It was a request for a soft drink that made Dennis Lau realise that times have truly changed.

When he travelled into far-flung villages in Borneo in the 1960s, a simple gift of candy would always be met with much enthusiasm. It would be divided among the families in the community, and the children would be all smiles at the candy given to them.

But 10 years ago, when Lau met familiar faces in Ulu Baram, Sarawak, that he had photographed before, they had a special request.

“I was surprised when they asked for Coca-Cola. This was unheard of in the past, but now this is what luxury is to them. In the old days, what was Coke? No one here cared for it. But times change, and so do the people,” he says philosophically

The self-taught photographer has not only seen the change that comes with the passing of time, he has lived it and documented it through the images he takes of the indigenous people in Sabah and Sarawak that he has come to know well. He’s worked with the Bajau, Bidayuh, Dusun, Iban, Kayan, Kelabit, Murut, Penan and Rungus, among others.

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Penan With His Pet Monkey (1970). The Penan hunters sometimes take their pet monkeys along on hunting trips. They also come in handy for picking off lice from hair. Photos: Dennis Lau

He has lost count of how many trips he has made into the remote areas of Sabah and Sarawak over some six decades. The long, arduous journeys by boat and on foot would last at least a week, and often up to 10 days at a stretch.

A teacher by profession and father of five, this was how Lau spent most of the term breaks.

A selection of 40 photographs of Sabah and Sarawak indigenous folk is now on display at Dennis Lau’s Solo Photography Exhibition: Classic Images Of Borneo at the National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur. The photos, most of which are handprinted by Lau, span five decades of his work, from 1952 to 2002.

“It was very difficult to decide on just 40 photos. About a third have not been shown in public before, including the oldest shot here, of a woman and her two children trying ice cream for the first time after travelling from Ulu Tubau to Bintulu (Sarawak) to attend the regatta celebration. It is one of my earliest photos, taken with my first box camera in 1952,” says the affable 80-year-old.

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Kayan Mother And Daughters (1952) captures the women’s first taste of ice cream. This is one of Lau’s earliest photos, taken when he was 14 years old.

Lau’s first camera was a gift from his father, a carrot dangled to encourage him to do well in his qualifying exams for secondary school. There were too many fun distractions for a 12-year-old growing up in Bintulu, but this strategy worked. He passed his exam and got his camera, a Yashica, which fuelled a passion that has lasted an entire lifetime.

“Film was expensive back then, so I learned how to ‘see’ a perfect picture before shooting. In the old days, you don’t shoot hundreds of photos as you do now, and hope that in the midst of all that you find a shot that turns out well. I used to take just one shot, at most two, of whatever it was I was shooting. So that photo had to be perfect,” he states.

Lau is razor-sharp with his stories and recollections of his youth, from his childhood memories of helping a neighbour carry buckets of water to his darkroom and watching him develop his photographs, to how he took out an instalment plan to pay for his first camera purchased with his own money.

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A girl sitting astride her father’s buffalo in the rice fields in Young Kadazan-Dusun Girl (1968).

“It was a secondhand Leica camera that cost RM900. I had just come out of teacher’s training college and my salary then was RM270; I paid RM500 up front and the rest I paid off in stages,” he recalls with a laugh.

It is a level of commitment that is hardly surprising for a man who converted his kitchen into a darkroom.

“It was just a simple darkroom,” he clarifies. But where there is passion, art can emerge from even the mundane.

Born in Bintulu and currently based in Kuching, Lau, who is of Chinese and Melanau descent, was barely out of his teens when he clinched a prize in the Borneo Photo Competition. By the time the 1970s rolled around, he was walking away with first prizes in photography competitions such as the News Photo Competition in Sarawak, and My Best Photo Competition in Leica Magazine.

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Nomadic Penans (1978). A group of Penans exploring a remote part of the rainforest along Sungai Sela’an in Ulu Baram, Sarawak.

For three decades, from the late 1970s till 2011, he had a photo column, called Dennis Lau’s Borneo, in the Borneo Bulletin newspaper. He has exhibited in numerous countries, has several publications to his name, and, being ever a force to be reckoned with, is toying with the idea of putting out yet another in the near future.

Lau relates how he has always found himself inexplicably drawn to people and his photography became a means to capture their stories and emotions.

“A good photo should make a strong statement, it should evoke a response in people who gaze upon it. When you take photos of people, you need to have a good sense of timing and character. Every person has a unique soul and a good shot will allow that to come through,” he says.

His photographs of the indigenous folk simply living their lives document a fast-disappearing way of life, a chronicling of the present even as it becomes the past. His earlier work, in particular, tells of a time that feels almost like another world now, even for the people in his photographs.

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Kelabit Elders (1973) depict men wearing hornbill ivory ear pendants. This photo was taken while they were serving as border scouts in the army camp in Bario, Sarawak.

“Most of these photographs cannot be reproduced, even if I were to return to the same place today. The culture and their way of living has changed so much with modernisation, so in a way, this presentation of my work feels rather nostalgic to me. And I suppose there are many people who share the same sentiments,” he muses.

Earlier this year, he held an exhibition at the Rainforest Fringe Festival in Kuching. He relates how touched he was when visitors commented that the show took them back to the Borneo of old.

“People really enjoyed what I shared with them and I am happy to have the honour and the opportunity to do that. I hope this exhibition in KL will do the same, that it will give a glimpse into life as we knew it in Borneo,” he concludes.


Dennis Lau’s Solo Photography Exhibition: Classic Images Of Borneo is on in the Creative Space, National Art Gallery, Jalan Temerloh, off Jalan Tun Razak, Kuala Lumpur, till Nov 25. Opening hours: 10am to 6pm. For more information, call 03-4026 7000 or visit artgallery.gov.my. Free admission.