Finalist in the Max Carey Award for Photography
The outrigger took four hours of stomach churning sailing to reach the
aquatic sanctuaries that dwell off the coast of Gili Trawangan. The journey so
far had consisted of the choral sounds of a group of British photographers
throwing up over the side of the boat whilst our local guides laughed in
hysteria at their foreign naivety. Somehow not even this sickly soundtrack
could diminish the tranquil beauty of the yellow sands of Gili becoming
encased by the rolling green hills that framed them, as we made our way along
the water toward the horizon.
I had been visiting Bali for three weeks hoping to photograph it before
the intrusive nature of the tourist dollar blends the irreplaceable authenticity
out of the culture. Now, on the last day of my trip, I found myself clinging in a
state of adrenaline infused euphoria along the side of a creaking merchant
outrigger. It hurried in dogged pursuit after a school of bottle nose dolphins
who had been caught evacuating the vibrant refuge of the calm coral reef they
call home. We slowed to a stop and the white glow of the effervescent trail
that marked our path had faded, loud shouts of fragmented Balinese signaled
our departure from our vessel and our arrival among the submerged
metropolis that is Bali’s outer reefs.
While I would class myself amongst the upper wrung of average swimmers, the foggy depths visible past the iridescent glow of my orange scuba mask, presented a difficult opponent in my quest to photograph sea turtles playing amongst the imposing company of black tip reef sharks. Upon our arrival, almost as if rehearsed, a sea turtle ascended from the depths like a hot air balloon pushing apart the clouds, dispersing flashes of emerald amongst the eternal blue backdrop. One of the local guides, upon noticing the arrival of the most significant creature in Balinese folklore, swallowed one vacuous breath before descending to greet the gentle wayfarer on his journey towards the surface.
The simple autonomy of the turtle, a symbol of the ancestral heritage of
Bali, seemed out of place among the pervasive anonymity of the deep blue
ocean. After defending the turtle from the swarm of camera flashes and
outstretched hands, our guide Motheo blocked the way between the lens and
the object of its desire, standing firm as the last defender of cultural
preservation. I watched our guide swim chest to chest with a creature so
prominent in the collective memory of a Balinese childhood.
This moment made me realise It was not the billabong emblazoned bar staff or the cell phone thieving monkeys that best embodied the plight of treading the fine line
between tourism and colonialism. Rather, it was the image of a Balinese
native guiding his national symbol away from the undiscovered depths of the
unknown and towards the light for everyone to enjoy from a distance, that
represents the cultural struggle for nations to preserve the roots whilst the
world feasts upon the fruits.