I have an unusual photography assignment. I am to go to East Timor and photograph the island of Atauro in East Timor for a research programme taking part there. They require photos for a website, articles and perhaps a book. I am excited. This sounds like the sort of work I particularly love.
As I skim through the pages of google I see photos of turquoise waters, palm trees, multi coloured coral and fish and the excitement grows. I discover that Atauro has the most spectacular reefs and the biggest biodiversity of reef fish and coral of anywhere in the world. There are few places to stay and few tourists, most of whom are divers and come from nearby Australia. My job however, is to photograph the local people, their lives and their environment.
The only way to arrive in Atauro is by boat from Dili, East Timor’s laid back and sprawling capital. The boat crosses a very deep channel where schools of whales and dolphins can often be seen. In windy weather it’s choppy to say the least! After about an hour and a half we approach the coast, cross over the reef and are soon in the clearest waters. The boat tethers just outside Barry’s Place where we will stay for our first couple of nights before venturing inland. The palm roofed bamboo huts are set in gardens on the beach. It’s a comfortable, friendly place. There are some tourists, researchers, aid workers, English teachers and me.
Within minutes of arriving and being designated a hut I am walking along the beach with a camera on each shoulder. One of the projects the researchers are working on in Atauro is the work of the women. At this time of the year each day or night at low tide, they are out digging for shells. It isn’t an easy job, they are looking for food, there are several varieties and it takes them hours to fill their buckets. We are lucky, low tide is at the end of the day, just before sun set. The beach is a hive of activity. Farming seaweed is also a major business. Bodies of men and women in shallow water are bent over tending to the seaweed. Women are digging for shells, small boats are out fishing and children are running and playing with starfish that have been marooned on the wet sand.
There are so many photographs to make as the sun goes behind the hills and disappears to the other side of the island where we will go in 2 days. The next day we take a truck up the hill behind Barry’s Place that leaves us along a fork in a dusty road. We walk on to the village of Warunwana, dropping back down to the coast passing mangroves and sweet water pools shimmering in the early morning light. There are palm trees everywhere, I learn of the many varieties that exist. Photographing palm trees and their uses is part of my assignment. As we approach, a man is high above us, cutting down coconuts and we are immediately given one. It is delicious and thirst quenching after our walk. We stop and talk to the people who I find are always smiling and friendly.
Time to move on, there is another village to walk to, Akrema. Atauro is an island that has to be discovered on foot. We walk a lot, every day for hours. Sometimes a truck or a jeep will take us to a certain point but from there the only way forwards is on foot. There is a fixer working with the researchers and he is excellent. He also carries my camera bag, which is great as some of the walks are very steep and dangerous. I yell ‘Thomas!’ frequently as there is always something I’m stopping to photograph and inevitably the lens I need is in the bag.
Over the following days we visit more villages. We cross rocky beaches, jungle paths and see hundreds of ancient shells still lying around. There are caves that have been painted thousands of years ago, destroyed by the Protestants who believe them to be ungodly. We sleep in cabins on the beach and lie in hammocks for a brief rest before taking off on another hot dusty trek.
We stay at night at Thomas’s in the mountain in Anartutu. As I learn to differentiate the palm trees and their uses, I learn that an important one is the one used for making palm wine which is very appreciated by the local people. I photograph the work involved and we all drink together. We see the blacksmith at work, children in school, women weaving on looms using palm thread, and the daily quest looking for food. They grow corn and beans, rear chickens and pigs and use every edible plant and tree. Most of the people on Atauro are on avery low income but are some of the happiest I’ve ever seen. Photographing them was a pure delight.
In the main town on the island called Vila, there is a co-operative workshop, Boneca, run by women who do intricate embroidery using sewing machines. They produce very pretty bags of all different shapes and sizes and various dolls all made of material. It was set up some years ago by an Italian woman who trained and set them up. Unfortunately as the currency in East Timor is US$, the products are very expensive but most visitors try and buy something to help support them.
Atauro is a sizeable asset of East Timor, it will eventually be exploited for tourism but before this happens roads will need to be built and the problem of water shortage addressed. From what the researchers have found, the island has been inhabited for thousands of years. The existing families are organised in clans and they explain their traditions and show us hidden places that are sacred. They are very religious Christians, most of whom are Protestant.
We find time to snorkel during the time I’m on Atauro. It is absolutely stunning – I wish I had an underwater camera but I had so much stuff to carry that I didn’t and kicked myself for forgetting the GoPro. I shall no doubt return to Atauro to finish the photographic project as there was not enough time to cover everything. As a photographer you are dependent on circumstances, weather, activities taking place and in this case, the tides.