Tomas Wüthrich – Doomed Paradise

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Review by Gerhard Clausing

In this photobook the documentary photographer Tomas Wüthrich provides us with a visual glimpse into our own past, into a world without supermarkets that supply us with our meat, fruits, and vegetables. It is a fascinating journey into the disappearing world of the Penan people of Borneo, who were discovered by Europeans in the 19th century and are admired for their extraordinary skills as hunters and gatherers. The subtitle, The Last Penan in the Borneo Rainforest, hints at the fact that they are continually threatened by deforestation and expanding plantations.

The group of Penan documented here is under the leadership of their Headman Peng Megut. In spite of the pressures that other tribal groups succumbed to, yielding to governmental edicts, economic constraints, and Christian missionary conversions, this particular group maintained their independence. This meant that instead of harvesting rice and leading a sedentary existence, they were able to maintain a piece of the jungle in which they still hunt with their blowpipes, and where they still get most of their plant nutrition from wild sago palms.

Naturally, the influence of the outside is felt here too. Wüthrich very effectively provides us with an intimate view of their lifestyle, photographed since 2014, that is still tied to the traditions of the past and yet is already marked by some of what their future may hold (travel, entertainment). We observe their simple life represented by the mantra “The jungle is our supermarket” – both the hunting and the processing, consumption, and selling or trading of what they hunt and gather are depicted as a continuation of a natural process followed for millennia.

The preface by Lukas Straumann tells about their discovery by Europeans in the late 19th century, recounts the history of the battles of the tribes with the logging industry and agricultural expansion, including the mysterious disappearance of their European advocate Bruno Manser in the year 2000, and other efforts to help the tribes in their struggles.

The Canadian linguist and anthropologist Ian B. G. Mackenzie collected many of their stories of origin and other mythology, many of them published in this book for the first time, thus adding great cultural richness to the images provided. It is noteworthy that the genesis myth equivalent to the Adam and Eve story of the Bible is totally devoid of aspersions of sin and assignation of guilt. The concepts contained in “The Worlds Hereafter” are also culturally fascinating: the highest future rewards are promised to those who show honesty, kindness, and generosity while on this earth.

The format of the book is of a generous size, held together with strong staples, and at first seems like a workbook that might be used in a science seminar, inviting us in to participate. The typeface gives the impression of a scientific report. The paper used for printing the book, it turns out, is also a thoughtful gesture: no trees were harmed in its manufacture, as it is made of limestone and holds up even in very humid jungle conditions. The additional benefit is that the paper has the tactile and visual performance of a matte fine art paper, thus rendering the printed color photographs in a most effective manner. Another great feature is a QR code on the back cover that links to audio recordings of jungle sounds and Peng Megut himself narrating one of the myths in the Penan language.

This fascinating glimpse into a past whose struggles continue into the present is a real treasure. As a peek into a world our own ancestors might have experienced similarly thousands of years ago, it is absolutely fascinating to view and read, a highly recommended experience!

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Tomas Wüthrich – Doomed Paradise

Photographer:  Tomas Wüthrich (born in Berne, lives in Liebistorf, Switzerland)

Publisher:  Scheidegger & Spiess, Zurich, Switzerland; © 2019

Essays and Texts:  Preface by Lukas Straumann; myths of the Penan collected by Ian B. G. Mackenzie; image notes by Tomas Wüthrich

Languages:  Penan, German, English

Softcover, illustrated, with stapled binding; 160 pages, paginated, with 100 images; 22 x 30 cm (8.75 x 11.75 inches); printed and bound by Offsetdruckerei Grammlich, Pliezhausen, Germany

Photobook Designer:  Atlas Studio

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Articles & photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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