Threatened by the onslaught of contemporary Thai culture and devastated by the tsunami of 2004, the Moken people's lives removed from society and symbiotic with their surroundings, are rapidly changing. Formerly spending up to nine months at sea some are now settled on the Surin islands, in villages provided by the Thai government. The community of 200-300 still rely on the ocean to hunt seafood but their traditions are rapidly disintegrating. Photographer Sofie Olsen has traveled to the region to capture their unique culture, with the hope that awareness will preserve their knowledge and traditions for the future. We chatted to her about her spirit of adventure, feeling alien underwater and the universality of body language.
You studied photojournalism in New York for just one year. Beyond this would you say you are predominantly self-taught? What drew you to photography as a medium?
I grew up surrounded by creative people but took a stable and responsible path becoming a professional equestrian rider and getting a job within finance. However I am a curious, engaged and adventurous person so soon felt restless. I was compromising, neglecting my instincts and felt frustrated with no way to express myself. This brought me to photography through a random door.
I had owned a camera for some time when I impulsively ended up on a sailboat in the Mergui Archipelago, on an expedition to visit the Moken People in 2009. I went along because I was looking for the unknown and had financial skills that the project needed dearly. I decided immediately that it was the kind of work I wanted to do and I also wanted to be the photographer! When I came back to Europe some months later, I applied to the International Center of Photography in NYC.
Your Moken People series is stunning. You traveled to their community several times working in conjuncture with Project Moken. Please tell us more about the project and why you wanted to document these people's lives.
In cooperation with a Norwegian initiative, Project Moken (a multimedia platform with a documentary film at its core) I visited and lived with the Moken people on the Surin Islands in Thailand on three expeditions.
Giving them a voice before a wider audience, their unique aquatic based culture, knowledge and traditions may be preserved, before the Moken have themselves forgotten where they come from. By spreading the word and raising awareness, we hope to be able to put enough pressure on local governments to ensure that Moken culture will be taken care of in the future. We believe they have something to offer us, not only in terms of showing us where we all may have come from, but also teaching us the value of living as one with our surroundings.
A lot of the shots are taken underwater so we assume you must be an accomplished scuba diver - tell us about the technicalities of shooting the series?
Actually, I got my divers license on my first trip to the Surin Islands, and my certifying dive was from the last Kabang, their traditional boat, in this area. Learning to scuba dive was incredible. The feeling of weightlessness must be the closest I will ever get to fly - its a magical sensation. Floating in an element where I am an alien makes me totally vulnerable just as visiting a place where I do not belong provokes humbleness to the grandness of nature we too often ignore in everyday life.
As a photographer, one has no choice but to follow one’s subjects into any situation, so I had to advance my skills underwater to continue shooting. I wanted to free dive with them on equal terms, but that would be difficult, as when I’m working I concentrate more on the act of photographing than diving.
And in the time you were there, did you connect personally with the community? How did they respond to being photographed and what are their thoughts on the project?
Because Runar J.Wiik (the director) had spent several years researching and working on this project before I got involved, he had built close relations with a selection of the Moken People on Surin. Without their trust in him, I would have had to spend much more time to gain such intimate access. I was very fortunate to be introduced to them as a friend, and was treated as such from the very start. The project is not about taking something from them and then leaving, we are working with them.
Without being able to communicate orally, it does take time to get to know one another. Body language is universal and the Moken are experts at reading it. They do not have words for thank you, hello or goodbye, as they read it in each other’s eyes.
I am not fond of being photographed myself, and find it very intrusive if people stick a lens in my face. Therefore I am very sensitive to the reactions of my subjects towards being photographed. I prefer spending time building a relationship beforehand, though I have been forced to cross my comfort zone, as with moments passing, one cannot always wait for permission. On my last expedition in April I traveled independently and thus was able to spend more intimate time with them.
Your other series often capture individuals living on the fringes of society, or groups absent from it completely. Why are you particularly interested in telling these stories visually?
When I was six my mother took me to Guatemala and traveled on local transport, into areas where the indigenous Indians lived. My mother told me where the people we met came from, according to their distinctive traditional costumes. One day at the marketplace in Chichicastenango I saw some Indians wearing Levis jeans and Coca Cola T-shirts. I still remember how this truly upset me - how could anyone believe our way of dressing, our way of living, our values in the West to be superior? Something to desire?
Norwegian IngarAasen lived in an industrialized former wildlife reserve outside the city for twenty years, sheltering Roma gypsies until a conservative government forced him to move on. From the series I Am Light -The Art Ranger.
Globalization and the homogenization of cultures, traditions and lifestyles not only lacks sustainability, but I believe it makes us poorer. Diversity has always interested me - let it be people, ideas, thoughts, ways of expression, viewpoints, reflections and life. We have so much to learn from people who are different to ourselves, and I hope that through my work I may inspire others to open their horizons.
To follow Sofie Olsen's continuing adventures with the Moken and see her other work, check out her website.