I think most will agree that preparation is key to the success of any project. But on this particular Portrait project, it was all a bit more hectic than usual… It all begun while doing research for a two-year long photo project I had been pushing since March around Climate Change. This project required a pilot to be carried out during the summer. I chose to focus on deforestation in Indonesia for the first chapter (see the post about portraits of workers that I will publish in the near future for more details).
Research about deforestation and tribes in Sumatra quickly revealed the uniqueness of the Mentawai tribe, indigenous of Siberut Island, across the city of Padang in West Sumatra, and well preserved from most influences from the Mainland. Basically, in the Jungle in Siberut, it is still like it was 200 years ago. Meeting those tribes and shooting portraits with them was quite fascinating to me.
As for gear, I tried to pack as light as possible – this is ironic when you know you are going to carry 10kg of equipment everyday in the mud of a jungle island, even under the rain… Alongside my DSLR, I brought three lenses (24-70mm 2.8, 85mm 1.8 and 50mm 1.8, two speedlights and a 50cm-wide reflector/diffuser in order to create some sort of a “softbox”, a tripod/light stand, a hard drive and a netbook for backups. Plus all the flash cards, spare batteries that I could afford – when there is no power in the jungle, you‘d better be prepared for a full week of autonomy! All of that crammed in a compact backpack of 12+kg, plus a drybag for clothes.
I had to keep in mind that I would be carrying all that stuff in the jungle for 6 days, in the mud and probably under the rain… a good motivation to pack as light as possible!
Quick overview of the 10kg of gear. All of that had to fit in or on the bag. Add 1.3kg for the netbook.
July 17-24 – From Paris to Singapore, Jakarta, and Bukittinggi
Travel from Paris to Singapore was smooth, and there I met with my good friend Chin Tah who was miraculously home at the same time – believe it, it must be said for the record – and later was joined by Emma and Laura, who had been cruising the region for several months. We then flew from Singapore to Jakarta, not really knowing whether I would be able to visit the Mentawai, because I had to wait to hear back from several contacts – scientists mostly – from the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, WWF, and Greenpeace, to see whether their schedule would allow us to work together on the Climate Change Project. Eventually, it turned out that they had other commitments that would not be easy to accommodate with our travel plans, so we decided to venture to Bukittinggi to meet my contact Fikar, on July 24, and arrange a visit to Siberut. This would be a good opportunity to build a portfolio of environmental portraits, which I could use within a more personal work perspective.
July 26 – Padang to Siberut
After doing some shopping and sorting out money matters, we left on Monday, July 26 in the evening.
Local Market in Bukittinggi. Fancy some dried snake skins for a snack in the jungle?
Stacks of bills of 50,000 Rupiah, never had held that many bills in my hands!
We took a large ferry boat from Padang, a ship all made of wood and painted blue and white. We were in for 10 hours of cruise to Muara Siberut. Locals just crammed in the lower decks with stacks of vegetables and other goods, and it was quite a challenge to go anywhere on the boat since every corridor was packed with sleeping locals. We were Lucky enough though to have a cabin and shared it with a group of five French people, a lot better than sleeping under the neon lights in the corridor, as in the picture below…
Sleeping on the floor in the corridor. Had to step on him to get out of the cabin.
July 27 – Muara Siberut to Rorogot
We arrived in Muara Siberut, the main harbour of the island at 8 am the next day, and took a speed boat up the river for 1 hour or so.
Sunrise in Muara Siberut from the ferry deck
Speedboat ride in a wooden canoe. Keep your balance!
After a trek in the jungle, and several river crossing that left our shoes covered in mud we then arrived at the first house (“Uma”), where we were going to stay for the evening and the next day. We were welcomed by the father and the mother, Papak Kerei, and Teo Kapiak.
This was the first contact with the Mentawai, and we stayed to exchange a few words in the Mentawai dialect with them, in order to get to know each other. I did not take my camera out yet, as this was not the proper time.
Later this day, I felt I had to engage negotiations again with our guide to clarify what I wanted to do there, as I felt that his routine and interests may not allow me to get the type of pictures I wanted. Taking all of my gear out in front of him and explaining the use of all this equipment made it easier for him to realize how I wanted to work. The difficulty here was that we were part of a larger group, and it was not easy to set time aside to do the photo shoots, as the others had different priorities that had to be accommodated by our guide as well.
The very slippery trunks laid in the paths there to walk faster and don’t struggle in the mud
Getting in the bog above the ankles and your shoes never look (or smell, for that matter) the same again…