They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but for poor children willing to swim in North Jakarta’s polluted Pluit Dam, it’s actually worth money.
Almost daily, children from the area say, photojournalists and other professionals show up at the garbage-choked body of water and offer small sums of cash to entice the kids to create a moment for the camera.
For many of the children, it’s an offer they can’t refuse. Coming from the densely populated squatter slums that hug the edges of the dam, a few thousand rupiah in exchange for a few minutes’ immersion can mean a meal for the day.
“During the afternoons, people turn up with their cameras,” said Deny Saputra, a 15-year-old from the adjacent Penjaringan neighborhood. “These are professionals. They offer us money to swim. The more money they give us, the longer we stay in the water and show them what we can do in the water.”
The Pluit Dam is North Jakarta’s biggest polder, a massive 80-hectare pit of land reclaimed from the sea and blocked off with dikes to alleviate flooding. But over time it has become choked with garbage dumped by residents, turning it in a brackish pool.
Deny, who has not attended school in two years, said jumping into the stagnant water for pictures was far from enjoyable.
“I actually do not like the waters,” he said. “They cause me to itch and rashes turn up on my body. I am happy with the money I get, but sometimes I get unlucky. I have to use the money to buy cream to get rid of the rashes and the itch.”
Jahe, 15, says he earns more money from swimming in the dam than from picking garbage.
“It’s a game. It’s a bubble bath. I know the water is not sanitary at all, but then we get money for this. The [photographers] give each of us Rp 5,000 [50 cents], so we will of course swim for them. This is so much easier than collecting garbage.”
While many boys will only enter the dam’s waters today for the promise of easy cash, some residents remember when the pool was more inviting.
“There was a time when this dam contained clean water,” said Najaruddin, a longtime resident of the area. “No itching or rashes would come if you swam in it. But through the years it turned black and foul, full of garbage. This is why when the children swim, they go down slowly because of the weight the water is carrying.
“I think those kids who swim in these dams for money do not have parents who can watch them. And they swim because of photographers.”
Sukamto, a fried rice vendor, said he forbade his 13-year-old son from swimming in the dam. “I do not understand why these kids would take such a risk. It is so dangerous,” he said.
Jerry Adiguna, chairman of the Indonesian Photojournalist Association (PFI), said that photographers were always on the hunt for a picturesque moment, but that manipulating subjects or possibly putting them in harm’s way went against the PFI’s code of conduct.
“To engineer a situation for the taking of a photograph should not be done by photojournalists. What is captured is fake,” Jerry said.
“This also encourages kids to indulge in bad habits. Kids will believe that people with the camera will always be around to pay them to do dangerous things such as jumping and swimming in the dirty dam.”
Arist Merdeka Sirait, chairman of the National Commission for Child Protection (Komnas Anak), said the phenomenon was an example of blatant exploitation of poor children that must be ended immediately.
“This actually is not the only example of dangerous child exploitation which is done by adults. Officers or guards or anybody manning the banks of the dam should warn either the adult or the child that nobody is supposed to swim in that dam. It risks both life and health.”