Mark Lehn: Two Weeks with the Iban Dayak
After completing a self-assigned project on the Bajau Laut tribe in the Sabah region of Malaysia Borneo, a few years back, Brisbane-based photographer Mark Lehn decided to venture once again to the region last month, this time to document the lives of the Iban Dayak in the West Kalimantan province of the island.
The Iban Dayak are considered the original wild men, numbering up to around 280,000, living along the countless network of rivers in the province. They possess a rich and vibrant culture on display across multiple facets of life rooted in tradition, living sustainably through weaving, hunting, and fishing while celebrating their history through symbolic tattoos, music, and dance.
I find it absolutely amazing these traditional cultures still survive in these remote areas. I am quite a nostalgic person and I love tradition. I wanted to find out more about the culture and capture a documentary series, including portraits, to share it with people who don't have the opportunity to visit themselves.
Even though Mark had been to the area before, he still had to rely on the support of a local fixer, guides, and interpreters to arrange his transportation and make sure he got from one location to the next. It takes a village to keep a photographer alive in the jungle, it would seem. Traveling across remote landscapes and territories is a difficult task on its own, but it becomes gargantuan when you're also carrying a ski bag for a 6x8 custom Oliphant backdrop, a stand bag, a camera bag and pelican cases for your lighting system. Bear Grylls would break a sweat just thinking about it.
Even with a solid local crew helping with the traveling, the shooting conditions were challenging. Events played out like an episode of Man vs. Wild where the tropical weather hammered down on Mark and gave him a heat stroke, cutting into his time in Borneo. On top of this, his countless allergies (nuts, shellfish, soy) meant that he had to be cautious of his meals as well, a difficult task in cultures where refusing food can be taken as a slight offense. Luckily for him, the Dayak were understanding enough of his situation, and Mark got by with bananas, white rice, eggs and fresh fish.
The other big obstacle presented itself in the form of traveling distances. Mark would be stuck on small boats covering over 300 nautical miles, spending hours on end with hardly any shade, ultimately leaving him very little time for shooting. Despite the rigors of his adventure, Mark was undeterred.
I love working on personal projects. It's one of the few times as a photographer that you have total control and full creative license. I find it's a great opportunity to experiment and it reinvigorates me to keep pushing myself and learning.
He loves it so much that he plans to return to West Kalimantan and the Iban Dayaks in the future. During his time with the tribe, Mark witnessed the encroaching influence of modern culture on tribal life. He hopes to explore the effects of the palm oil industry on Dayak communities, building on the story he has already told.
Some people think of Dayaks and they just think of primitive animalistic headhunters, but visiting these tribes I feel like we could learn a lot from their sustainable lifestyle and their connection to the land and community. They are so proud and I'm just humbled to have been able to experience it and share it with others. I've made lifelong friends in a very short time.
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