The Mentawai in monochrome

Travel photographer Guy Needham has developed a deep affinity for indigenous cultures, with his latest expedition to remote West Sumatra culminating in a series of intimate portraits of the province’s indigenous people

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The Mentawai people, indigenous to an archipelago of islands in Indonesia’s West Sumatra province, cut visually striking figures. Their slight bodies are tough and leathery from self-sufficiently working the land, clothed in handmade cloths and with intricate linework tattoos traced over sinewy musculature. They’re often bedecked with ornate handcrafted headpieces and jewellery, while some chisel their teeth to sharpened points in the name of beauty. It is not hard to see how this singular culture, almost untouched by the modern world, captured the fascination of Auckland-based photographer Guy Needham.

Looking in on a different culture can hold a strong allure, especially for photographers. Differences in aesthetics, ritual and routine, and expressions of identity often present a beguiling tapestry for the visually-fixated. But it’s also a scenario rife with cultural snares for an observer only interested in the superficial risks offending, misrepresenting, and even exploiting the subject, however unintentionally.

This needn’t mean photographers should shy away from exploring lives and experiences different from their own: for Needham, it simply means approaching a project from a place of knowledge, humility, and respect. In his travels around the Pacific and beyond, he has developed a deep affinity for indigenous cultures, and finds demonstrating good faith and reliability instrumental in working within diverse communities.

The accumulation of this practice is his Tribes series, which has seen Needham study, travel to, and live with various indigenous populations around the globe, including the Huli of Papua New Guinea, the Hamar of Ethiopia, and, most recently, the Mentawai. The photographer sees this ongoing project as not simply a matter of documenting disparate cultures, but challenging his own world view and notions of identity born from hegemonic western culture.

“I wanted to go beyond voyeuristic passing to take imperfect images, ones that can only be earned with trust,” he explains.

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The first step towards that trust was finding out as much as he could about the Mentawai people, along with locating an appropriate guide for the excursion. Just getting to the cluster of islands required three flights, a ferry trip, a ride in a motorized canoe, and a two-hour trek on foot. But it was worth it for the photographer to be able to spend almost two weeks living among the semi-nomadic people, staying in a communal longhouse made of bamboo and grass, called an uma.

While there, Needham ate what the Mentawai ate, including sago grubs (comparable to New Zealand’s huhu grubs) and fried pith of the sago palm, and he slept on the floor of the uma with the local families.

“Typical days were watching sago being pressed, bark being stripped off for loin cloths, treks into the jungle to hunt birds or deer, and fishing in the local rivers,” he recalls. “I simply tagged along trying not to fall off rotting logs, get bitten by leeches or lose my walking stick in the mud.”

Being a solo adventurer on these expedition, Needham has to put his faith in local guides and fixers to help get him where he needs to be. For any photographer travelling outside of their home field, a guide can be invaluable, particularly if translation is necessary. However, not all guides are as interested in their clients’ requirements as might be wished. While Needham has had plenty of dealings with excellent fixers, his voyage to the Mentawai was not such an occasion.

“This time I got one who was more interested in getting the most out of the trip himself, and not letting me know what was going on,” he laments. “I just made the most out of a bad situation, and asked questions of others whenever I could.”

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Fortunately, his sub-par guide happened to have a porter and chef with him who spoke passable English, and was willing to help the photographer out when necessary. But Needham has also found an earnest attempt at learning some of the local language, along with humble improvisation, can go a long way.

“I’ve found over the years that if you try a few words and mangle them people will forgive you. The worst that will happen is they give you a funny look … Sign language was also good for a laugh, the fingers on the palm falling over is universal for ‘I slid off’.”

Living in the isolated jungle, the Mentawai communities hold tight to a traditional way of life, including animist religious beliefs that do not conform to any of the official religions sanctioned by the Indonesian government, which has been a source of conflict. The culture is not completely removed from the modern world, however: two of the families Needham stayed with had played host to western visitors before, and knew what facets of Mentawai life would likely need explaining to an outsider.

“I was a novelty because I have dark skin but was wearing ‘white-man clothes’ and spoke ‘white-man words’,” says the photographer. “The main things I did was try to be a courteous guest, ask interesting questions and join in with celebrations — my rousing rendition of Pokarekare Ana was in reply to their bird dance song.”

In addition to navigating cultural particularities, the photographer also had West Sumatra’s distinct environment to contend with when shooting. It’s given over to dense tropical forests, the climate is very damp, and because he visited during the province’s wet season, Needham was explicitly advised by his guide that he “can’t expect to get dry” for the duration of the trip.

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The wet conditions meant waterproof casings for both his Canon 5D Mark III and 60D, as well as making sure waterproof liners and bags kept every bit of sensitive gear dry. The lush foliage of the jungle makes for dark lighting conditions, so fast glass is a necessity, but relying solely on prime lenses was not an option. Not only would constantly changing lenses eat away at shooting time, but it also increases the chance of moisture making its way inside the camera and wreaking havok. Needham ended up selecting the Canon EF 24–105mm f/4L IS II, EF 70–200mm f/2.8L II, and EF 50mm f/1.2/L for the trip.

“There was also no electricity in the jungle so I had to stock up on batteries for my DSLRs,” he adds. “At the same time I couldn’t appear to be any sort of journalist, as Indonesian authorities in the area get a little nervous, so I ended up looking like a well-equipped tourist.”

Regardless of how well an adventure is planned, though, the whims of fate are wont to play a role. A seasoned traveller should be flexible enough to roll with the punches, but sometimes happenstance can knock down even the hardiest of wayfarers. Needham was bluntly reminded of this on his latest voyage, when a fever left him delirious for several days.

“At one stage I woke up to find a medicine man pushing into my stomach while chanting a spell,” the photographer remembers. “As I opened my eyes the first thing I saw was my watch on his wrist, and I wondered what the hell was going on … The next day I was told he was the same man I’d met a week earlier and given my watch to — he’d heard I was sick so had come to help.”

When coming upon these sorts of unplanned challenges, Needham advises would-be explorers to let go of plans and “wing it”, as long as they hold to the central tenets of culturally sensitive photography: be open with your hosts, generous with your time, and always remember that these are people before they are ‘subjects’.

“It will show in your photography.”

This article originally appeared in D-Photo 79 August-September 2017

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