“I hope to convey a grounded sense of mystery and wonder. Anyone who comes to Bali will tell you that there is a certain magic in the air here.”
Michael Dean Morgan’s compelling depictions of Bali provide a refreshing alternative to pervasive renditions of the Indonesian Isle.
Morgan (who won 1st prize in our 2021 People Photography Award) was born and raised in Australia. He became interested in the medium during his early 20s, when he began incorporating photos into his work as a studio multimedia designer.
It was a love of travel, however, that truly galvanized and shaped his practice. He became interested in distant places and cultures as a young child through watching international movies on television, and later (during his formative photographic years) discovered the work of master photographers like Bruno Barbey, Steve McCurry, and Alex Webb.
Living in Darwin, the capital of Australia’s Northern Territories, Bali was a relatively short flight away, and Morgan visited the island for family holidays on a number of occasions during his childhood. However, these sojourns left him with somewhat of a negative perception of the isle.
“I came to see Bali as very touristy. It was only when a photo gallery here asked me to come back and spend 2 months photographing villages that I realized there was more to this place than the facade of tourism. At that point, I had already been traveling around for some time and didn’t really have anywhere to be, so I decided to stay on and call Bali home.”
Living on the island afforded him the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of its rich traditions and cultures; to discover a place figuratively distant from the holiday resorts and palm-fringed beaches that defined his early experiences and thus, to capture a place strikingly contrastive to those ubiquitous renditions proliferated on social media, travel blogs and publications.
“The problem with photographing in Bali is that it has been, and still is being, photographed by many photographers. Everything has been photographed. Especially the religion and the culture which to some is the major drawcard of the island (that’s changing though).
When I first arrived and started photographing I kind of avoided taking photographs of anything religious as it seemed to be a trope or ‘low hanging fruit’ and I didn’t feel I could bring anything new. It was only after being here 3-4 years that I started to piece together my own understanding and perspective. Thus, ‘Praying in the Rain’ began.”
Workers tending rice paddies; street vendors; children playing; religious practices, Morgan captures quotidian life on the island with honesty, perceptivity, and respect, and in a vivid chromatic palette befitting of its intense, beauty.
His depictions of the latterly mentioned subject are particularly absorbing and crucial in conveying a nuanced portrait of the island, for such traditions suffuse everyday life here.
Though the majority of Balinese identify as Hindu, their beliefs and practices are distinct from those found elsewhere, rooted in animism and ancestor worship along with classical Javanese court culture, and moreover, suffused with Buddhist and Shaivite Tantra.
Morgan transcribes moments of ritual, meditation, or prayer with extraordinary percipience and delicacy, imparting, with remarkable eloquence the profound reverence and respect.
“I hope to convey a grounded sense of mystery and wonder. Anyone who comes to Bali will tell you that there is a certain magic in the air here. What Diana Darling labels in her introduction as the ‘Old Holy’ and the ‘Luminous Hum’. So I wanted to create a series of images that somehow represented this.
Since the arrival of social media and easy access to the internet, Bali is changing very quickly. These images also serve as a document for a side of Bali that may not exist in the near future. Much of what I have photographed has already disappeared.”
Following his debut book, Looking for Bali (available here) in 2016, a collection of these works is set for publication in the near future. Featuring an introduction by renowned author and long-time Bali-resident Diana Darling, Praying in the Rain encapsulates Morgan’s sensibility, displaying his profound love for an island that has come to be his home.
All images © Michael Dean Morgan