The Magic, Myth and Legend of Borneo
Artist’s Statement: Scott Adamson
December 20, 1994

A platinum and palladium photographic print is formed from tiny particles of base metals embedded within the surface fibers of a fine-art paper. Because platinum and palladium are more inert than silver, and therefore not susceptible to attack by impurities or atmospheric pollutants, they enjoy a permanence for which they have no rival. *1

The people of Borneo, whose tribal roots can be traced back to match those of East Africa, are like the tiny particles of base metals we as practitioners of alternative photographic processes embed in the surface of our art paper; rare and valuable.

Whether the native groups of Borneo will enjoy a permanence for which they too can become renown, is yet to be decided.

The harvest of limited resources for the benefit of the larger population has put these people and their way of life at risk. The end goal of the majority culture is not the extermination of a national race or group as a planned move, but rather to bring a people and society from what is popularly perceived as a state of darkness, to one of enlightenment. For some, the promise of progress makes a strong case for abandoning a way of life practiced 40,000 years. For others, the promise holds no charm. By relating a perception of something new to the knowledge already possessed by the indigenous peoples of Borneo, the dominant culture hopes to lure their brethren into the mainstream with the promise of an easier, more healthful and fruitful life.

The parallels between the circumstance facing the indigenous peoples of Borneo, and those of the native nations of America 100 years ago, are the real magnet for Scott Adamson’s decision to return to Borneo time and time again and to involve John McJunkin in this photographic exhibit. Like the previous turn-of-the-century American Apache, Kiowa, Iroquois, and Cherokee, the 21st century Malaysian Berawan, Kelabit, Bidayuh and Iban, land and sea dayaks of Borneo, are facing a radical and incredibly fast paced adaptation to a new society, one they must complete or vanish.

Unlike the native nations of America, they are not faced with mortal combat as the only alternative to succumbing to the province of the more powerful, more ambitious and more populous, dominant culture. They face questions of economic survival where shifting cultivation, fishing, collecting jungle produce and hunting are to be replaced by labor, government service and the commerce of tourism. They face the defense of their fundamental rights to live as a people with dignity through enforcement of a Land Code, which in theory recognizes the people’s customary right to the land and resources found therein, but in practice favors encroachment and benefits the many at the expense of the few; plus they must come to grips with privatization in the wake of a centuries long tradition of collective rights.

The intent of this exhibit is not to make a value judgement in regards to who, or what, is right or wrong. The intent is only to make a historical record of a people and place, using a photographic process that imparts its own tactile quality to the image.

In a platinum print, the absence of a gelatine layer, or other coating, leaves the paper surface exposed, conferring subtle, but distinctive optical qualities; its perfectly matte surface enables the image to be seen from any angle without the viewer experiencing reflective glare, and so the print acquires a sense of depth. The colors range from blue-black, through neutral greys to rich sepia browns. These colors are an intrinsic feature of the process, rather than the result of any subsequent ‘toning’ chemistry.1

The absence of an artfully shrewd layer in Borneans, and a sympathetic respect for authority supported by a frank friendliness and sense of equality, does not make the native groups superior, only different, and yet different in a way that inspires other people to take aim at simplicity and at living in the land, on the land and of the land.

John and I have chosen to produce our work in a medium in which replication is very limited and never exact. Yet one in which permanence is a premium, making the prints desirable both for archival documents and as enduring ‘works of art’. They are as rare and special as the people of Borneo, and the portfolio bears witness to what we and our cameras have seen. Magic, myth and legend, giving way to logic, commerce and prosperity.

*1) Pradip, Malde and Ware, Mike (1988) : “A Contemporary Method for Making Photographic Prints in Platinum and Palladium.” Originally compiled to accompany a weekend workshop at the Photographer’s Place, Bradbourne, Derbyshire, U.K., November 1985
Main Contact:
Scott Adamson
Sacramento, CA 95816
United States
Phone Number: (916)731-4575