Tomas Wüthrich’s project, Doomed Paradise, saw him following the last Penan nomads in the Borneo rainforest. For him, it wasn’t just about taking pictures, it was about drawing inspiration from the people he lived and worked with over the course of five years. And in the end he gave something back, too.
Tomas’s first trip to Borneo was in 2014, which was his first contact with the Penan, and its people’s struggle against the aggressive logging of the rainforest - their habitat. This was something that caused him concern: “Before they were nomads,” he explains, “but now they’re forced to settle and farm, because the forest is going so fast.”
Driven by concern and curiosity, the next year he returned to begin a proper project. One year grew into another, one trip into the next, and culminated in five years of work, staying with the Penan for up to a month at a time. What he found was a people in transition – open to new technologies, but struggling to hold onto their semi-nomadic way of life.
“They don't want roads,” Tomas explains, “and they don't want the loggers cutting down their home. But they’re not like uncontacted people in the Amazon. If they have transport they go to a village and they can sell feathers or horns, and buy things, but they refuse to give it all up, because really the forest is their supermarket. It has all they need.”
Something Tomas figured out over his five years was the importance of time. “You cannot make a reportage project like this in three weeks,” he says, “that's why I kept going back. One time for two weeks, then for a month, and another month... to get deeper into this culture.”
Eight visits in all, with the last in 2019, saw him fully trusted by the Penan. “That level of integration,” Tomas explains, “takes you from just getting these romantic pictures in the forest to something that’s more real, and able to show the whole life of these people.”
Shooting for such extended periods, Tomas relied on his Sony α9’s legendary build quality and weather sealing. “The rainforest is a tough place to shoot, for sure,” he recalls. “It’s hot, it’s wet, you’re battling the condensation and humidity, and we had to cross rivers all the time. It’s really not a good place to take pictures unless you have a camera that’s built for it! I took two α9 bodies and both functioned perfectly – even after one time I fell into a river with my backpack and had to dry all my kit over the fire!
In such isolated conditions, power was also a concern for Tomas, but something he solved thanks to the α9’s excellent performance, able to shoot thousands of frames from a single charge. Even then, he initially went with a bag of 24 batteries for a month’s shooting, before discovering an easier way.
“One time I met the head man in the jungle,” Tomas explains, “and he was wearing a backpack with solar panels and three monkeys on top! So with solar, I kept my kit going. From one full solar battery I could charge three α9 batteries, so it worked really well.”
Other features of his camera that really helped Tomas’s project were its high ISO performance, and silent shutter. “Since I started working with the α9,” he says, “my work has definitely got a lot better. The high ISO performance was really important because there was almost no light after sunset and the night is very long. But shooting at 6400 gives this look of a film with lots of sensitivity, but doesn’t break the image up at all.”
And his camera’s silent shutter meant he could work without disturbing his adopted family. “They have nothing against me shooting,” he tells us, “but when they don't hear the sound, they forget you’re there, like you’re a fly on the wall. So for me, it’s really the perfect reportage camera.”
“In the end,” says Tomas, “I took a lot of inspiration from the Penan. Maybe these people look exotic to us, but really we’re all in the same boat, environmentally – we’re all connected. And in that way, I think it’s important not just to go somewhere and take something without giving back.”
This was ultimately what led to Tomas creating a book of the project. And for the Penan, he printed it on rock paper that’s made of limestone and perfectly waterproof, so it's stable in the conditions from the rainforest.
Do you have any final thoughts on your project, we asked Tomas? “I hope I managed to help the people, too,” he reflects. “They cannot leave the forest they’re trying to protect, but if I can take their story to the world, maybe I can help them do it.”
"I have to imagine pictures first to recognise them when they are suddenly around"