Threads: Heart of Lightness - Journey to the Asmat

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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..

Welcome to the Asmat - part 1

by Stephen

Asmat war canoes welcome our arrival on the river off Syuru Village. Just as they were crossing the wide channel to greet us, this ferry came steaming by. Talk about bad timing!

There was a moment of concern when one of the canoes stopped in mid channel. The occupant raised his arm and palm in a “stop” signal in front of the oncoming vessel. Not likely – this is the Bali Ferry – which takes two long weeks to arrive in the Asmat.

We could hear the war cries of the Asmat warriors while they still had their boats hidden in the mangroves waiting to ‘ambush’ us.

There were over 60 canoes. They all managed to regroup after the ferry passed; and soon the speedy fleet had encircled the Orion. Just as well they were friendly!

Asmat war canoes welcome our arrival on the river off Syuru Village. Just as they were crossing the wide channel to greet us, this ferry came steaming by. Talk about bad timing! 

There was a moment of concern when one of the canoes stopped in mid channel. The occupant raised his arm and palm in a “stop” signal in front of the oncoming vessel. Not likely – this is the Bali Ferry – which takes two long weeks to arrive in the Asmat.

We could hear the war cries of the Asmat warriors while they still had their boats hidden in the mangroves waiting to ‘ambush’ us. 

There were over 60 canoes. They all managed to regroup after the ferry passed; and soon the speedy fleet had encircled the Orion. Just as well they were friendly!

Welcome to the Asmat - part 2

by Stephen

Asmat war canoes greet our arrival on the river off Syuru Village. We could hear the war cries of the Asmat warriors while they still had their boats hidden in the mangroves waiting to ‘ambush’ us. There were over 60 canoes.

It must have been a huge day for the ‘junior warriors’ you can see in the first canoe. I am not sure how often the village puts on this kind of spectacle. Few if any other cruise ships call in; and the Orion only makes this trip once every two or three years.

[i]Asmat war canoes greet our arrival on the river off Syuru Village. We could hear the war cries of the Asmat warriors while they still had their boats hidden in the mangroves waiting to ‘ambush’ us. There were over 60 canoes.[/i] 

It must have been a huge day for the ‘junior warriors’ you can see in the first canoe. I am not sure how often the village puts on this kind of spectacle. Few if any other cruise ships call in; and the Orion only makes this trip once every two or three years.

Welcome to the Asmat - part 3

by Stephen

Asmat war canoes greet our arrival on the river off Syuru Village. We could hear the war cries of the Asmat warriors while they still had their boats hidden in the mangroves waiting to ‘ambush’ us. There were over 60 canoes.

A unique display of culture. And yet the future of the Asmat - as with the whole of Papua – is less than certain. The two regions we visited on this cruise - the Asmat and Tanimbar Islands (in the Banda Sea), have populations of 70,000 and 60,000 respectively. In total, this is less than 0.05% of the population of Indonesia. Papua also has the country's richest mineral wealth. I can only hope that the type of tourism I took part in will help to sustain the traditions I was lucky enough to witness.

[i]Asmat war canoes greet our arrival on the river off Syuru Village. We could hear the war cries of the Asmat warriors while they still had their boats hidden in the mangroves waiting to ‘ambush’ us. There were over 60 canoes.[/i] 

A unique display of culture. And yet the future of the Asmat - as with the whole of Papua – is less than certain. The two regions we visited on this cruise - the Asmat and Tanimbar Islands (in the Banda Sea), have populations of 70,000 and 60,000 respectively. In total, this is less than 0.05% of the population of Indonesia. Papua also has the country's richest mineral wealth. I can only hope that the type of tourism I took part in will help to sustain the traditions I was lucky enough to witness.

Welcome to the Asmat - part 4

by Stephen

Asmat war canoes greet our arrival on the river off Syuru Village. We could hear the war cries of the Asmat warriors while they still had their boats hidden in the mangroves waiting to ‘ambush’ us. There were over 60 canoes.

In this shot, I like the angle of their line of vision. The canoe’s occupants are looking up to the deck of the Orion - from where we look down with our own sense of wonder.

[i]Asmat war canoes greet our arrival on the river off Syuru Village. We could hear the war cries of the Asmat warriors while they still had their boats hidden in the mangroves waiting to ‘ambush’ us. There were over 60 canoes.[/i] 

In this shot, I like the angle of their line of vision. The canoe’s occupants are looking up to the deck of the Orion - from where we look down with our own sense of wonder.

Welcome to the Asmat - part 5

by Stephen

This is the jetty at Syuru Village in the Asmat.

Here, our expedition team, local guides, Asmat chief and onlookers greet us as we arrive from the Orion. The advance team had done some quick repairs on the jetty – cutting off jagged ends of timber.

The Zodiac eased its way into the jetty. We all took a deep breath. Then and it was up and onwards into the village…

Hope you can join me next week as I take a walk around the boardwalks of Syuru.

This is the jetty at Syuru Village in the Asmat.

Here, our expedition team, local guides, Asmat chief and onlookers greet us as we arrive from the Orion. The advance team had done some quick repairs on the jetty – cutting off jagged ends of timber. 

The Zodiac eased its way into the jetty. We all took a deep breath. Then and it was up and onwards into the village…

Hope you can join me next week as I take a walk around the boardwalks of Syuru.

Syuru Village - part 1

by Stephen

These two Orion passengers were very quick to befriend the locals. Get the kids on side and you win over the whole village!

Over the next week or two, I take a walk around Syuru and meet some of its people. The village extends over the mangroves. Built above the tidal river, a network of boardwalks and wooden platforms serve as roads, paths and market squares. Houses rise up on stilts out of the tidal swamp.

These two Orion passengers were very quick to befriend the locals. Get the kids on side and you win over the whole village!

Over the next week or two, I take a walk around Syuru and meet some of its people. The village extends over the mangroves. Built above the tidal river, a network of boardwalks and wooden platforms serve as roads, paths and market squares. Houses rise up on stilts out of the tidal swamp.

Syuru Village - part 2

by Stephen

To mark our visit to Syuru, the men and women of the village conducted a number of ceremonies. Here, wood carvings were raised to the top of a platform built outside the Men's House.

Asmat carvings are highly prized by museums around the world. (I will show shots of Asmat Art in a later series.) The region is now mainly Christian. However, many old Animistic beliefs live on in their culture. The symbolism of the figures depicted in their art is one such vital expression.

Their tribal hats are made of Cuscus fur – from the small marsupial found in New Guinea and Australia’s Cape York. But they also keep this cute animal as a pet.

To mark our visit to Syuru, the men and women of the village conducted a number of ceremonies. Here, wood carvings were raised to the top of a platform built outside the Men's House. 

Asmat carvings are highly prized by museums around the world. (I will show shots of Asmat Art in a later series.) The region is now mainly Christian. However, many old Animistic beliefs live on in their culture. The symbolism of the figures depicted in their art is one such vital expression. 

Their tribal hats are made of Cuscus fur – from the small marsupial found in New Guinea and Australia’s Cape York. But they also keep this cute animal as a pet.

Syuru Village - part 3

by Stephen

Asmat artists
In Syuru Village, the people had set out stalls offering wood carvings and other artifacts such as drums, stone axes and shields. I bought a few small carvings and also took the opportunity to get photos of some of the wood crafters whose work was on display.

Here, you see the first of three of these portraits.

In a future series, I will focus on Asmat Art - when I visit the Agats Museum.

[b]Asmat artists[/b]
In Syuru Village, the people had set out stalls offering wood carvings and other artifacts such as drums, stone axes and shields. I bought a few small carvings and also took the opportunity to get photos of some of the wood crafters whose work was on display. 

Here, you see the first of three of these portraits.

In a future series, I will focus on Asmat Art - when I visit the Agats Museum.

Syuru Village - part 4

by Stephen

Asmat artists
In Syuru Village, the people had set out stalls offering wood carvings and other artifacts such as drums, stone axes and shields. I bought a few small carvings and also took the opportunity to get photos of some of the wood crafters whose work was on display.

Here, you see the second of three of these portraits.

In a future series, I will focus on Asmat Art - when I visit the Agats Museum.

[b]Asmat artists[/b]
In Syuru Village, the people had set out stalls offering wood carvings and other artifacts such as drums, stone axes and shields. I bought a few small carvings and also took the opportunity to get photos of some of the wood crafters whose work was on display. 

Here, you see the second of three of these portraits.

In a future series, I will focus on Asmat Art - when I visit the Agats Museum.

Syuru Village - part 5

by Stephen

Asmat artists
In Syuru Village, the people had set out stalls offering wood carvings and other artifacts such as drums, stone axes and shields. I bought a few small carvings and also took the opportunity to get photos of some of the wood crafters whose work was on display.

Here, you see the third and final of these portraits.

In a future series, I will focus on Asmat Art - when I visit the Agats Museum.

[b]Asmat artists[/b]
In Syuru Village, the people had set out stalls offering wood carvings and other artifacts such as drums, stone axes and shields. I bought a few small carvings and also took the opportunity to get photos of some of the wood crafters whose work was on display. 

Here, you see the third and final of these portraits.

In a future series, I will focus on Asmat Art - when I visit the Agats Museum.

Syuru Village - part 6

by Stephen

A portrait of two Asmat tribal elders. I met them outside the Men’s House in Syuru village.

Youth represent the future – they are the subject of my next two posts in this series.

A portrait of two Asmat tribal elders. I met them outside the Men’s House in Syuru village.

Youth represent the future – they are the subject of my next two posts in this series.

Syuru Village - part 7

by Stephen

Here, you see a portrait of a local man, Joshua. I spoke briefly to him as I walked around the village. Joshua spoke quite good English; and I was able to practice a few phrases in Bahasa Indonesia.

Looking at the photo now, I regret not having spent more time with him so as to tell you his story.

Here, you see a portrait of a local man, Joshua. I spoke briefly to him as I walked around the village. Joshua spoke quite good English; and I was able to practice a few phrases in Bahasa Indonesia. 

Looking at the photo now, I regret not having spent more time with him so as to tell you his story.

Syuru Village - part 8

by Stephen

I came across these kids having fun jumping off the boardwalk into what looked like very shallow and muddy water. They paused long enough for me to get a quick snapshot.

In this situation, we would ask the kids before taking a photo. And seeing the resulting shot on the camera screen brought shrieks of laughter from them.

I hope you enjoyed this walk around Syuru village. In my next post, we go a little further up river to the town of Agats.

I came across these kids having fun jumping off the boardwalk into what looked like very shallow and muddy water. They paused long enough for me to get a quick snapshot. 

In this situation, we would ask the kids before taking a photo. And seeing the resulting shot on the camera screen brought shrieks of laughter from them.

I hope you enjoyed this walk around Syuru village. In my next post, we go a little further up river to the town of Agats.

Cruisin' - part 3

by Stephen

A view from one of the Zodiac inflatable craft as it heads back to Orion.

Above the top deck, you can see the crane arms used to raise and lower the Zodiacs. (They stack on the top platform when not in use.) The low platform at the stern of the Orion is where we step in and out of these landing craft.

In this shot, the Orion is at anchor on the river off the town of Agats in the Asmat region of the Indonesian province of Papua. This is a very remote place. The maps simply identify the area as "swamp" or "jungle". The river is very tidal and only navigable at high tide. In fact, the depth was only 6 metres at high tide. The Orion has a draft of 3.8 metres. It is a long way up river from the Arafura Sea; and the Captain sent out a Zodiac to lead the way and check the depth with a lead line. Better to be sure - getting stuck on a sandbank would create a lot of paperwork!

A view from one of the Zodiac inflatable craft as it heads back to Orion.

Above the top deck, you can see the crane arms used to raise and lower the Zodiacs. (They stack on the top platform when not in use.) The low platform at the stern of the Orion is where we step in and out of these landing craft.

In this shot, the Orion is at anchor on the river off the town of Agats in the Asmat region of the Indonesian province of Papua. This is a very remote place. The maps simply identify the area as "swamp" or "jungle". The river is very tidal and only navigable at high tide. In fact, the depth was only 6 metres at high tide. The Orion has a draft of 3.8 metres. It is a long way up river from the Arafura Sea; and the Captain sent out a Zodiac to lead the way and check the depth with a lead line. Better to be sure - getting stuck on a sandbank would create a lot of paperwork!

Agats Town - part 1

by Stephen

The day after our visit to Syuru, we travelled up river to the town of Agats. In this shot, you see one of our skillful Zodiac drivers with his eyes on course. My fellow passengers all look lost in thought. No doubt thinking about the expedition ahead of us.

The day after our visit to Syuru, we travelled up river to the town of Agats. In this shot, you see one of our skillful Zodiac drivers with his eyes on course. My fellow passengers all look lost in thought. No doubt thinking about the expedition ahead of us.

Agats Town - part 2

by Stephen

Our Zodiac glides into the shore at Agats. We were relieved to find a more solid landing than the jetty found here!

As you can see, the town is built on stilts rising above the tidal river and mangrove swamp.

Our Zodiac glides into the shore at Agats. We were relieved to find a more solid landing than the jetty found [url=http://gaze.aminus3.com/image/2012-05-04.html]here[/url]! 

As you can see, the town is built on stilts rising above the tidal river and mangrove swamp.

Agats Town - part 3

by Stephen

A shore side view of the jetty at Agats where we landed in the Zodiac. Ready now to set out on our tour of the town.

A shore side view of the jetty at Agats where we landed in the Zodiac. Ready now to set out on our tour of the town.

Agats Town - part 4

by Stephen

We are now on the boardwalk in Agats. The whole town is connected by these walk ways over the tidal mangrove swamp.

These two women seem to be heading to - or from - the market. In my next post - I’ll see what is fresh at the market.

We are now on the boardwalk in Agats. The whole town is connected by these walk ways over the tidal mangrove swamp. 

These two women seem to be heading to - or from - the market. In my next post - I’ll see what is fresh at the market.

Agats Town - part 5

by Stephen

One of the markets on the boardwalk in Agats. The fresh fruit and vegetables you see here would be difficult to grow locally. Gardens need to be raised above the level of the mangrove swamp. As well as fruit and vegetables, other fresh food included fish and the red meat of the Cassowary (an Emu-like bird).

One of the markets on the boardwalk in Agats. The fresh fruit and vegetables you see here would be difficult to grow locally. Gardens need to be raised above the level of the mangrove swamp. As well as fruit and vegetables, other fresh food included fish and the red meat of the Cassowary (an Emu-like bird).

Agats Town - part 6

by Stephen

A proud Barça fan shows me his painted shop front. But this is no place to play a game of beach soccer - only mudflats once you leave the boardwalk.

You are with me on my walk around the town of Agats in the Asmat region of the Indonesian province of Papua.

A proud Barça fan shows me his painted shop front. But this is no place to play a game of beach soccer - only mudflats once you leave the boardwalk.

You are with me on my walk around the town of Agats in the Asmat region of the Indonesian province of Papua.