Sarawak by Hedda Morrison is a photography book published in 1957.
The book features photographs taken by the author during the 8 years she spent in Sarawak.
Morrison was married to Alastair Morrison, a district officer when Sarawak was under the British Crown Colony.
Overall, the Morrisons stayed for over 20 years in Sarawak. During this time, she produced two books: Sarawak (1957) and Life in a Longhouse (1962).
She accompanied her husband for his work allowing her to photograph the people she met and the places she visited.
Morrison reportedly used two car batteries to power her portable darkroom enlarger while without power for six years in Sarawak.
On top of that, she stored her negatives in an airtight chest using silica gel as a drying agent to overcome the perils of a tropical climate.
The outcome; her photographs of Sarawak are undoubtedly magnificent and the descriptions that came with them are insightful.
Her texts are mostly based on her personal experiences and opinions.
Sarawak by Hedda Morrison
When Westerners publish something about Sarawak, they usually go into two different directions; romanticizing or condescending.
Morrison definitely belongs to the first category.
Commenting on the Iban people, Morrison stated, “The Ibans are an independent, brace, good-humoured, generous, open-handed people. They are also excitable and emotional. Their personal honesty and innate sense of hospitality are outstanding. There are no locked doors in longhouses. Theft is very rare and intensely despised.”
As for the Kayans and Kenyahs, she opined “In general Kayans and Kenyahs are progressive and exceptionally school conscious. They are quiet and reserved; slow and rather phlegmatic.”
While observing the Bidayuh, Morrison concluded, “The Land Dayaks are very conservative and singularly lacking in the way of wander-lust. There is a good deal of land hunger in the hill areas where they reside and where they cultivate paddy by the usual wasteful system of shifting cultivation. The land has been overworked and much of its fertility has been lost but despite this they are, as a people, very reluctant to migrate to other areas of Sarawak. A curious feature of their paddy cultivation is that they do not head of paddy with a small knife like the other peoples of Sarawak but pluck it off between their fingers.”
The rare photos of Sarawak by Hedda Morrison
Going through Hedda Morrison’s Sarawak is like going through a time portal back to Crown Colony of Sarawak.
She documented some of rare sights of Sarawak that we no longer could see today.
One example is how the Malays in Lundu prepared traditional medicine for pregnant women.
This particular medicine is made from bud of Rafflesia which was sliced up finely and mixed with various spice.
We will never see this sight again because the Rafflesia is now a totally protected plant.
Another sight that we no longer see but can be found in the book is the photo of boat-hawkers.
These were floating shops which travel from one village to another.
Moreover, there are photos of no-longer existing buildings.
For instance, there is a photo of Kampung Pichin’s longhouse in Serian. Today, the villagers no longer live in longhouses but in individuals houses instead.
There is also a photo of a Kenyah longhouse Long Selaan in the upper Baram. However, this particular building no longer exists.
We need a new version of Sarawak by Hedda Morrisson
Her photographs are all undoubtedly magnificent. However, it is possible that they were also not captured in the moment but staged for the photographer.
In a photo taken at Long Buroi in the upper Tinjar, Morrison took photo of a former spirit medium conducting a healing session through spirit invocation.
She honestly shared that despite the subjects being Christians, they all agreed to reenact the session for the photographer.
Another unfortunate fact about the book is the lack of names of the subjects.
Morrison offered a great deal of portraits but their names were not included.
Regardless, we wish that there would be a new generation of local photographers who will document Sarawak like Morrison did, because Sarawak definitely needs an upgraded version of this book.