Published: October 2007
John Stanmeyer
Interview by Glynnis McPhee

Over the course of six weeks photographer John Stanmeyer traveled through the cities and villages along the Malacca Strait for National Geographic magazine’s story about high seas piracy in the region.

How did you get this assignment for National Geographic?

I live in Indonesia and over the last decade I’ve done a number of stories on the Malacca Strait and the area of Sumatra, Singapore, and Malaysia. I imagine my close connection and my knowledge of the history and geography of the region is the reason I was asked to do this assignment.

How did you plan to cover a story about piracy given that it’s dangerous and illegal?

This isn’t actually a story about pirates. I didn’t try to avoid that but, photographically, the original approach was to try to understand the culture that resides along all sides of the Malacca Strait, the culture that brings about piracy.

Did the fact that you live in Indonesia help you with the assignment?

I don’t think it necessarily helped that I live there. It helps that I read a lot about Indonesia. I actually don’t know the language. I can understand about 30 percent of it and I can mumble my way through. The problem is that I travel so much and I hear so many different languages. I realized long ago that I’m going to be an employer of translators.

So you traveled with a translator. Did anyone else go with you?

I brought two assistants—one a brilliant fixer-translator and a dear friend who I’ve worked with for years, and the other a Photoshop assistant who I now travel with quite often. In Indonesia it definitely helps to not be completely on your own as a foreigner—not at all because of safety—but you draw a lot of attention. When you arrive in a village, people are so welcoming and friendly. They’ll call out the bule, which means foreigner, “the bule is here!” Then everyone comes out to greet you. I find having an assistant allows me to remind people that I’m just visiting so they can go back to what they’re doing. You spend a lot of time waiting for everyone to get back to normal so you can start doing what you came there to do; that is, be a visual eye into the culture.

Did anything surprise you on this assignment?

I’d been to Malacca, the city itself, a lot in the past 11 years. On this trip I stayed in the Chinatown area specifically during the Chinese New Year. I remember seeing these giant incense sticks—they were mammoth sticks like trees—and I thought, What is this? Later that night, at midnight, I saw this gentleman lighting them. It made for a staggering scene. That image is in the magazine. It’s a simple picture, but it was a really special time. When else are you going to see someone lighting these enormous sticks with fireworks going off in the background? And it was just naturally happening. I never imagined five hours before that it would be as spectacular as it was.

Is there something you didn’t get a chance to include in this story that you wish did?

I was hoping to include Aceh. I didn’t photographically focus on the dark side of piracy because I was much more interested in the culture that brings about such desperate needs to survive. Aceh wouldn’t have been a perfect example of this, but if you look at piracy it spreads itself all throughout the Malacca Strait. I do, though, think we included pretty much everything. Sarah Leen, the photo editor, was brilliant at keeping a cohesive narrative going. So much can’t ever make it into the magazine, there just aren’t enough pages, so we hope the reader has the ability to feel the narrative even though you can’t go on the whole journey with me.