Sea Gypsies

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.

Orang Laut Belakan Bukit (9 of 10)

Sea Gypsies- Young couple at home

Orang Laut Belakan Bukit (29 of 54)

Sea Gypsies- Homes during low tide


Sea Gypsies – Playing in the rain

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.

Miaka Island

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.

Orang Laut Miaka (37 of 54)

Sea Gypsies – Regal Boy

Orang Laut Miaka (38 of 54)Orang Laut Miaka (39 of 54)Orang Laut Miaka (40 of 54)

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.

Orang Laut Miaka (41 of 54)Orang Laut Miaka (42 of 54)


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).


Sea Gypsies- Army patrolling the waters.


Sea Gypsies- Sunken Ship


Sea Gypsies- Clothes hanging out to dry.

Sebuan Island

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.

Orang Laut

Sea Gypsies- Old man shucking clams and oysters.


Orang Laut set (52 of 54)

Sea Gypsies- Seafood

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).

Orang Laut

Sea Gypsies- Cigarette break.

Orang Laut

Sea Gypsies- Family and their dinner.

Orang Laut

Sea Gypsies- Siblings

Orang Laut set (47 of 54)

Sea Gypsies- Mom and son.

Orang Laut set (48 of 54)

Sea Gypsies- Grandma and grandson.

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’.)

Orang Laut portrait 01Orang Laut portrait 02Orang Laut portrait 03Orang Laut portrait 04Orang Laut portrait 05Orang Laut portrait 06Orang Laut portrait 07Orang Laut portrait 10Orang Laut portrait 11Orang Laut portrait 12Orang Laut portrait 13Orang Laut portrait 14Orang Laut portrait 15Orang Laut portrait 16Orang Laut portrait 17

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.



17 thoughts on “Sea Gypsies

  1. Pingback: Sea Gypsies | Sung Lin Gun | Fuji X-Pro1 | Sco...

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  3. Ken says:

    Thanks so much for this outstanding set of shots. They are totally mesmerising – so so good. I’m in awe. How did you cope wight he bright sun? Were you using a ND filter and flash? (hard to tell). I spend a lot of time in the pacific islands and have found the strong sun and dark skin quite hard to capture well. Your shots have truly inspired me. Cant wait to see more of your sets…..Thanks again!

    • sunglingun says:

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

      Yes, you are right. You definitely need flash and ND filter to overpower the sun. But my idea wasn’t not to make the skin lighter, so it wasn’t much of an issue for me.

      Just another note: Minimise your gear and protect your gear well. Seawater and sand get into everything! I had to retire a rusted tripod and light stand. But that’s not the worst of it. People get intimidated when they see a whole bunch of lighting equipment and camera gear pointing at them, makes it harder to take a good portrait! I might be writing a “behind-the-scenes” post to share my experience and the technical details.

      • Ken says:

        Thanks for taking the time to reply! And thanks for the helpful advice – I for one would really appreciate learning about your ‘behind the scenes’ experience etc…..
        Thanks again!

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  5. Excellent documentary work and proof positive that as far as image quality is concerned the X-Pro1 and the X-E1 still hold their own against Fujifilm’s newer offerings.
    Can you tell me which photos were taken with the Fuji cameras and which were taken with the Contax 645?
    Should you be interested, I have a number of images captured with the X-E1 displayed on my website:
    The images displayed in the following galleries were captured with the X-E1: Guanajuato, Mexico, Portland, Oregon, Death Rider Prep, and Guanajuato in Black and white.
    Nicolo Famiglietti, Ph.D.

  6. Hello of France.

    I appreciated(estimated) a lot your work on your Web site. An excellent ethnographical documentary according to me. Portraits (in particular the girl in the golden skin color) are magnificent.

    I like your way of seeing things, and to place you in front of your subject. I also like your lights and their treatment(processing).


  7. Topsy says:

    These are really great shots, you clearly have the “eye” and a sympathy/empathy for your subjects. Well done.

  8. Mark baily says:

    Love love love the collection of amazing shots. The editing is spot on and every picture draws you in. Thank you for aharing

  9. Halo,

    Great pics and story. Orang Bajo is the only proof left that south east asian nations are one big family. Btw, do you use reflector? And what kind of flash do you use?

    Salam dari Indonesia

    • sunglingun says:

      Thanks Onny, yes, in my work I try to show people as people and that at the end of the day, we are one big family. I don’t use reflector, I use just a regular flash off camera.

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