Preserving Dayak Culture Through Photography

Culture photographer David Metcalf was so enchanted with Indonesia’s beautiful landscape and people that he moved their four years ago.

As well as spending his time taking incredible photographs, he organizes photography tours for tourists and locals and has set up his own charitable projects to help to indigenous communities there.

Image: David Metcalf

What issues do the indigenous people there face?

I think fairly typical of many indigenous people globally, losing their land and forests to greedy mining, forestry and palm oil companies, misunderstood by the majority of Indonesians, young people growing up and becoming more disconnected with their culture due to modern influences and losing connection with the land.

How have you used your photography for their cause?

Mainly to bring awareness and educate people about the importance of preserving the forests and the extraordinary beauty of the people. I have used the photography in talks and presentations and I am making a documentary film due for release in Feburary called ‘Long Saan the journey back’ about the connection of traditional Dayak people and their original home in the forest.

I have also held photography exhibitions in Jakarta and produced a book last year called ‘Looking for Borneo’ with all my photography.

What do you find inspiring about the culture in Kalimantan?

The Dayak people lived in harmony with the environment for thousands of years and their culture and belief systems were built around this. Then people with no understanding for their culture or the earth came in and in the past 60 years destroyed 50% of the original forests that had been around for 150 million years. There is so much wisdom in this culture and it is expressed through dance, music, storytelling and it is so inspiring, but more people need to understand and have exposure to this.

Why do you feel it is important to document these cultures?

Because they have the answers and the knowledge that we have lost. I think it is critical to our survival. If something is not done soon the stories and much of the culture will disappear.

What are some of the challenges you face with the charitable work you do?

The main challenge is funding. If I had the financial support I know I can positively impact thousands of people’s lives. The developed world speaks in giving billions of dollars to support the developing nations to fight global warming. If I just had a tiny fraction of that I could make an enormous difference in the communities. All my programs are built from the communities, at a grassroots level.

What are your hopes for the future of this community?

Our programs in central and north Kalimantan are built around two concepts: education and sustainability. Our hope is that in a few months time we can walk away and the villages will run their own programs and be economically self-sufficient. Then we expand the program to more and more villages up the rivers of Kalimantan.

What are your future plans for your photography work?

To expand my gallery in Ubud and bring more awareness through the power of the creative image and to produce more books that provide an understanding of Dayak culture and the connection with the land.

I want to bring photographers together to harness the creative brilliance through my gallery and other events in Jakarta and Bali.

I want to give the Dayak people a voice by supporting local Dayak photographic communities to express their culture and support talented Balinese photographers to build their careers by giving them exposure to the photography talks in the gallery and opportunities to learn from others.

We asked David to talk us through some of his favourite images:

“Young Dayak man among the 150 million year old forest near his village. This photo shows this 12 year old Dayak Kenyah boy looking up and into his future. Will these old growth trees still be here when he is an adult? Will he be alone in his fight to protect his forests? I think this photo raises a few questions and that we must support communities like this to protect what is still left.”

“This is one photo I like as it captures the joy and connection of this proud Dayak man and his pristine forest. When the forests are left in the care of the indigenous people like the dayaks they look after them with reverence and care in a sustainable way. This man was very proud to be wearing clothing passed on from his ancestors.”

“I like this photo as it captures the natural light on this 80-plus year old Dayak woman’s face. I photographed her in her humble home in the village. I think the photo captures the wisdom and beauty of these people who are so graceful. They contain much of the old wisdom and are the keepers of the stories.”

To find out more about David, visit his website or email him at

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