Marc Llewellyn (@emvielle) is a photographer and avid traveler who recently crossed the jungles and rivers of Siberut, Indonesia, to meet the Sikerei, a tribe of male forest shamans and healers. The Sikerei are known for practicing animism, inking themselves with magic tattoos, sharpening their teeth, and covering their bodies with hibiscus flowers, but Marc simply wanted to know more about their daily lives and to get to know their culture on a deeper level, despite language barriers.
Hoping to learn more about Marc’s photography and his time among the Sikerei in remote Indonesia, we asked him a few questions about his photo collection, Sikerei of Pulau Siberut.
What do you like about taking portraits?
Faces are so charismatic. Subtle changes in facial expression can tell a completely different story. Creative ways in which to capture a portrait are also constantly being challenged, which forces me to think outside of the box. I particularly love taking portraits that are full of character — whether that is conveyed through a wrinkle, a freckle, an abnormality, or anything that we aren’t used to seeing day-to-day. A portrait can also be composed in many different ways through the eyes of the beholder, which I find inspiring.
Portraits seem to be an extremely intimate form of photography — what is it like being on the other side of a lens during these moments?
It really is, but it can go one way or the other. When the subject is willing to have their portrait taken, it becomes very intimate and special, particularly with cultural portraits. It’s as if they’re allowing you to enter their lives and showing you who they truly are. On the other hand, it can seem as if you’re stealing a person’s likeness if you haven’t engaged with your subject beforehand, which happens when it’s a passing snap of a moment that catches your eye. As photographers, it’s important that we understand these differences and pursue the former.
How do you approach your subjects?
Most of my portrait work documents other cultures, where there is a clear language barrier. So I usually approach my subjects gingerly, showing them the camera and gesturing to ask if it’s okay to take their photo. That said, I’m more drawn to documentary-style portraits, where it’s more about being in the right moment and capturing the subject doing their thing, so it depends.
Where were these particular portraits taken?
This series was shot outside of a small village called Buttui, on the island of Pulau Siberut — which is the largest in the Mentawai Island chain, located 150 kilometers off the west coast of Sumatra in Indonesia.
What brought you to Buttui?
A friend of mine, John Barton, is in the process of making a coffee-table book that focuses on his work as a photographer in the Mentawai Islands. He wanted to document the remote Sikerei tribes for the project, and asked if I wanted to come along. I had just quit my job of eight years to pursue cultural photography full time, so I accepted his invitation before he could finish his sentence.
How long had you known about the Sikerei?
Honestly, only four weeks before commencing the journey. I had seen photographs of them from my early trips to the Mentawais in 2012, but I didn’t delve into their story until John invited me on the trip.
What were you most intrigued by in terms of their lives and rituals, and what were you hoping to discover while there?
I was fascinated by the Sikerei in every sense — their tattoos, which represent different rites of passage; the tools they use for hunting; how they interact with one another, how removed they are from Western civilization, and how positive that is for them. I was mostly excited to witness and learn about a culture that is hundreds of years old, and virtually unchanged by the modern world.
What can you tell me about your trip overall?
We spent a week trekking and photographing in remote Pulau Siberut, where we stayed with the Sikerei people. Everything that could’ve gone wrong went wrong from the moment we stepped on the island. But through some insanely serendipitous encounters, we headed into the jungle anyway, and I’ll never be able to adequately describe how incredible it was from then on. From being lost, stranded, terrified, and amazed — this trip took us from uneasiness and vulnerability to feeling overwhelmingly welcomed and fortunate to experience a unique level of generosity and authenticity. In short, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
What did you learn from photographing the Sikerei? What was most surprising to you?
A man named Aman Ikbuk taught us how to hunt and prepare the poison for arrows, told us stories of self-sufficiency, and sang us traditional songs. I learned more than I could have ever imagined.
That said, I was most taken aback by their family dynamic, as it is wildly different from that of my own culture. The men would sit at the entrance to their Uma from dawn until dusk, chain-smoking and discussing topics with their male friends and family members. The children would run around like crazy, lighting fires, fighting, and laughing. But the women were rarely seen, and generally remained out of sight, cooking, cleaning, and looking after the children. I saw very little interaction between the men and the women, which surprised me.
Do you have a favorite photo from your time there?
I would say, any of my portraits of Aman Poto (the elderly Sikerei man). He appeared out of the morning fog on the river banks one morning and was instantly as interested in us as we were in him. He has so much charisma and loves having his photo taken. He’s covered in all of the traditional tattoos and constantly has a large hand-rolled cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth, so most of my shots of Poto include a puff of smoke shrouded around his face. We never knew how old he was, but there couldn’t have been much left in the tank. The man was an absolute character, though, and still spent his days trekking in the jungle, looking for monkeys, having discussions with his friends, and blazing-up at every possible moment. I wish I could’ve known enough Mentawai to get to know him better. I’m sure that in his prime, he was a young Sikerei buck.
What were you hoping to convey through these images?
I was simply hoping to convey my time, experiences, and interactions with a culture that is so unknown to the greater world. As I mentioned, I love documentary-style photography because it has no agenda, other than giving a point-of-view experience. That was my aim for the collection.
What was your biggest take-away in terms of interacting with the Sikerei?
I left with an admiration for their simple and beautiful way of living. They remain relatively unchanged from their ancestors and are healthy and happy. Mental health problems that are prevalent in Western culture don’t seem to exist there, as their life isn’t plagued by consumerism — they live self-sufficiently, are surrounded by family, hunt with their friends, sing, dance, and look after each other. They live as they please in the jungle.