Interview: Prilly Tuelang

Birthplace: Jakarta, Indonesia

Grew up in: Queens, New York, U.S.A.

Currently living in: Queens, New York, U.S.A.

Age: 25

Find her: Website | Instagram | Collab with Buah zine

(Photos courtesy of Prilly)

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Q: Tell me about your journey into photography. How did you get your perspective?

I grew up with my dad taking photos all the time, and he would teach me about lighting, but I had no idea it was going to be my career. This was a hobby that turned serious out of nowhere. I went to school, and I took a break because I had to support my family.

That break did me good; I got out of liberal arts, and photography was the only thing that made sense. I’d been taking pictures my whole life, but I didn’t know it was something I could do. This is something I have confidence doing, without questioning myself. So I just did it.

You need to have intention — that’s why art works. If you don’t have intention, you have nothing to say. I hope with what I’m doing, I’m saying something. I want emotion to come out of my work, because I’m not someone who likes to speak about emotions at all. I’m a Sagittarius; I don’t like to talk about what I’m feeling, so photography is one of those ways where I can actually talk about what I want to do and how I want to feel, because I can’t communicate very well with words.

Q: How do you stay creative? And how do you take care of yourself?

It’s a process. I think you have to be patient with yourself 100%. A lot of times, you’re not always going to figure it out right away. Things can be in limbo, and you’re not always going to have this creative rush. Especially with a 9 to 5 job, you’re not always going to be doing creative things.

But I think another aspect of staying creative is to surround yourself with creative people. Meet other artists and see what you can do. Don’t overthink shit. That’s the No. 1 thing I wish I could tell myself from back then.

Q: How did you start thinking of yourself as someone of Indonesian heritage?

I went to pre-K in the Netherlands, briefly, before getting the U.S. visa. I’ve been in the U.S. ever since first grade. It’s definitely not something I always thought about. I don’t think you realize what you are at such an early age, at least not a minority, until you start learning that the world works a little differently for you. But definitely, I would say, freshman year in high school is when I truly considered my Indonesian heritage, because I met my best friend then. She’s Indonesian.

My family, we’re Manado. In New York, we have specific events celebrating specific ethnic groups in Indonesia. A lot of my family are also from Ambon. So, there’s threads of colorism that happens in my family, because the Manado side is perceived to be lighter skinned, and the Ambon side is perceived as darker skinned. And that comes with hurtful remarks.

Q: Tell me more about that colorism.

It kills me. I’m speaking from the outside a bit, because I’m not as dark-skinned as some of my cousins, who are absolutely beautiful, but it hurts to see how they can be treated differently. It sucks to see that sort of mentality within our safe space, within our homes. So I feel as if I have a responsibility to do my part. I would hear hurtful comments that some relatives would say about our darker-skinned relatives, and I would speak up. But there was a lot of colorism — and anti-blackness — that I had to unlearn from my younger years.

Q: Do you talk about your thoughts about your identity/heritage with other folks your age? What sort of conversations are you having?

This is a recent adventure. I was not thinking about what it meant to be Indonesian when I was in high school. I was trying to find out what it was about, but I wasn’t thinking about how am I Indonesian until now.

I’m blessed because I have three cousins who are in my age group, so we’re all experiencing this. Now, we’re realizing like whoa, our culture is beautiful. We’d been rejecting it for years — I grew up wearing Hollister, Japanese-permed my curls trying to straighten my hair, blue contacts, trying to be as light as possible. It wasn’t until recent years where I wanted my curls back. That’s the conversation I’m having with my family now.

Q: What sort of stories did your family pass on to you?

There’s a lack of knowledge for me when it comes to Indonesian history. I didn’t know what Kartini Day meant until two years ago, when I finally educated myself. A lot of the history was missing from my life. I knew a lot about what my parents went through, but I didn’t know about overall Indonesian history.

Q: And did you grow up with an Indonesian community?

I grew up in this huge church culture. An Indonesian community was all I knew aside from school, but it was a specific kind of community.

[Editor’s note: Prilly then wanted to clarify. She sent her clarification via text message below.]

I feel like I need to elaborate more to make sense. I’ve always associated the Indonesian identity to be linear and limited to what I was exposed to at church, which in turn gave me a very limited perception of our community and individual identities. It was a lot of different identities that I had to learn how to balance within myself, since I didn’t feel a right to claim any.

Q: What does your Indonesian heritage mean to you?

Everything. I’m so happy that I’ve reached this point with myself, because I can truly say these are our roots. My life has changed drastically because my parents made a choice to come to the U.S., but without my Indonesian community, what does that make me?

Q: Anything else you would like to add?

I’m working on a photo project about other Indonesian-American folks who are questioning our identities. And I’m also photographing other people of color, other artists, and making sure our stories are heard. That’s what I’m focusing on.

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