Tebaran is a short, intense man, with tanned olive skin. He walks almost naked through the forests of Borneo, armed with a blow-pipe and poison darts. He is one of the last nomads of his tribe, the Penan. He is also the title subject of Mattias Klum's photo exhibit; The Testament of Tebaran, now on at the Asian Civilization Museum until the 18th of July.
I had the good fortune to meet up with Mattias Klum, National Geographic Photographer, for a chat about his work. (And here I must apologize, my interview recordings were lost - and so I'm constructing Klum's replies from memory. Any mistakes are entirely my own.)
Tall, blue-eyed and fit for his age, Klum (who hints he's in his 40s) is a study in contradiction. For one, he looks like he should be on an episode of Baywatch instead of hiding in blinds in the humid jungles of Borneo. And for such a good-looking man, you'd think he'd be the picture of suave confidence, but instead, you feel a shy, almost bashful air from him. Until that is, you start talking about the environment and his conservation work. That's when he really opens up.
What struck me about Klum is how deeply passionate and philosophical he is about his work. Growing up with a love of nature - his parents recall finding him, as a small boy, curled up asleep between the paws of the family German Shepherd - he first traveled to Borneo's tropical rainforests when he was 20. He remembers falling in love with it the very first time. Since then, he's photographed the Borneo rainforests and the changes it's been forced to undergo due to deforestation.
He remembers realizing even then how much was already being lost, and how much more we could stand to lose. When I asked him if he felt a photograph could help make a change against the devastation, he felt that a photograph could do more to tell an emotional story than a science report. Through telling these stories to people, he hopes that they can be moved to help the environment.
Klum revealed that his work has already helped make changes in his home country of Sweden, where he has consulted with major brands and helped them changed their supply practices to become more socially and environmentally responsible.
I asked Klum why he was so obviously optimistic about the environmental future when so much damage has already been done. Pausing for a moment, he said that in all the animals in the world, only man had the capacity to change his behavior and affect the world on a grand scale. Despite man's ability for evil, man also has the ability to do great good, and he remains hopeful that we can do better.
Held in conjunction with the Month of Photography, The Testament Of Tebaran: Borneo's Moment Of Truth is on at the Asian Civilizations Museum from the 19th of June till the 18th of July 2010. Admission is free.
I like coffee and cameras, but not together.