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Sarawak's Premier Photojournalist
By Wayne Tarman
For the last 30 years Dennis Lau, a Sarawakian of mixed Chinese-Melanau descent, has worked as a photo-journalist and ethnographic photographer in virtually every corner of Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei. He is undoubtedly one of Malaysia's best photojournalists. In particular, he is respected for his images of the tribal peoples of Borneo. These unique images are the result of extended field trips into the interior or `ulu' regions of Borneo.
Although Dennis has travelled throughout Borneo he has naturally placed greater emphasis on his home state of Sarawak. Through the lens of his camera Dennis Lau has documented the changes and upheavals facing Sarawak's native peoples in a time of rapid social change. In his own special way he has recorded colourful customs and traditions, living cultures, vanishing lifestyles and moments from the past.
Whether the subject matter is a tattooed Iban elder, a group of Melanau fishermen, Kenyah ladies with elongated earlobes, Penan children playing in the river or a Bidayuh shaman, Dennis Lau's photographs clearly demonstrate the deep respect and high regard that he feels for Borneo's indigenous people. Yet they are not merely ethnographic records: many of his black and white studies are classic examples of the portraitist's art.
Dennis Lau has the ability to look at his subject objectively and gain what could be considered an outsider's view and yet his local knowledge and language skills allow the kind of access to the subject that only insiders are able to get. This combination the detachment of an outsider and the access of an insider enables Dennis to achieve the honesty and intimacy that all great photographers strive for.
When Dennis travels upriver, the local people do not `perform' as they might do with a foreign photographer. As a Sarawakian, Dennis is very much treated as "one of us" in the communities where he chooses to shoot. This is also the case with other local photographers but some how Dennis captures the feel and life of Borneo in a way that other local photographers can not. How a photographer interacts with his or her subject is often reflected in the photos. Dennis' personality certainly helps in this respect. He is a quite unassuming, friendly and warm, and it is this personality that makes people relax and get on with the life as if the camera is not there.
Dennis Lau grew up in Bintulu when the town was a sleepy backwater rather than the oil and gas boomtown it is today. A neighbour ran a small photo processing lab and Dennis soon become a lab assistant. At first he carried buckets of water and peeped over his neighbour's shoulder to watch the images appear in the developing trays. It wasn't long before his neighbour let Dennis expose and develop film. In his spare time Dennis borrowed a camera and started to take photos for the first time.
©1998 Dennis Lau
At the Age of 19 Dennis won second prize in the Borneo Photographic competition and through this met K.F. Wong, Sarawak's first ever photo journalist. K.F Wong was a master of his time. He was famous for his work on Sarawak's various ethnic groups - stunning black and white photographs that captured the life and culture of the people of the interior. K.F. Wong encouraged Dennis and gave him hints on the technical side of photography. At this time Dennis focused more on landscapes rather than people.
In 1960 Dennis entered the teaching profession and was sent to a small rural school located north of Bintulu. This move, to an up country location, essentially shaped the development of Dennis' photography. The school was isolated and so Dennis started to travel extensively at weekends, sometimes going home to Bintulu but more often than not visiting the longhouses of some of his pupils. He always carried a camera and so began a photographic journey that has lasted for more than 30 years and brought him into contact with almost all of Sarawak's tribal groups, including the nomadic Penan. In 1963 Dennis Lau entered Teacher Trainer's College in Miri. Following completion of the course he lived in Miri which gave him further opportunities to head into the interior and photograph Sarawak's people.
On Christmas Eve in 1968 Dennis was staying at Long San, a Kenyah longhouse on the Upper Baram River, when a small group of Penans wandered into the village to seek medical attention at a missionary clinic. This chance encounter with the Penan marked the beginning of a long association with these nomadic masters of the rainforests. Over the next 20 years Dennis made a number of trips into the interior to meet up with the Penan. He often stayed with them for weeks at a time and as he gained an insight into their lifestyle his respect for the nomadic life and culture of the Penan grew.
Almost twenty years after his first encounter with the Penan, Dennis published "Penans - The Vanishing Nomads of Borneo", a black and white photo essay and personal record of his time with these remarkable people. The book offers an insight into a fast disappearing lifestyle of a tribe that has been heavily featured in the international media thanks to the Bruno Manser saga. But Dennis Lau's black and white photos are not the zoo-like trophy photos of a committed greenie capturing a "noble savage", they are images of real people, taken by a fellow Sarawakian who knows the word `respect'.
©1998 Dennis Lau
Penans - The Vanishing Nomads of Borneo was critically acclaimed and following its publication Dennis was approached by various publishers and asked to contribute to a number of glossy coffee table books focusing on Malaysia and Borneo (see Profile of Work). In recent years his images have been used for promoting Sarawak as a tourism destination. For example, he has contributed slides to the Sarawak Tourism Board's photo library and visitor guidebooks to Kuching and Damai. In 1997, along with a few others, he set up Adventure Images, a postcard company that distributes colour and black & white postcard images of Sarawak's people and its national parks.
Dennis Lau retired from teaching in 1993. But he certainly hasn't stopped taking photos. He still roams around Sarawak doing what he does best - taking pictures of Sarawak and its people.
Dennis Lau can be contacted on 60-82-337782 (Fax).