Iban people at the Ngemah longhouse in Sarawak. Hedda Morrison photographed the community during the 1950s. The man seated on the right is the son of Rumah Garu, Morrison’s favourite longhouse headman.
Like longhouse people of bygone times, very many photographers tend to be semi-nomadic. Most have a wandering instinct, part blood, part seeking creative opportunities. For myself, for work today, when travelling farther afield I like to visit places connected with historical images. This brings the satisfaction of connecting past and present.
Alastair, Hedda Morrison’s husband, once said: ‘For Hedda her photography was a journey that was always new’. So it was for me in this longhouse. I had travelled up the Rejang River, Sarawak, first by fast ferry, and later in an open boat – to reach the Ngemah longhouse, site of Hedda’s 1950s images published in her book Life In A Longhouse. I wanted to meet the people there, and wondered if the old folk still remembered the photographer.
I had spent a few days in a small river town, Kanowit, seeking a boatman to take me the final eighty kilometres up the Rejang to Ngemah. No one could be found, despite visiting the District Officer – in whose room was a photo of Alastair Morrison, District Officer in the 1950s. So I bought some paper and a texta, covered my copy of Hedda’s book, and wrote on it, in large capitals: NGEMAH. Then I waited in a coffee shop just back from the river. I sat there for half a day, with the jacket of the book easily seen. NGEMAH… By the river word might spread. Late that day, sure enough, a boatman turned up. Early the next morning we set off in his narrow longboat, heading upriver to Ngemah – past forested reaches, along the wide brown river.
Within ten minutes of my arrival, Ibans congregated on Ngemah’s bilik – the longhouse’s communal verandah. Four generations were soon clustered by the book, passing it around. An old woman exclaimed and beamed with delight… She had seen herself in a photo, a young and graceful woman.
Did she and the other elderly folk remember Hedda Morrison? Yes! ‘The small woman, she had a tall husband. She had a limp, he worked for the government.’ It was a moment of deep meaning. The elderly Ngemah people reinforced all that I believe about photography, and specifically the publication of historical photos: the power of individual photos to be messages, the potential for whole bodies of images to tell stories.
And how much stronger if, as could be done at Ngemah, one engages with a photographer’s original, still living subjects – enriching their lives and historical remembrance. Morrison’s Foreword to Life In A Longhouse concluded: ‘To all my Iban friends I wish to express my gratitude for their unfailing kindness and hospitality. I hope these photographs will help others to understand what I have enjoyed.’