concept to launch a book and I feel so honored that someone was so willing to help me to make it happen. The publisher also wanted the book to contain of local musicians only, because they thought there was no books about stage photography in Indonesia nor a book that was created by Indonesian stage photographers. So, “Backstage Pass” is the first and only book that has it all in Indonesia.

Stage photography has become such a trend lately, what do you think of it?

The first time I saw it happened was in 2008 when I was still in SF. I started posting my photographs on Kaskus’ music forum. And then people started doing the same thing. Since 2008, I see the trend and interest of stage photographed has increased rapidly, and there’s also a community of it called StageID. So I pretty much see it as a good thing.

In music, people have their own influence, does the same thing happen in photography? Who’s your role model that has been influencing you a lot?

It’s all back to the beginning of my story. Since I jump to this field accidentally, so it’s not the photographer who inspired me, it’s more like the concert itself that inspired me to work on it. But as time goes by, there are some photographers that have attracted my attention when I was about to pursue photography, which are Todd Owyoung (; he’s really active in stage photography, and NME’s Danny North, and Anton Corbijn, he is a Netherlands-based photographer and film maker.   One of his works that I adore so much is when he covered U2.

In Indonesia?

I’d say Darwis Triadi. Who didn’t grow up reading HAI Magazine? Most of teenagers in my era must have grown up reading it. Even before I had any interest in photography, I’ve known him.

If we look at your photographs, you have a certain characteristic in your work, without having it water-marked, we know that the works are yours. So, what is the process until you can find your own character?

Thanks for saying that! Maybe it’s because I used to go to a concert that is held in a small venue, so I had an easier access to take good pictures. I learn it by getting a front row at concerts. But as I returned to Indonesia, most of the photographers were using tele, not a wide-lense. Well, maybe that’s why people say so (about having a character). I always try to get the best and closest position from my object. Because I want to capture what I see right in front of my eyes and make sure that I won’t miss that moment. The other reason is, if you get to the front row, the musicians will recognize you and they might have pulled some pose.

You already have your name in this profession. Does it give any pressure to your work?

Not at all. Im not trying to be cocky, but I only take (pictures) of what I like. So, there’s no pressure at all. If I consider the photos unsuitable, I’m not going to post them.

In Journalistic photography, captioning is one of the most important things, what do you think of it?

I’m not a fan of captioning my photographs, the actual reason is because Im way too lazy to put it on. But, sometimes I put the caption if the photo has some interesting story behind it. For example, when I took a photograph of Karen O in Singapore in 2010, the interesting story was when she gave the mic to person who was sitting next to me. But if the photos dont have any interesting story, I’m just gonna let the photos do the talk.

What are your best and worst moments during your time in stage photography?

There’s a lot actually. One of the best moments was when I took photos for The Flaming Lips concert in Singapore 2010. The band really gave a great show, both for the audience and for photographers. The vocalist entered into this spherical ball, and the ball was thrown to the audience’s direction. It was theatrical. Then there was Arcade Fire’s concert in 2008, which was held in a stadium with thousands of people. It was massive, I was shocked after I entered the venue seeing how big and how crowded it is.

For worst moments, there’s not really a specific one. But sometimes it does get a bit uncomfortable with concerts in Indonesia cause the EO usually don’t understand how to serve photographers.

This is the last one, any tips to photographer who wants to learn on stage photography?

  • Get as close as possible to the object you want to capture.
  • Don’t post all 30 pictures that looks almost the same, it’s better to choose wisely the ones that are detailed, close-up, half-framed, or where it shows the whole scenery. There’s no written rule about this but, just don’t do it.
  • Don’t give up. When I covered for 30 Seconds to Mars, it was awfully crowded and the media pit was cancelled. I thought that it was impossible to get a shot. Then I squeezed intonthe crowd and I finally got some pictures. Don’t give up until you get the picture you want.

Follow Asra on twitter and check out his works on his flickr.