Jacopo Della Valle

Story Waterworld

© Jacopo Della Valle

“Waterworld”, by Jacopo Maria Della Valle, tells the story of the Bajau (also known as ‘the Sea Gypsies’) and their intricate connection to the waters they call home.

─── by Rosie Torres, May 21, 2024
  • The Bajau are a stateless and nomadic people who inhabit the coastal waters of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. 

    Documentary photography by Jacopo Della Valle. Children on a boat with wooden stilt houses in the background. From his project, "Waterworld".

    They are believed to trace their roots back to the guards of the Sultanate of Johor, who migrated from the southern Philippines to the eastern coast of Borneo following severe storms after the fall of the Sultanate of Malacca.
    Legend has it that during a catastrophic flood in Malaysia thousands of years ago, the Princess of Johor was swept away by powerful currents. In grief, the princess’s father ordered his subjects to embark on a search, returning only upon finding her.It is a legend that is intertwined with the historical origins of the Bajau people, shaping their identity and connection to the sea.

    Documentary photography by Jacopo Della Valle. Portrait of three men in the ocean

    Italian photographer Jacopo Maria Della Valle has spent the last decade traveling the globe, meeting and photographing little-known ethnic groups and minorities, often invisible to our society, who still survive globalization while trying to retain their ancestral traditions. In 2023, while traveling in Southeast Asia, he heard about the Bajau and, intrigued with their story, decided to learn more.

    J. Maria Della Valle:
    The inspiration behind the “Waterworld” project centered on a deep fascination with the Bajau people and their unique way of life. I was captivated by their nomadic existence, their intimate relationship with the sea, and their great resilience in the face of adversity. I wanted to shed light on their story and daily struggles. The challenges, such as pollution and dependence on societal markets, that threatens their way of life.

    Portrait of a Bajau woman with her face painted yellow by Jacopo Della Valle

    J. Maria Della Valle:
    The Bajau are categorized into three groups: island-dwelling tribes, inhabitants of wooden stilt villages on the open sea, and the Bajau Laut, who live their entire lives on small wooden boats called “lepas,” measuring only 5 meters long and 1.5 meters wide.

    Salis, a fisherman, guided me through several Bajau sea villages, offering insights into their lifestyle and translating their language. Despite attempting to move to the mainland for city work, Salis returned to his stilt house in the marine park “Tun Sakaran” after struggling to adapt to life away from the sea. His home is a paradise amidst transparent waters, coral reefs, and diverse marine species.

    Documentary photography by Jacopo Della Valle. Photo of a man jumping off a boat with a spear
    Documentary photography by Jacopo Della Valle. Portrait of a girl on a boat
    Documentary photography by Jacopo Della Valle. Portrait of a young boy

    J. Maria Della Valle: The construction of stilt houses takes approximately two months during low tide. Each house provides a single living space where I joined Salis and his friends in fishing sessions, marveling at their profound oceanic knowledge and adept freediving skills.

    The Bajau are skilled freedivers, thanks to their enlarged spleens storing more oxygen for extended underwater dives. They fish and gather marine resources, diving as deep as 30 meters, and mainly interact with the mainland to sell goods and acquire essentials or shelter during storms. However, they face health risks like nitrogen narcosis and lack access to healthcare due to their statelessness.

    Documentary photography by Jacopo Della Valle. Photo of wooden stilt houses in the ocean

    J. Maria Della Valle: 
    Their nomadic origins and inclination towards isolation posed challenges in approaching and understanding the Bajau. Establishing trust was a gradual process built on mutual respect, patience, and understanding. Through thorough research and education about Bajau culture, traditions, and lifestyle, I approached their communities with sensitivity and awareness. Utilizing introductions from local contacts with established relationships among the Bajau helped me gain trust and legitimacy.

    J. Maria Della Valle:
    Open communication about the purpose and goals of my photography project, along with seeking their input and feedback, ensured their empowerment and involvement. Respecting their privacy and boundaries was paramount, always obtaining consent before taking photographs and honoring any requests for privacy or subject restrictions.

    Documentary photography by Jacopo Della Valle. Woman spear fishing.

    J. Maria Della Valle: While transitioning to mainland life isn’t feasible, the Bajau must harmonize with their environment while preserving their traditions. Balancing modern society’s demands with their cultural heritage is essential for their future.

    I hope that viewers of my photographs and the story of the Bajau people will gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for their culture and way of life. I hope to inspire positive action and advocacy for their rights, well-being, and preservation of their heritage. 

    Jacopo Della Valle. Waterworld

    J. Maria Della Valle: More importantly, I hope that my work fosters empathy and compassion towards the Bajau people, encouraging viewers to recognize their shared humanity and the universal desire for connection, belonging, and dignity. In essence, I hope that viewers are moved not only by the beauty of the images but also by the profound stories they tell, prompting them to engage with empathy, respect, and solidarity toward the Bajau people and other marginalized communities around the world.


    All images © Jacopo Della Valle