British camera pro James Morgan takes amazing pictures of far-off people and places. Here, the award-winning travel photographer and visual anthropologist talks about his adventurous trips
By the age of 24, anthropologist-turned-photographer James Morgan (www.jamesmorganphotography.co.uk) has travelled to some of the most secluded spots on earth to capture hidden indigenous communities and document their unique rituals and ways of life. Published in magazines around the world, the busy Brit has been getting quite a lot of attention for his vibrant imagery lately. Among others, he received the Travel Photographer of the Year award for a recent story on the Bajau Laut people, living as sea nomads in the Coral Triangle between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. When this work for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) was presented at the venerable Royal Geographic Society in London, we too became curious about his travels. We finally caught up with James via Skype as he was holed up in Sri Lanka, preparing for yet another trip to Papua, Indonesia:
For a start, how did you become a travel photographer?
At the time, I was studying social anthropology in Iceland. I had always been interested in a lot of these issues, like indigenous rights and the environment, so I got quite disillusioned with writing academic texts that might get published in books that no one ever reads. So, I started taking photographs and eventually sent them to some magazines. After finishing university I kept on doing it and have focused on my pictures for the last three years.
Last year alone you travelled to Kenya, India, Indonesia, China, Japan and the Galapagos Islands. Is there a connection between all of these destinations?
A lot of these countries were on the route because they are quite close to each other. For example, last year I took the Trans-Siberian railway and travelled from Moscow all the way to Beijing by train. I spent some time in Russia and then in Mongolia where I shot a story about eagle hunters — which was the first big story that I shot. That was for the Sunday Times in South Africa and the Italian Le Soleil Magazine.
Exciting! How do you approach a different culture, does it always work out the way you expect?
There are definitely a lot of culturally ambiguous moments. Take my eagle hunters story in the mountains of Bayan Olgii, Mongolia. Every night, they would kill a sheep and boil it. Then they eat the whole thing, even the blood-covered intestines — a speciality — and all sit down to eat from one plate. As I was their guest, I was given the intestines. It was their way to honour me.
When you return from a trip like this, do you feel changed by the experience?
I am more self-aware now, but not necessarily in a positive way. I don’t know if it has made me a better person. More than anything, it has left me with the sense that we cannot ever expect to really understand all cultures. Everything is so culturally defined. After a while, you lose track of who you are and what culture you are from while you work.
Do you ever come to places that you would rather keep a secret?
For the most part, a lot of these communities that I am photographing live in areas that are faced with a conflict between industry and tourism. So, on the one hand, you don’t want too many tourists coming here because it is going to upset the environment. On the other hand, these communities need to make a living. And if they aren’t getting it from tourism, they are getting it from oil or logging. This can be a very delicate issue. However, most of the communities I visit are so poor that too many people visiting is not their main concern. Their main concern is what happens if people don’t visit.
So you want to raise more awareness with your stories...
Yes, for example for the sea nomads in the Coral Triangle. Quite often the motivation for these stories is to make these people’s voices heard by their own government and the outside world. There is a lot of debate about the area where they live and how to conserve it because it is under active threat. So, a strong motivation behind this story was to reveal all about these amazing people and their specialist knowledge.
How did you prepare for this story?
I was out in Indonesia all year. The first step was to learn the language, which was not too difficult. And then I had to learn to dive without the oxygen tanks because you can’t really take the tanks out to some of these communities. So I dive on a single breath of air and then try and follow them down and take as many pictures as I can before my breath runs out – and then come back up for air. It takes a lot of practice. By now, I can go down to 50 feet [about 15 metres], but the sea nomads can go a lot deeper.
How did you experience this unique community?
Originally, they literally lived on boats floating at sea all year round. The government tried to settle them on land with the result that most of them now live in stilt houses built over the water. I stayed with a stilt community and with people living on boats as well. I had a great time because I love the ocean. But it is a really hard life they have because the environment has degraded badly and there is a lot of dynamite and potassium cyanide fishing going on. They are basically outlawed people, like the gypsies in Europe. The government ignores them and even tries to stamp them out. It’s a tough situation.
How do you pack for your trips?
I just take my camera, video equipment and some spare underwear and buy clothes locally. It is easier, cheaper and good to support the local economy a bit. In terms of equipment I take two cameras, so when one dies I still have another one. Everything is insured, but occasionally a lens gets lost and there is nothing you can do about it.
You also mentioned video equipment.
Yes, I want to get more into doing documentaries and feature films. Hopefully, someone will be interested in financing me to make some …
Sounds good! We will keep our eyes open to see what you come up with, thanks for the interview!
James' comments on the photos above:
1 “A little boy, Enal, plays with his pet shark in Sulawesi, Indonesia. This domesticated shark lives in the sea underneath the stilt houses. It symbolized to me the idea of clinging on to old ways and having this intimate relationship with the ocean,“ James says.
2 “The Indonesian sea gypsy Ibu Ani lives on this boat all year round, cooks on it and sings while her son is fishing for food. The two of them live in this little bubble floating at sea,” James says.
3 “The sea gypsies in one of the Indonesian stilt villages are having a mosque built over the sea. Originally they had these animist beliefs in spirits in the ocean. Then they were contacted by Islam. Now they have this syncretic belief where they pray to Allah and merge this with their former belief. So, the mosque is open and above the sea,” James says.
4 “This woman is part of the Achuar in Ecuador, the last ethnic group in the Amazon to still own their land. These three photos of her were all taken within a couple of minutes – you see how she is dealing with the kid while preparing fish. The women all do the work while the men more or less sit around,” James says.
5 “A hunter with his eagle in the remote mountains of Bayan Olgii, Western Mongolia. He is riding with his brother all afternoon looking for foxes, rabbits and wolves. They don’t eat the meat, the eagle gets to keep it. The animals are killed for making hats that serve as status symbols,” James explains.
6 “This uninhabited area in Papua Guinea is supposed to be the most biodiverse body of water in the world. After taking the shot we went down for a swim. There are coral gardens under the water,” James says.
7 “This was taken on Buddha’s birthday in Sri Lanka, in a temple in Colombo. People would come up, light a candle and say a prayer while I was standing on a balcony overlooking the place,” James says.
8 “This is in Sri Lanka, on the train from the mountains of Hatton back to Colombo. It has beautiful waterfalls. I was there on holiday for a week to visit a friend,“ James says.
9 “This is one of the stilt communities in Sulawesi, Indonesia. They settled on land as they were promised electricity and water from the government. But it never arrived, so they went back out to the sea and built a community one kilometre offshore. The girl is foraging for sea cucumbers,” James explains.
10 “This is in Bali just before Nyepi, the Balinese New Year. This girl is going through a trance ceremony and she is led to the ocean where the evil spirits can leave her body. To get into a trance state they play gamelan, a hypnotic music. Behind her there are thousands of people on the beach who stab themselves with daggers to purge themselves from evil spirits,” James explains.
All images © James Morgan Photography