Peter van Heulen was born in Vlissingen, The Netherlands. At age sixteen he decided to study photography and mechanical engineering. His work has taken him all over the world and he has carried his camera along the way.
Zeeland is the inspiration for many of Peter’s photos. The more Peter travels around meeting people and learning about different cultures, the more he focuses on human interest stories. His work has gained permanent places in hotels, restaurants, offices, and private homes around the world. Besides photography, he writes and publishes books about photography. His latest book is about learning to shoot glamour photography.
Over the last five years he has explored the unbeaten paths on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. His goal is to show the world the beauty of tribes and cultures in Indonesia.
Words and Images by Peter van Heulen
Two years ago, my wife, Desiree van Heulen, and I had the opportunity to go to Indonesia together. When we traveled to Kendari, Sulawesi in the beautiful southeastern part of Indonesia in 2016 we found a place where time seems to have stood still. It’s as if we had taken a time machine twenty years back into the past.
People live in harmony and honor the old traditions and are proud to show it. It is a photographer’s paradise. If you like cultures and tribes, come to Indonesia. I found a fishing tribe called the Bayo who have lived for ages in their houses on the ocean. This way of living is so special that I felt the need to find a way to show it to the world. In 2018 I visited the village again, this time for more than a half year.
Preparing for living a half year in the tropics is almost the same as preparing for a summit climb. You need to think about the risks, the money, the right equipment, and personal belongings. It’s a challenge to fit everything you need into one backpack. Lucky, when I was in my twenties, I did a lot of rock climbing and hiking in the Alps, so traveling light is not new for me.
Another challenge is the language. All tribes have their own dialect and I cannot speak any of them. Google translate helps, but 80% of the Bayo people cannot read. We say in Dutch, met handen en voeten werkkomen we er wel, with our hands and feet we manage to communicate.
For the tropical climate you also need warm clothes and a good rain cover for you and the backpack. I learned from my last trip in the mountains in Sulawesi that it is handy to have socks, trousers, and a warm jacket. When sudden thunderstorms and heavy rains come, the temperature can drop from 34 to 20 degrees Celsius. Believe me, it gets cold.
Flying with your gear can be challenging. At every security check I was picked out of the line, maybe because my f-stop Ajna photo backpack is orange and attractive. I’ve accepted that I travel with suspicious-looking equipment in my backpack. So, I make sure I am on time getting to the airport.
Remember to put your tripod in the suitcase and any lithium-ion batteries in your carry-on luggage. Something else that is important to remember is to charge laptops and tablets before traveling. Not only will they be ready when you have a security check, they are nice to have when you have a delay and time to kill.
Packing is always a challenge. My suitcase is no problem since all my heavy stuff fits in there. I put as much gear as possible in my f-stop backpack. I always take two backpacks with me: the Ajna as a carry-on and the Guru UL in my suitcase for small trips and low-profile shooting. The Ajna is perfect for my needs.
All my gear I try to fit in a f-stop Pro ICU - Large, such as my Fujifilm camera and lenses, filters, batteries, and my Elinchrom ELB 400 with lamp heads and spare battery. All other small items I put in a sleeve on top of the ICU, together with some small reflectors. My tripod is a Gitzo I altered to also use as a light stand for my flash. On the outside of the Ajna I put my normal tripod, my soft box, and an extra small lampstand. I put my valuables in the inside zippered pocket. And last, but not least, I attach my house key to the special keychain in the backpack.
My adventure started in Kendari, Sulawesi in November 2018. After a few weeks of acclimatization, I was up to the challenge. This time I brought my friend Rahmad Ladae with me. He is a brilliant video maker. Together we have had many adventures; some bad, but most of them were fun. Most importantly when working together is to rely on each other. I took my motorbike, put on all my gear, and went for a two-hour drive through the jungle to Bayo Village, near the city of Kendari. This is where my real adventure started. I was going to do an in-depth story about a tribe that has lived for ages on, and with, the ocean.
I am a tall Caucasian with blue eyes and grey hair and have an orange backpack. I definitely stood out since most of the people had never someone like me before. For the first few days I only walked around making pictures of the children playing in the little village. Once you earn the trust of the kids, the parents get curious and invite you to come into their homes. The houses on the water are built from wood and walk boards connect all the houses with each other.
In the village people wake up half an hour before sunrise, which is one of the best times to make pictures, such as of fishermen going out with their little canoes to the ocean to catch fish.
Women, children, and older people stay in the village. There is no drinking water, so every morning women walk to the mountains to get fresh water for cooking and drinking.
Every morning the children jump in the water to wash and play. The women start to wash the clothes and cook after that they take a shower and take care of the kids. There are no showers with hot water, they use a little bucket called a mandi to shower. While the village wakes, salesmen come on their scooters to the village to bring rice, vegetables, fruits, and household items.
I had a great opportunity to stay a few days in a house of an older woman who lost her husband at sea and her only son cannot fish because his right leg was injured while fishing with dynamite. It is a pity they still use this method since it kills the coral and flora and fauna in the ocean. The villagers grow up in the village and rarely go to other places. The majority of the older people cannot read or write and never went to school.
The best opportunity to make pictures is in the early morning and in the evening, as the sun is going down. In the morning you need to act quickly because the sun rises very fast and in one hour it’s already too harsh to make good pictures. In the night you can make perfect night-sky pictures. Since there is no light pollution, the sky is full of bright stars and planets. Sometimes the Milky Way is so bright that it seems unreal.
Working in the tropics is a real challenge, not only for me as a photographer but also for the gear. In the tropics, the performed well. The Ajna is perfect for hiking trips and also for traveling with a motorbike. You can lower the back straps, so the bottom of the pack sits on the buddy seat of the motorbike. In my ICU I use small Velcro pieces to hold the lenses and other small things in place. The ICU is one of the best inventions from f-stop. They are easy and fast to get gear in and out of. Before putting the ICU in the backpack, make sure to zip open the cover and fold it to the bottom side, so it becomes an extra soft pouch for the back of the ICU. Slide the ICU into place, and you are ready to go on an adventure.
I love the color of the backpack, first of all it’s the national color of my home country. It is also easy find it with this bright color, even in the night. Sometimes when I do night-sky photography, I put some reflecting material on the outside, so it is easier to find my pack when it’s totally dark.
With this series of pictures, you get a good idea of the daily life in the fishing village. We had a great time there and after six months in Indonesia I needed to go. I have the feeling my work is just starting here though. So, my next journey is set for October 2020, to finish the job. But, it is never really finished.