Life in Salt: How Award-Winning Photojournalist James Morgan Dropped Pen and Pad for Lens and Sea.

by Owen James Burke

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A young Bajau Lau boy named Enal plays with his pet shark in Wangi Wangi, Indonesia. “Whilst [the Bajau]… are getting conflicted messages from their communities, who simultaneously refrain from spitting in the ocean and continue to dynamite its reefs, I still believe they could play a crucial role in the development of western marine conservation practices.” Photo: James Morgan

A few years ago, James Morgan was an Anthropology student fed up with writing essays; he found them boring, especially because nobody read them.

Photography was another means of exploring the same material Morgan was studying, but more fun, he explains. He found that he could deliver a more powerful message if he spent less time spent glued to a desk massaging words that would ultimately seem to mean precious little without potent photography next to them. Today, he’s perhaps the most important photojournalists actively shooting, speaking and writing on behalf of the countless small seaside cultures cast to the wayside by globalization.

Hand fishing for garupa in Wakatobi, Indonesia.

A Bajau fisherman handlines for grouper. They may be worth only $5 or so in markets on nearby shores. Photo: James Morgan

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But when they reach big international markets like Hong Kong, that very same fish can be worth ten-fold. Photo: James Morgan

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Bajau Lau in traditional handmade lepa lepa boats, which their ancestors have built and lived on for generations. Photo: James Morgan


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A Bajau Lau octopus specialist brings his catch back to the boat off Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo: James Morgan

How did you first get into photography?

I was studying Anthropology and writing various essays…and just decided that a) it’s boring; and b) nobody read them. So, photography was kind of an easier way to explore the same kind of subject matter but have more fun with it.

And spend more time outdoors. You grew up by the sea, no?

I grew up in England, on the south coast by the sea, sailing a lot. I’ve always lived by it and kind of miss it when I’m not around. Except Bhtuan (where I am right now) is really beautiful. You get off the airplane and you’re walking to the terminal and you can hear crickets. It’s really still.

Your story as a photojournalist seems to have begun in Indonesia. What brought you there?

Surfing, and while I was there I read an article about the Moken people of the Andaman Islands.

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A Bajau man spears a barracuda with a homemade sling, similar to the Hawaiian sling or pole spear. This, along with netting, is a more traditional method of fishing for the Bajau. In recent decades though, they’ve taken to cyanide and dynamite fishing, which has not only brought about casualties on the reef, but within the community as well.
Photo: James Morgan

I’m really interested in the way in which the ocean shapes our psychology – the effect the ocean has on humans, and that there was a group out there who were nomadic and lived on boats. That was the initial reason I went to Indonesia. Then I learned the language and it just made sense to go onto other stories.

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A fisherman stands with his catch of skipjack tuna in Raja Ampat, Papua New Guinea. Fishermen here are slowly turning to nickel mining as a source of income, seeking a bigger payout. Unfortunately, Morgan explains, nickel is an unstable commodity at market, and each mine only remains open for up to 10 years. Once the mines close, the sea and the resources therein will have been tarnished with the sedimentary runoff it causes, ultimately destroying the fishery which so bountifully supported their ancestors in generations past, leaving the locals with nothing. Photo: James Morgan

So you’ve spent some time in Papua New Guinea, and Mozambique covering overfishing and other political strife in seaside communities. What was that like?

I’ve done a few stories (in Papua New Guinea), and it ties in with the independence movement because that conflict’s been going on for about 50 years. Local journalists get killed if they publish that kind of stuff that’s anti-military, anti-Indonesian.

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Nuarro villagers in Mozambique turned to fishing when their cashew industry collapsed. Their fishing industry was on the brink of disaster when they struck a deal with an eco-lodge on the other side of their cove to protect the marine environment in order to revive stocks. In the meantime, fisherman only “catch sand.” Photo: James Morgan

Then what brought you to Mozambique?

I was in this archipelago, Primeiras e Segundas. That story is basically the opposite of Raja Ampat. It’s really overfished with not much hope of getting fixed because there are just so many people that depend on these resources. They used to have a cashew farming industry, but it collapsed, and so everyone went fishing and it got fished out really quick.

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With catch size and numbers dwindling, the Nuarro are now doing all they can to manage what’s left, a word to the wise in the west. Photo: James Morgan

Would you care to describe some of your most surprising experiences or stories you heard within these communities?

I guess the Bajau are the most extreme example. That story is quite amazing — they burst their eardrums at a young age so that they’re able to dive deeper. There are a lot of crazy stories with the Bajau.

You don’t witness too much wild stuff, but there were a lot of tales that were told to us. We met this old guy who used to be head of the community. Apparently he killed people to protect the traditional Bajau way of life. The government’s trying to move them ashore, because they’ve got no I.D. cards.

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Ibu Diana Botutihe is one of the last of the sea nomads who have truly spent their lives at sea. Throughout her life, she’s only visited land intermittently to trade fish, rice, water and other staples. This is her house. Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo: James Morgan

We met this guy in the Togian Islands who said that when he was younger he used to catch manatees and beat them until they cried. Then he’d capture the tears in a little bottle and it was basically like Rohypnol (the drug better known as roofies). If he saw a girl he liked, he’d wipe the tears on her and she’d fall in love with him instantly. That’s what all the kids used to do. Capture the manatees and make love potions out of the tears.

In Bajau, when a kid’s born, the placenta is put into a coconut and send it out to sea. and then if the coconut sinks, it’s good, or if it floats, it’s good – I can’t remember the ins and outs. There’s a lot of cool stuff with the Bajau. These syncretic beliefs and different currents are associated with different spirits. Bajau believe in spirits. They’re a cool culture.


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Photo: World Wildlife Fund/Panda.org

How do you spend your time between assignments?

Surfing, if I get the time. I’m working a lot at the moment, so it’s really quite busy right now.

Where do you like to surf most?

Spain, and Indonesia. And the UK, if I’ve got gloves and a hood.

Any seaward adventures coming up?

Unconfirmed at the moment. Possibly just holiday. They’re always last minute, these assignments, but I’m in Bhutan for 10 days, and then from here I go to the Barrier Reef in Australia.

What will you be doing there?

Every two years the WWF puts out a “Living Planet” report, which is basically a report on the state of the world. So it’s just a big story about the state of the reef, and finding some kind of solution to protect it.

What’s after that?

Possibly the Arctic, but unconfirmed at the moment.

And nonstop, it seems! Thanks for sitting down to chat James, we’ll let you go; you must be spent!


A Couple of Morgan’s favorites: 

Required reading:

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The Sea Inside by Philip Hoare: “He’s a whale specialist. The start of it is all based around in the UK, but it has a great thread and and branches out down to the south Pacific.”

Required gear:

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For photographs I’m using a Canon 1DC. It’s like a DSLR but it’s got quite good video as well.


More photographs by James Morgan from around the world:

 

 Follow James Morgan on his website, twitter, and Facebook — OJB

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