Heart of Lightness - Journey to the Asmat

Stephen takes us along for his photo journey to the Asmat tribe in New Guinea, one of the world’s most remote places.

Curated by Stephen
June 11, 2012

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


Sports ground and town square in the town of Agats. And we complain about the condition of our football pitches!

The whole town extends over the mangroves. Built above the tidal river, a network of boardwalks and wooden platforms serve as roads, paths and public places.


A sign of progress in Agats town. Two shy Asmat girls pass by a pair of electric motor bikes.

These battery powered bikes share the boardwalk with old style traffic such as hand carts and bicycles.


Young friends stick together - same everywhere you go! I came across these kids on the main boardwalk in Agats.

The new 'main road' section of the boardwalk you see here is made of steel and concrete slabs rather than timber.


These boys are standing next to a totem-like post carved in the distinctive art style of the Asmat.

Over the next week - to conclude my tour of this region of Papua - I will feature a short series on Asmat art.


Maureen and I are exploring the town of Agats in the Asmat region of Papua. A local man named Dave kindly offered to take our photo in front of a church.

Expedition cruises are all about trips onshore in remote places. Asmat was our first landing on the cruise. We visited Syuru Village and Agats Township. After the initial culture shock it was a fabulous experience. I will start this new series next week!


In this shot, you see a wooden carving I purchased in Syuru Village. The piece seems to depict a man and a bird wrestling with (or holding up?) a serpent.

Motifs in Asmat art express the former Animistic religion of the region. Everything in nature has a spirit; and it is vital to keep a balance between the known world and its counterpart in the unseen realm of the spirits.

It is a small piece - about 50cm in length. To set up this shot, I supported the base of the carving in the clamp of a bike repair stand. I used a tripod for the shot. A grey card assisted the manual exposure; and I also used a custom white balance setting.

In my next few posts, we take a look at some larger and more elaborate works of Asmat art. These are from the one shop in Agats that caters for collectors; and I then conclude the series with a visit to the Asmat Museum.


I am in Alex's shop in Agats - where collectors can buy some fine examples of local artifacts. Prices (in US dollars), I thought, were reasonable. However, shipping out larger items would be costly.

With its abstract and geometric designs, Asmat art proved to be an exciting discovery for artists in the modernist and surrealist movements. In galleries and museums, Asmat art is on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; and in European venues such as this Asmat art gallery in Berlin.


I am in Alex's shop in Agats. Some fine examples of local carvings and craft are for sale.

I liked the mix of symbols in this corner of the shop. The Christ image seems to gaze down on the Animist religious symbols of the art on display.

The town sees very few tourists. Interest in these artifacts would come mainly from collectors and the art market around the world.

With its abstract and geometric designs, Asmat art proved to be an exciting discovery for artists in the modernist and surrealist movements. In galleries and museums, Asmat art is on show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; and in European venues such as this Asmat art gallery in Berlin.


I am in the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress in Agats. Here I found a good news story for their heritage of wood carving. Hopefully, this first rate exhibition will continue to receive the funding it needs. You can learn more about its colourful history here and here.

The ceremonial shields and spirit masks you see here relate to the former Animist religion and its symbols. It is an influence that still shapes the style of Asmat art.

In October each year, the Museum hosts a competition for wood carvers and artists. The Museum also acquires some of the winning entries. This gives local artists a showcase for their work. My thanks go to the Museum for allowing me to take the photos.


The figures and exotic rituals depicted here relate to the former Animist religion and its symbols. It is an influence that still shapes the style of Asmat art.

I am in the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress in Agats. Here I found a good news story for their heritage of wood carving. Hopefully, this first rate exhibition will continue to receive the funding it needs. You can learn more about its colourful history here and here.

In October each year, the Museum hosts a competition for wood carvers and artists. The Museum also acquires some of the winning entries. This gives local artists a showcase for their work. My thanks go to the Museum for allowing me to take the photos.

Yes - that is a crocodile you see to the right of frame. And it is not a carving. More on the big croc tomorrow - when I conclude my tour of the Asmat.


The big croc you see here is a real mounted crocodile. It measures over 18 feet. In its mouth, you can see offerings made by villagers. One of our tour party, George (who is like a genuine "Crocodile Dundee") was interested in the size of this beauty. He took out a tape measure and ran it over the display - much to the puzzlement of our guides! The Guinness Book of Records lists George as keeping the world's largest (living) crocodile. It is an 18 foot, 100 year-old Croc called Cassius! More than a tourist stop over, the Museum will help Asmat youth to preserve their identity. My thanks go to the staff there for allowing me to take the photos.

This shot concludes my tour of the Asmat region of Papua. Hope you enjoyed the trip around the boardwalks of Syuru and Agats.

On my holiday cruise, our next trip onshore was on the edge of the Banda Sea in the Tanimbar Islands. All this and more in future series!



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