Heart of Lightness - Journey to the Asmat

Welcome to the Asmat - one of the world’s most remote places. Part of Indonesia, the Asmat is a region of Papua, in the western half of New Guinea.

My journey was part of a cruise in the Arafura Sea. For Maureen and me, it was the expedition style of this cruise that had the most appeal (while still having a bit of luxury at sea). The ship - Orion – had travelled this path before and had an expert team to lead us. To go onshore - past the jetty - was more than a few steps. It was a world away. A way of life linked to its tribal past by a tradition of art and wood carving.

Our trip up river to the Asmat was possible due to the shallow draft of our ship - 3.8 metres. The river is only navigable on the high tide - when the depth is still only 6 metres. On the way in, the captain launched an inflatable to lead the way and check the depth with a lead line. Getting stuck on a sandbank would create a lot of paperwork!

To shoot the war canoes greeting our arrival, I used a Nikon 18-105mm with polarizing filter. I find it a great lens to shoot over and on water and the short zoom range proved adequate. I just had to use my feet and get around the deck to find the best angles.

One advantage in going onshore would be the small size of our party - about sixty of us. I was aware of the boardwalks built over the tidal mangrove swamp on which the towns of Syuru and Agats exist. In planning my shoot, I could visualize the perspective offered by such a landscape. My first thought was to shoot with a wide angle lens. My second intention was to try and tell a story with my images. The boardwalks were our network of pathways - and would provide a story telling opportunity. As well as using the wide angle to give a sense of place, I also intended to get a good mix of portrait shots to give the story a sense of personal contact.

And so, with these plans in mind, I moved into expedition mode. Slung over my shoulder I had a bag with space for camera, one spare lens and a water bottle. I took a Tokina 11-16mm and a Tamron 28-75mm for portrait work. The timing of lens changes is always tricky. I find that when you change you also need to visualize shots according to the new lens. Don’t let the ‘wrong lens’ slow you down. When I came across the ‘hip hop’ kids (Agats Town - part 9), I took the chance to add a dramatic element to the shot and got a good portrait at 11mm!

How did my plans work out - and how did I achieve some of these aims? First of all, let me say that the gracious and open manner of the Asmat people made it all possible. Although sometimes shy in our presence, they mostly responded well to the camera. The kids were great. We would ask before taking a photo and they would shriek with delight when shown the image on the screen.

My set of portraits of wood carvers worked well because of the way I had engaged with them. I spent time viewing their artifacts and buying a few pieces; and this in turn made them feel more confident about appearing before my lens. (To view them, start at Syuru Village - part 3.)

This was a place with little wealth. However, their faces suggest a happy and contented life. In the young, you can also see signs of awareness about global youth culture. Where this leads will decide their future. Asmat art and wood carving has long captivated the world; and hopefully this tradition will stay strong.

One irony did strike me. In our cities, we see waterfront property as the most desirable. Here in Agats, if you follow the boardwalks away from the river, you find the best houses furthest from the water. Jobs and services may follow. In a town with no cars, new elevated main roads of concrete would allow future vehicle traffic (and help to deploy troops - you can never rule this out - look at the rest of Papua). As I saw from faces in the street, more Javanese now live in Agats. Indonesia has a Transmigration policy. It pays people to resettle in remote areas such as the Asmat. Given all this, I hope the ‘old town’ with its boardwalks and houses teetering on stilts can stay above the tides of change.

Writing this piece has been a chance to reflect. In trying to get to know the people, my inability to speak Bahasa Indonesia was frustrating. We were in these villages for only a few hours. We did not have time to sit down to share a meal with them. It was a fleeting visit, moving around the boardwalks like spirits. I was happy enough with that. So too, perhaps, were the people of Syuru and Agats. But in the modern world, to be able to exchange smiles and move freely without fear or suspicion is itself a wonderful thing.

On a shoot like this, it does take a while to find your feet and start to see the shots. Stepping into a tribal culture was all new to me. But the contact with us was also a novelty for these people. As part of this air of excitement, it was the naturalism of my subjects that gave warmth to the images I feel privileged to have brought home with me.

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