© James Morgan Photography
Nomadic seafaring tribes of Southeast Asia have sustained themselves for generations by fishing the coral reefs around the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, East Timor and the Solomon Islands. But new fishing methods promoted by corporate fishing interests in the region are now destroying those reefs—and undermining a way of life for the tribes.
Photojournalist James Morgan explored the issue in his recent multimedia piece called “The Bajau Laut: Sea Nomads of Indonesia.” It’s a two-part story that documents the fading traditions of the Bajau Laut, and their connection to the billion-dollar live fish industry centered in Bali and Hong Kong. The industry delivers fish alive and swimming to restaurants in the major cities of Asia, where diners pay as much as $130 per fish.
Print versions of Morgan’s project have appeared in The Guardian, the South China Morning Post, and other papers. Morgan is now working with the World Wildlife Fund and other clients to publish the project online, with a goal of helping the Bajau Laut and communities in the so-called Coral Triangle re-establish a safe, sustainable fishery.
Morgan came across the story when he was a graduate student in photography at the London College of Communication searching for a topic for his master’s thesis. He was initially interested in the Moken nomads, who ply the Andaman Sea around Thailand and Burma. Much was written about them after they recognized the warning signs of the 2004 tsunami and escaped it. “It seemed like a wonderful notion that these people could have such a connection to their environment” that they avoided disaster, Morgan says.
The problem was, they had been photographed plenty. Many now live in tourist villages. So Morgan was eager to focus on the Bajau Laut—a lesser known group—when he came across references to them while reading academic journals, researching sea nomads on the internet, and talking to his professors. “The Bajau Laut hadn’t been photographed as much,” Morgan says. “They were much harder to find.”
Initially Morgan’s intent was to approach the project as an ethnographic study. In 2009, he applied for the Royal Photographic Society’s Postgraduate Bursary award, and won it. It provided him with about $5,500. “I had all this money and support, but I had no idea how I would find the Bajau Laut people,” he says.
But he figured he would need to learn Bahasa Indonesia, the common regional language, to communicate with them. He also set about learning how to free dive, just as the Bajau Laut people do to gather fish and shellfish to eat.
“Part of my interest in the project,” Morgan explains, “was the free-diving aspect. When marine mammals hold their breath for a period of time, their heart rates and metabolism slow. That happens to humans, too. I thought that connection [between humans and their environment] was interesting conceptually.” He also wanted to free-dive to connect with his subjects, and to avoid the hassle and expense of taking SCUBA gear.
Morgan spent about six months studying the language and practicing free-diving. Then, with an assignment from The Guardian to shoot an unrelated story, Morgan set off for Indonesia with writer Johnny Langenheim (who is also fluent in the language.) Once they finished work for The Guardian, they set out for a Bajau Laut stilt settlement on Sulawesi, Indonesia.
Morgan explains, “The majority of the Bajau have been forced into settlements” built on stilts near their fishing grounds. Regional governments are settling nomads as part of a campaign to cut piracy by accounting for everyone. But the Bajau Laut are settling for another reason, too: food is growing scarce. Their fishing grounds are being destroyed.
Morgan discovered after he arrived that the Bajau Laut have started using homemade explosives and potassium cyanide to harvest fish. Traditionally, they used harpoons, and also gathered shellfish by hand. But the new methods enable them to stun many fish at once, and gather them on the surface to supply the live fish traders in Bali, who then send the catch to Hong Kong.
But the cyanide especially destroys the reefs by floating down current and killing everything in its wake, Morgan says. (Many of the fish that float to the surface also die, but fishermen inject those that survive with a steroid to counteract the cyanide, he says.)
“When we got there we realized it was a much bigger story than we thought,” Morgan says. “The Coral Triangle is a biological region. It’s a battleground of marine conservation, and that gave the story about the Bajau Laut a larger context. The difficulties and potential solutions are what made it such a fascinating study.”
The first part of the story was about the cultural changes within the Bajau Laut community. “It wasn’t hard to win peoples’ trust,” Morgan says. “They have a sense of humor, and within a short time people were into telling their stories.”
Morgan spent time photographing and interviewing people around the stilt village as they went about their daily lives. He shows women and children foraging for food along the shoreline. He shot a sequence of images showing how homemade explosives are assembled for fishing. Morgan also shot portraits of people badly maimed by the homemade bombs. And he photographed people free-diving for food, as well as kids free-diving for fun: the project opens with images of one boy grasping the tail of a shark for an underwater joy ride.
Underwater, Morgan shot with a Nikon D700 protected by a surf housing. That was less costly than an underwater housing, but also less waterproof, Morgan explains: Surf housings protect cameras only to about ten meters of depth. But that was enough, Morgan says, because he was shooting underwater with natural light only. “Everything looks blue and horrible once you get past 7 or 8 meters,” he says. (On land, he also shot mostly with natural light, using two Nikon D3 camera bodies, prime lenses, and a Speedlight for some night shots.)
Morgan also hired a fixer—a villager with a traditional boat called a lepa-lepa—for about $10 per day. The fixer took him out to sea in search of true nomads among the Bajau Laut who live at sea on their boats. “There were no kids among them,” Morgan says of the few people they encountered. “This is the last generation of people who live at sea as nomads. As beautiful as it looks, it’s really hard to live on these boats,” which are less than 20 feet long and only about 3 feet wide, Morgan explains.
Morgan showed images to various magazines when he returned to London. Several were interested, but none were willing to pay until the project was finished. But that was enough encouragement to continue to the second part of the project, documenting the live fish industry, Morgan says.
Besides finding more funding, another challenge was gaining access to the operations of live fish traders, and other fishermen besides the Bajau Laut who were supplying those traders. “People were catching fish [species] that are endangered and illegal to catch,” Morgan explains. “It’s all mafia run, and the traders are supplying cyanide to the Indonesia fishermen.” Not surprisingly, they don’t want journalists nosing around.
So Morgan ended up turning to Heru Purnomo, the owner of a cyanide-free fish trading company in Indonesia.
“He wanted to help clean the industry up,” says Morgan. “He provided some support for the second half of the project in order to get the message out.” In addition to financial support, Purnomo provided access to his operations, and to various fishermen, so Morgan could document the live fish trade.
It isn’t unusual for photojournalists to seek alternative sources of funding for their projects, now that publishers won’t (or can’t) support them. But turning to subjects for financial support for a documentary project raises obvious ethical questions. Asked whether he mentioned Purnomo’s support to editors who have bought rights to publish the story, Morgan says, “I haven’t mentioned it. It’s not worth mentioning, to my mind. Cyanide fishing is bad. There are not really two sides to that story.”
Morgan did his own multimedia post-production, combining his video footage, stills, and audio using Final Cut. In addition to the content he produced, Morgan turned to Juliana Davies to create motion graphics to explain the location and size of the Coral Triangle, as well as provide statistical information about the live fish trade.
Post-production took about two months. “I started with images, organized esthetically according to how I wanted it to progress, and I shaped the audio around that,” Morgan says. “In retrospect, I should have done the audio first.”
The multimedia production is just under 12 minutes long. Morgan has yet to license it to any news organizations, although he says he’s been in discussions with the BBC about licensing an abridged (3- to 4-minute) version.
Meanwhile, he’s now working under a one-year contract with the World Wildlife Foundation to set up an online portal to promote conservation in the Coral Triangle region. His Bajau Laut multimedia project will reside there (it is currently available on Morgan’s Web site, and on Vimeo), along with other content from journalists, academics and artists working on projects related to the region.
“We’re branding the Coral Triangle as the underwater version of the Amazon,” Morgan says. The goal of the portal, he says, is to draw attention to conservation issues, and provide a forum for voices from tribes and communities in the region “so we can bring them into the process of decision making” that leads to solutions for problems that affect the region.