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Photo Essay: Sofie Olsen's 'The Moken People'

The Norwegian photographer documents the Austronesian tribe's aquatic-based culture and their struggle against modernity through her breathtaking images

Along the coasts of Burma and Thailand, an Austronesian tribe of sea dwellers – the Moken – live a harmonious existence. Using their expert diving skills and extraordinary underwater vision to hunt and gather food sources from the seabed some 23 metres down, they have been surviving a semi-normadic way of life for thousands of years.

Last December, Norwegian photographer Sofie Olsen travelled to the Surin Islands to document the Moken people’s way of life and on-going aquatic-based culture. Featuring the kabang – the wooden boats they can live on for up to nine months of the year – and the simple huts that act as a sheltered home base, her images capture the Moken’s incredible fishing and diving skills that have been past down through generations extending over thousands of years.

Remarkably, the Moken have developed the ability to focus their eyes underwater, and can hold their breath for several minutes with ease. Travelling to the Surin Islands last December, Sophie dove down into the depths with them, capturing images that document their simple, yet effective methods of living and the traditions they continue to uphold.

However, with the inevitability of modernity and the rise of industrial and digital technology, the Moken’s existence is under threat. Today, there remains only 2,000-3,000 Moken peacefully living among the waves of the Andaman Sea, roaming from island to island – a number that has dramatically decreased from 15,000 in the last 15 years. Indeed, throughout the 90s, the Moken were subjected to attempts of forced relocation to permanent on-ground sites by the Burmese government and military officials, which consequently diminished the number of permanent water-dwelling Moken.

Sophie's images serve to document the Moken away from the influences of the main land, which continuously threaten their traditional methods and culture. Moreover, the photographs can also act as a reminder that – in an increasingly corporate and metropolitan world – it might not be such a bad idea to slow down, take a breath, and take note from a peaceful, non-confrontational and environmentally aware culture.

More info on Sofie Olsen HERE and 'The Moken People', a full-length documentary being made about the tribe HERE