The orang laut (literally sea people in the Malay language) are nomadic tribes who live all around the east coast of Borneo, straddling the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Some fare better than others. Some have gone ashore and assimilated into land-life. But this group that I met have no nationality, thus for better or worse, have to live at sea their whole lives, either on boats, or on stilt houses around small islands. No running water, no electricity.
This set is taken on Miaka island. It’s one of the nicer looking islands, with actual fruit-bearing coconut trees. There was a nice shady area where kids went to escape the punishing midday sun. So I took the opportunity to make friends and take a few portraits.
These last two are of identical twins. They are the only twins I’ve seen of the Orang Laut. And they speak a little bit of Malay, so I got along great with them.
On the next island we encountered an army patrol (not sure why it’s the army and not the Navy?) The nearby town Semporna and the islands in the area are prone to tourist kidnappings by Filipino insurgents. (Just last month, another tourist was kidnapped off a popular diving resort nearby).
Sebuan Island is the most developed island that I’ve visited. There’s actually a military antenna on the island. Maybe because of that, it’s also the only island that actually has a village head or elder. What was puzzling to me was that the other islands don’t have a community leader or village elder.
Consequently, these islanders seem to be in better shape then the ones on the other islands.
The first person who caught my eye was this stately gentleman. He was shucking shellfish and oysters and he offered me some. I would have accepted but the sun was setting and my boat back to the mainland had to leave before dark (pirates apparently ply the sea). So instead I settled for a portrait of him and his wife in the background.
David Alan Harvey said that photography is the universal language. Er… be that as it may, I still wish I could speak Badjao (the orang laut language). But I did understand one universal gesture, the gesture of smoking. Now, this gentleman can stay underwater for an inhuman amount of time, so I don’t think the cigarette will harm his lungs any.
Then he showed me his catch and displayed his dinner. Some sort of spiky puffer fish. (I’d be grateful to any marine biology expert who can identify it).
And lastly, the oldest and youngest inhabitant on the island. What an honour to be able to take their portrait!
Here is my favourite series of portraits. My overwhelming feeling is that they are living in a very beautiful paradise, but also because they can’t go on land (if they wanted to), the paradise feels like a trap and a bit oppressive. I tried to capture that with these really tightly framed portraits. Brought tears to my eyes. (But it was probably just the sand flying into my eyes…)
(Also in another post perhaps, I’d like to ask if it is really possible to have a split second connection with the person in front of you. I’m leaning towards ‘yes’.)
It’s an ongoing project. So email me or check back once in a while. Hopefully I’ll have more photos up.
And oh, the gear:
X-Pro1, X-E1 with a variety of lenses. And Contax 645 with 80mm lens.
If you are interested, you can read about my workshop with master portrait photographer Gregory Heisler here.