Sea dwellers without a state

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The Badjao have lived off the shore of northeast Borneo for more than 200 years

Guillem Valle took underwater portraits of them as part of his project on stateless people

CNN  — 

It is noon, and the light filters softly through the water. Guillem Valle, camera in tow, drifts to the sea floor to capture an intimate portrait of a Badjao man.

In the dreamlike photograph, the Badjao extends his hand upward as though he were dancing.

“All these movements they do with their hands,” Valle said. “They’re trying to keep themselves down (on the seafloor), move forward or stay in place.”

The Badjao are a tribe of nomadic sea dwellers who have lived off the shore of northeast Borneo for more than 200 years. They are a stateless people with no nationality in the traditional sense, residing instead in boats and living off the sea. As highly skilled divers, the Badjao are able to walk along the seafloor hunting for fish and pearls.

Valle sought to photograph the Badjao as part of a larger project about stateless people that has taken him to places such as Kosovo, China, South Sudan and the Palestinian territories.

Photographer Guillem Valle

“The project is a question,” Valle said. “Why do we need to have flags and borders?”

Valle said that in recent years, increasing amounts of Badjao are transitioning to a life on land. Their background as a stateless people, however, awards them no recognition by the Malaysian government or access to things such as health care or education.

“They don’t speak Malay or even know how old they are,” Valle said.

Despite the pull toward a more modern way of living, there are still Badjao who choose life at sea. But even sea dwellers feel the effects of modernization.

“They don’t dive so much anymore,” Valle said. “They use more modern methods (of fishing). They sell fish to different companies and tourists, even to land Badjaos.”

Valle wanted his photographs to reflect the essence of their statelessness, to create a sort of “imaginary stateless nation.” The images are ethereal and emotional underwater portraits of the Badjao in their natural environment.

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    “I wanted to show who they are,” he said. “I didn’t want to create some sort of anthropology catalog. I wanted to go beyond who’s who. These underwater portraits were perfect for that.”

    This project was the first time Valle photographed underwater.

    “I had never even dived before,” he said.

    Underwater photography requires special equipment, like housing for the camera, and the weather conditions must be perfect.

    “The sea must be calm and the water must be clean,” he said. “You need the sun to be as high as possible.”

    Although the type of diving Valle did with the Badjao can be dangerous, he did it without an oxygen tank. He experienced rain and a hailstorm his first two days of shooting. Around the third day, Valle began to gain the trust of the Badjao and they, in turn, began to understand the type of image Valle wanted.

    “They’re posing in all of the pictures,” Valle said. “I told them, ‘I want to show what you normally do.’ After we got the first picture, they understood what we wanted.”

    The soft light and the way the Badjao pose in the water reflect the “imaginary stateless nation” Valle wanted to convey, causing the viewer to examine the relationship between place and identity.

    “It’s abstract,” Valle said. “The concept of nations has always been malleable.”

    Guillem Valle is a Spanish photographer. He is one of the founders of Me-Mo Magazine.