Featured Artist : Keita Tokuda

I came across the black and white images of the Penan people taken by Keita Tokuda on Instagram last year and it captured my attention somewhat. Another Japanese photographer who spend many weeks and months documenting the daily lives of a vanishing nomadic tribe in the interior of a Malaysian jungle is certainly worth a look.

In 2016 I posted Mitsu Maeda‘s intimate colour photographs of a similar Penan community in Sarawak where the issue of over logging and a controversial construction of a dam had led her into the interior to document the tribe affected by these activities.

In Tokuda’s case, what led him to a closer encounter with the Penan’s was simply a personal discovery of their nomadic lifestyle and a quest to understand if forced development and urbanising a transitional lifestyle is justified in the name of progress and modernisation. Is it a better solution to provide aid but retain their nomadic existence. Is this even possible where the modern financial incentives of logging encroaches into their land?

Tokuda’s photographs are documentary, straightforward and unpretentious. Clearly his hosts were comfortable in his presence. That is what make them so natural and unforced.

His images of the community and the surrounding scenery show a tranquil and idyllic way of life, from a visitor’s gaze in most respect. The harsh reality of nomadic living, hunting, and clearing for existence may not be evident from his photographs and yet there is some romantic notion in them – as Tokuda mentioned in his statement – he, a Japanese, coming from one of the world’s most technological and modern societies – how can he justify whether the Penans should leave their traditional ways and adopt contemporary modern lifestyles?

This dialectical conversation is a constant reminder to outsiders that we have to conserve and preserve, yet modernisation is also seen as progressive and inevitable.

Q&A with Keita Tokuda, August 2021

Q. What made you leave Japan in 2006 to go to visit South East Asia?
Keita : There is a program in my photography school in Tokyo. Students travel to 9 or 10 countries in South East Asia for six months, so I traveled to many countries in the region when I was 21 as a student in 2006. That unforgettable experience opened my door to explore the world.

Q. How did you learn about the Penan tribe in East Malaysia?
Keita : When I lived in Petaling Jaya in Malaysia, I traveled all over Malaysia, both in Semenanjung and Borneo. I met a man who used to be a teacher in the Bidayuh community close to Kuching, and he taught me about the Penan tribe when I asked him I wanted to go to visit the rainforest. In those days I met so many cultural changing situations especially in small tribal communities and I witnessed so many deforestations. These events made me want to go to meet more ‘organic’ indigenous people and to see what went on in the rainforest.

Q. How did you make initial contact with the tribe and get access to them?
Keita : When I searched the internet about the Penan tribe to find out who supported them, I found an NGO. I sent a message to Dominic Langat who worked at the Swedish International Agriculture Network Initiative, SIANI, to help them in Sarawak. He took me to stay with the Ba Puak community.

Q. How long did you spend on the project and how many times did you visit?
Keita : I visited the Ba Puak community twice. Each visit, I spent almost two weeks with them on my own.

Q. What did you do with your pictures? Did you exhibit them?
Keita : I did some group exhibitions about the Penan in NYC which is where I am now based, and I exhibited my work in Art Expo NYC. I tried to contact some Malaysian publications but the editors told me they could not publish my pictures as they are deemed political in some ways. I hope I will have more chances to publish or exhibit my photography in Malaysia.

Q. How do you wish you could help their situation?
Keita : Their lifestyle changes rapidly so some children do not go to the rainforest like their parents did. However, I cannot say they should conserve their beautiful culture in the rainforest and they should keep living in forest with ancient hunting techniques. I hope I can publish their changing lifestyles to people in the outside and be aware of a disappearing culture. It might be sad for the beautiful lifestyle to slowly vanish, but it may help them progress with a conventional modern lifestyle.

Q. What is your plan for the years ahead in photography and will you return to Malaysia?
Keita : After the Covid 19 pandemic, I hope I will be able revisit the Ba Puak community to see what changes they have endured. I hope I will be able to have a chance to support their new lifestyle in the rainforest. Some people do not care about old nomadic ways but “who you are is what your identity is” so I hope they can know how beautiful they are through my photography.

If I have a chance, I will definitely return to Malaysia to live again because Malaysia is my second home !



“We can’t live without forests.” Featured artist – Mitsu Maeda

With the recent announcement of the new Baleh mega-dam project in Sarawak, following the Murum project which was commissioned in 2015; combined with the severe deforestation of primary rainforests in this naturally endowed state in East Malaysia, the plight of the nomadic communities of the Penan people have been dealt another blow.

The Penan of northern Borneo are primarily ‘hunter-gatherers’ or nomadic indigenous peoples. In Sarawak, the Penan plight was highlighted by international media attention by their 1960s resistance to the Baram dam clearing. Dam projects and deforestation go hand in hand, and these nomadic people were promised resettlement and land, which to most, were alien to their lifestyle and their hunting traditions. Today, only several hundred Penan still continue with their nomadic lifestyles, and resisting further intrusions into their habitat. Their fight against conglomerates and big, well-connected  business entities are all but futile.

I discovered that Mitsu Maeda, a freelance commercial photographer from Japan, whom I met at Mt.Rokko International Photo Festival in 2014, had traveled into the interior of Sarawak in 2010 and lived amongst the Ba’Marong community, to document their lifestyle. Her project titled “Forced Changes : The Penan and Life in the Rainforest” was published in 2011 by Days Japan magazine. This photo series gives us a glimpse of their nomadic lifestyle, which is fast disappearing and serves as a reminder about the complexities of developmental changes and the importance in maintaining the balance between man and its environment.

I recently asked Mitsu Maeda why she became interested in such a project, and how she managed to travel into the interior to engaged with this community.

In 2010, she became aware of the Penan due to the large scale logging of the forests, where a lot of hardwood timber were being exported to Japan for their construction industry and also paper products.  The nomadic communities were affected most as the deforestation displaced them from their already scarce resource of hunting for food, and habitable land.

“I got interested in their lives in the rainforest itself and also felt that I wanted to cover it as Japan has been one of the largest consumers of wood, paper from acacia plantations, and palm oil from Sarawak. So (indirectly) we were destroying their lives without really noticing it”.

“Vast forests have been logged and become palm or acacia plantations. Palm oil is often promoted as “environmentally friendly”, and acacia is consumed as cheap paper in offices in Japan. But large amounts of pesticides are used in these plantations and it pollutes the rivers which nearby residents use. Now many residents are suffering from skin diseases.”

She arrived in Miri and met with several settled communities before heading into the interior to visit the nomadic Ba’Marong for about a week, living, eating, hunting and sharing their stories. This community of nomads was made up of 8 families and totaled 20 persons.

“I contacted Friends of The Earth which is an NGO helping Penan people in Sarawak. They arranged my trip.”


Sagun, the leader of Ba’Marong.



Listening to the sounds of the forest on their way hunting.



Mitsu Maeda followed some men on a hunt for monkeys and even sampled some of its meat.



Cutting down a sago tree


Processing tapioca from the sago tree. They take fibre from the tree, soak them in water, filter, and dry. The process takes almost a day. Tapioca is their main source of carbohydrate since the community does not cultivate rice or wheat.

“I liked the Ba’Marong people a lot. I felt like they really know what they need. And the girl, Sagun’s daughter, she was running around naked but on the day I left she wore a pretty pink one-piece!”



Ranny with her grandmother.  Older generations prefer to stay in a “hat house” while younger generations live in a house with walls. The grandmother is making rattan products.


Bathing and washing clothes in the river

Ranny, daughter of Sagun, the community leader. There are two children in the community but there is no school since the community is nomadic. This is one reason why Sagun is thinking to settle.

“Their life is facing changes and problems. Some of the people in Ba’Marong do not even have Identification Cards or birth certificates which the government is supposed to issue, meaning they are not registered as Malaysians.”

This is why most of the Penans are not able to simply go to the towns to work when there is not enough food to eat in the forest and have to find other ways to take care of their families.

Also, many land disputes are occurring between Penan communities as the forest resources become scarce. Basically, people in a community can only hunt and gather in the forest area which has been decided in community leaders’ meetings in the past. However, as the forest resource become scarce, some communities cannot get enough food and other resources from their area and started to claim other areas. It is ironic that people who did not even have a sense of land ownership now have to fight over it.

“Anwi, the leader of Ba’Marong told me, “I want more people in the world to know what is happening here. Forests for us are like supermarkets for you. Even we settle, we can’t live without forests.” ”

All images © Mitsu Maeda

Mitsu Maeda is a Japanese photographer currently based in Kochi, Japan. Her theme in photography is to capture emotions and senses that she encounters. Ultimately she aims to explore the organic complexities of the individual.


Documentary Photography Masterclass


I will be teaching a 1-Day Masterclass in Documentary Photography at the City Academy on Saturday, 18 October at the Actors Centre in Soho, Covent Garden, London. As it is only a full day class, we will have run through some basic concepts, and story-telling tips, with a strong emphasis on current affairs and social issues in London.

This 1-Day course is more suited to those having completed the Level 2 Shoot to a Brief course or more advanced photographers.

More info and booking link here

City Academy website here