Dennis Lau: Borneo: a Photographic Journey. Kuching: Travelcom Asia, 1999. 98 p. RM70.00
Reviewed by Otto Steinmayer
A splendid collection of photographs by Sarawak’s greatest living photographer, and this reviewer is again faced with the dilemma of how to do justice to them. Years ago when I reviewed my last book of Borneo photographs, I—in near despair—advised you, reader, to go to the bookstore, rip off the plastic wrapper (bookstores still haven’t abandoned this loathsome practice!), and see for yourself. Now, thanks to the miracle of IT, I can send you off to www.borneotravel.com for a preview of these wonderful photos. I’m sure your instant, pictorial review will be favorable.
Dennis Lau is a Sarawakian of Melanau and Chinese
parentage. He has pursued photography passionately since youth, and his
interest is people. That sets him in a class far above the ordinary.
The overwhelming bulk of photography committed in Sarawak and Sabah concentrates on nature and scenery, on “mood.” Borneo is—everybody knows—Picturesque and Exotic. Point a camera in any direction, and you’ll capture a picturesque and exotic image, and this is what hundreds of photographers do every year. We will pass over the visitors, whose humble ambition is to impress or amuse a handful of friends or relatives. There is plenty of commercial photography which gets published in the form of glossy books or films to pull in the tourist business or celebrate kemajuan. Sure, they’re pretty; the motifs, though, however well-packaged, can’t hide their signs of wear.
Lau does something much harder and much rarer.
The human being is always new and mysterious. Each face, each body is
different, and each is the dwelling-place of a unique soul. In daily
life we couple physiognomy and character as we seek hints of the mind’s
construction in the expressions and habits of body that lie open to our
To portray personality through images, whether with brush or with camera, is the pictorial arts’ highest challenge, and Lau succeeds magnificently. None of his photographs shows a “type”: every one of his subjects is a distinct human being, and each portrait is so richly nuanced as even to suggest each person’s history.
Many of us who take family snaps can appreciate
the level of Lau’s art. How many times have we gone through the family
albums looking for a photo that truly represents the essence
of a person we love, and how rarely do we find such? Photographing
people takes alertness, a keen eye, and patience. People reveal
themselves in moments, and moments are fleeting.
Taking good portraits is also a moral act. The poet Auden was only partly joking when he declared that the Leica in some hands was as deadly as a pistol in others. The camera can be a threatening object. To be a photographer such as Lau, people have to trust you; to get people to trust you enough that they feel “free to be me”—as the 60s saying goes—you have to trust them, and show yourself free from ulterior motives. The artist can do this; the rhetorician cannot.
In this Lau is the latest inheritor of a great tradition. A hundred years ago Charles Hose, a Brooke officer and amateur ethnographer, illustrated his Pagan Tribes of Borneo with many fine photographs—they may be the best part of the book. Hose worked in the days when cameras were bulky boxes and negatives were made on large glass plates. The long exposure-times meant that Hose had to pose his subjects. Hose must have established a rapport with the Dayaks: there is an air of naturalness about the scenes. Hose’s Dayak friends were doing their best clearly to demonstrate what their life was like, and how they felt about it.
In the late 40s, three great chroniclers of
Sarawak emerged. K.F. Wong moved to Sarawak from China and established
a studio. In intervals of work he travelled throughout the country and
photographed. Lim Poh Chiang, born in Song, grew up with Ibans, and was
the first sensitively to photograph the Penans. Hedda Morrison, the
wife of a British colonial official, spent 15 years photographing
people in all parts of Sarawak. Her two books, Life in a Longhouse and
Sarawak, brim over with charm.
Hose photographed when change had barely touched
inner Borneo. Wong, Lim, and Morrison worked as outside influence
rapidly began to spread after the end of WW2. Lau records today’s
scene, when Sarawak and Sabah have become thoroughly modern. The older
photographs hold great interest for many because they depict things
that have since disappeared. Yet what impresses me about Lau’s
photographs is how he conveys the presence of the past.
His picture, on p. 13, of Bidayuh women and boys getting into their boats to go to the farm. This is something you could have seen 200 years ago; you can see it today, and you’ll see it in the future. How do we know they’re going to the farm? Note the parangs and lunch packed into their baskets. In looking at photographs, always pay attention to the details. The “traditional old lady” sitting in front of a mural in a Kayan longhouse may be wearing designer specs.
Festive and ritual occasions give Lau the chance to show the continuity of Borneo life: Kenyah children solemnly wait for new names behind their beaded baby-carriers, now outgrown; women from the same tribe welcome guests with songs and rice-wine; Iban men at Kapit dress up in traditional costume to remember a peace made in 1921; Iban men in Betong perform a Gawai antu for their departed relatives, and, dressed in suits, ties, and plumed hats, chant the ritual words.
I was struck by the way children react to Lau’s
photographing them. You cannot fool them. On page 72 four Penan kids
pause for their picture. The eldest girl looks straight into the
camera, relaxed and poised. The little boy to her left is blasé
about the occasion. The girl to the right is interested in the
photographer, the little girl squatting in front is paying attention to
the technical process. None bothers to smile, and indeed, only the
eldest is aware that someone is making her portrait and presents
herself with serious dignity.
Four different persons, four different responses, four different characters. Next to this sympathetic record of humanity, the strictly Bornean elements are of secondary interest.
Words are the medium of ideas, and in writing a
wordy review on a book that is meant to be looked at I am forced to
close on a moral, if you can call it that. Lau’s photographs are a
superb document of life in Sarawak and Sabah at this turn of the
millennium. They reveal the “exotic” as still alive and still
meaningful to those who live in the midst of it, and who are happy to
choose and mix whatever elements of tradition and modernity they
That’s a view from outside, as it were. More importantly and more movingly, Lau’s portraits show people, like all of us, whose feelings we can share. They look out of the photographs at us, and it’s no paradox to say they include us, too, in their lives. It’s a pleasure to be in such humane company.