The Nomads, The Clever One & The Sea

Speaking of finding food & earning a living, photographers today are becoming more creative in getting more money-generating work, documentarians are doing commercial work on the side, and many commercial shooters are doing documentary when time allows it.

Photojournalists and documentarians often depend on scientific or social grants beside their fixed or assignment-based income, it’s pretty much like a pitching contest with commercial clients but you compete with a slightly different agenda, in commercial terms, the client’s formula is to award the best portfolio with the best price, while grants are being rewarded by your academic or scientific credentials, relevance and sometimes, inside connection. Both are highly rewarding, more to the latter, creatively perhaps, but also very competitive.

But now more and more grants also depend on corporate sponsorship which means a shift in their priorities, no longer a project can be purely academical or scientific, but also commercial priorities are in play.

A good photographer gets a grant and win projects, but a smart one not only win contracts or secure a series of grants, but also has the capacity to improvize, evolve and maneuver themselves in the process. Like James Morgan & his Bajau Laut project:

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.

The Bajau people are that of the Borneo region, migrated from the northern part of the east-west pacific region to the northern tip of the Indonesian Archipelago, mainly around the coastal lines of the Kalimantan and the Sulawesi islands, but also spreads to the Southeastern Sumatera, the Riau islands as well as western Papua. Though they may come from different tribes with different names, it is believe that they are part of the Bajau tribes from the southern Phillippines and are some of the world’s last remainding sea tribes.

Like us islanders, they work, live and grow in their own habitat — the sea, so they adapt and evolve:

“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.

It’s not difficult to teach ourselves something, having the heart to do it is the hard part, I mean Da Vinci taught himself to write with both of his hands, and simultaneously in both left-to-right and right-to-left directions in multiple languages, so how hard can things be, right?

So studied Bahasa Indonesia Morgan did and practiced free-diving[1. I taught myself to free-dive when I was on a vacation in Amed, Bali about 2.5 years ago, and it’s a great skill to have, but I mostly did it to piss-off the PADI guys and their ridiculous fees & regulations.] in the process and sets off to Sulawesi, not to actually initiate his project per se, but for an unrelated paid assignment:

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.

And that my friend is the heart of the matter.

Photography is 90% about getting the job and 10% about executing it — these milage may vary — but without a sustainable work and income, a photographer is just a man with the camera.

Photographers are also keen observers, they are also survivors, survivors who are keen to observation evolve, and those who evolve adapt, they improvize to make the best out of the worst situation. It’s not only in the field, but also behiind the desk, in dealing with clients. The truth is there is not enough perfect assignments to satisfy a shooter’s soul & pocket, we just need to find the threads and tie the knots to make a stronger rope.

On the other hand there are issues about ethics:

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. […]

There’s always two sides of every story.

The writer of the story raised some good points, but the ethical concern is not about James and his publisher, but rather James and his client. It’s not impossible to shoot two projects in one place, trained well, many photographer can come up as winners, but many also fails to maintain a clean and transparent record doing so, the key is not to raise conflict but to avoid them — find the threads and tie the knots to make a stronger rope so you can tow another boat while you row one.

The real question is why most publishers fail to commit to a story, mental support is trivial compared to the financial undertaking and we won’t be talking about this if there’s enough money on the table, but there isn’t.

To say that James is a real winner is an overstatement, but he showed us what can be done to weather the storm and to come out as a winner. And that’s just a story amongst the thousands of winners out there.

Turned out nomadic is our nature, after all, we no longer skip places much, but we do skip from one priority to another, one story to the next, and that’s how we grow.

Further viewing:

The Bajau Laut by James Morgan