The great seafaring Moken no longer call the ocean home - life now one of transition rather than transit. To document this great change, ethnographic photographer, Cat Vinton, who once lived with the Moken, returned to the Andaman Sea to once again focus her lens on the besieged sea people. This time though, the cameras were placed in the hands of the Moken children. How did they see their shifting world?

Words by Helen Taylor
Photographs by Cat Vinton Ba Din, Khin Than & Gyo Thar

“All good things are wild, and free,” said American naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, a way of life that – as we move into the ‘Anthropocene’ epoch where scientists say humans are having a more dominant impact on the environment than ever before – is receding. 

To be wild, and free – roaming, wandering from place to place, and living in tune with nature’s rhythms – is a way of life honoured for thousands of years by nomadic people the world over, who like the natural world, are fast disappearing too. 

Forced development, climate change, unchecked tourism, and the destruction of nomadic ways of life in the name of ‘conservation’ are some of the challenges facing the world’s remaining nomadic people.

“My ultimate goal is to create a book documenting the world’s last nomads – to create a legacy for the West, and the nomads themselves,” says Cat Vinton, an ethnographic and environmental photographer, who for the last ten years has been recording the lives of nomadic people around the globe: the Tibetan nomads of the Chang Tang and Dolpo-Pa, in the Himalayas; nomadic herdsmen of the South Gobi Desert, Mongolia; Sami reindeer herders of the Inner Finnmark, Norway; and the world’s last ‘sea gypsies’, the Moken of the Andaman Sea.

“I’ve always had this pull towards the nomadic way of life, and the idea that their richness is not material. Nomads have the lightest touch on the land and move so everything can rejuvenate – they leave no trace,” says Cat. 

Nearly ten years ago, Cat made her first visit to the Mergui Archipelago, in the Andaman Sea, where she spent more than three months living with the nomadic Moken. A landless, stateless people, the Moken move from island to island, between the border of Burma and Thailand. 

Cat has revisited the Surin Islands twice since 2008, and has witnessed the dismantling of the Moken’s ‘wild and free’ way of life. Interest in oil and gas exploration beneath the Andaman Sea has fuelled a tightening of border patrols, making movement between Thai and Burmese waters near impossible for the nationless Moken. And, in 1981 the Surin Islands were declared a national park, preventing the Moken from felling trees to make a kabang boat their shelter and home. The 2004 tsunami was the final straw for the Moken, who were prevented from repairing or rebuilding their wrecked boats due to the logging ban, forcing many of them ashore. 

Tourism too has permanently altered the Moken way of life, and in the Thai Surin Islands Moken villages are swamped with tourists for six months of the year outside monsoon season. “It’s pretty hard to see tourism on the Surin Islands,” says Cat. “There are boat loads of people wandering through the village with cameras in their (the Moken’s) faces. It’s like a zoo. Horrendous.” 

In her book The Last Sea Nomads, journalist Susan Smillie writes: “For the shy Moken, it has been a painful journey from maritime nomads to living museum exhibits.

“The loss of tradition and way of life – in the case of the nomadic Moken, their mobility and freedom to live at sea – has created a deep sense of dislocation and profound social problems.”

Cat’s photographs capture nomadic Moken life in its twilight hour. During those first three months immersed in the Moken way of life, aboard a kabang, Cat found herself living with the very last Moken family still clinging to its nomadic existence. Tat and his wife Sabai, and their three sons, were the last known Moken family to come ashore, forced to abandon life afloat due to their disintegrating boat, declining health, and the absence of a Moken community to sail with. There aren’t many Moken left now; just 1,000 in Thailand and 3,000 in Burma.

It had taken Cat a month to locate the Moken – a difficult task given their shyness, and lack of fixed address. Her formula for locating and integrating with nomadic people remains the same wherever she is. Her first task is to befriend a local – preferably a female who has some connection to the nomadic people she’s looking for – to point her in the direction of, and hopefully accompany her to, where the nomads live. On arrival, she doesn’t take any photographs for at least a week, instead taking time to earn the nomads’ trust.

“I try to meet ‘her’ and that usually takes me a big chunk of time,” says Cat. “If the relationship feels right I pursue it, if not I keep looking elsewhere. She’s my gold.”

Cat says intimacy and empathy are key to her work. Taking an ethnographic approach, and without relying on guides or translators, she fully immerses herself in the lives of those she’s photographing; eating what they eat, sleeping where they sleep, and lending a hand with daily chores where she can. “I let go and completely immerse myself at every level,” she says. “I don’t take my own food or sleeping bag, the only thing I take is my camera and charging kit.”

Cat speaks with pace and enthusiasm. There’s no doubt she’s passionate about her nomad project, which she tells me is mostly self-funded. “I am what I do,” she confesses. “My work life and personal life are seamless.”

Akin to the nomads she documents with such sensitivity, Cat also leads a fascinating, contemporary ‘nomadic’ life. Whilst the majority of the Western world barricades itself within four walls, Cat has no fixed address, instead living from project from project, rarely thinking further ahead than the next commission, and only returning to London – her base of sorts – when she has to. When we speak, she’s been in London for two weeks and is already “getting twitchy.”

“Lots of people ask, ‘don’t you struggle with your lifestyle?’, but I’m genuinely really happy on the move. There’s something inside me that tells me I need to move, and wherever I am, it feels like home. That could be sitting at a dinner table with the Queen, or it could be in a tent at -40C. It’s natural for me, and I don’t miss home like a lot of people do. It’s strange, I’m very in the moment, and I go intimate. I really live out there.”

Aside from her nomad project – which Cat describes as her life’s work, hopefully resulting in an exhibition and a book – Cat has also been working on a philanthropy project with Moken living on the Burmese islands of the Mergui Archipelago. Although still one people, Moken on either side of the border face entirely different challenges. Moken on the Thai side tackle the influence of tourism, but are otherwise fairly autonomous, whereas Moken on the Burmese side have no contact with tourists, but are instead integrating with Burmese fisherman, and culture. Both circumstances pose a threat to Moken culture and tradition, but Cat says ‘preservation’ isn’t the solution.

“I struggle with the word ‘preserve’. I don’t think the Moken need preserving. They are unbelievably resilient, and they aren’t against progression, it’s just when it’s forced progression. They’re a water people that have been forced on land in either Thailand or Burma. It’s crazy.”

Cat’s project on the Burmese islands centres around illustrating the gradual integration of Moken and Burmese ways of life. To do that, she provided Burmese and Moken children with their own cameras, to document life through their eyes – a project reminiscent of the documentary Born into Brothels, where photographer Zana Briski provided the children of Calcutta’s red light district with basic cameras to record their daily lives. 

“Burma is opening up to tourists for the first time, and these people have been left alone far longer than people in other Southeast Asian countries. I wanted the children to document their life from the inside, as their country is opening up to outsiders – to create an extraordinary archive of images before the Moken way of life disappears.” 

The final photos, she says, will be presented in a book entitled ‘SEEN through the eyes of the children’, and on postcards, with all proceeds going back to the island. The islanders have been given full control of any funds raised. They have opted to build a retaining wall around the Burmese temple to protect it against sand erosion, and will work to clear their beaches of plastic pollution.

Photographs by Cat Vinton Ba Din, Khin Than & Gyo Thar

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This feature appears in ISSUE 05: Cinematic conservation of Oceanographic Magazine

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