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 !
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