Alpha Universe Story Detail
Alpha Universe Story Detail
Visiting the Elusive Orang Seletar 

By Yeo Yeow Kwang 

It was by pure accident that I chanced upon the Orang Seletar community while vacationing in Johor Bahru. Since then, I have returned several times and even formed a bond with the local “Head of Fishermen’s Association”, a Chinese who married an Orang Seletar woman. Through him, I learned more about the history and life of Orang Seletar.

With the help of Sony, my discovery turned into a documentation of the community’s way of life in the modern day.

The Orang Seletar community resides in Southern Malaysia where they embrace a sea-based life.

Alpha 7R II | FE 28mm F2 | 28 mm | 1/800 sec | F4 | ISO 800

A history lesson of the indigenous community

When Sir Stamford Raffles came to Singapore in 1819, he found a forest, along with some sparse indigenous people living in the estuary of Seletar. Named after a favourite fishing ground, the Orang Seletar community lived in their sail-less wooden boats. After Singapore's independence in 1965, the community moved north to Southern Malaysia to continue living in the coastal areas as they did not want to change their sea-based life.

A group of Orang Seletar villagers posing for a shot.

Alpha 7R II | FE 28mm F2 | 28 mm | 1/800 sec | F4 | ISO 800

Today’s Orang Seletar

The Orang Seletar community appears to live relatively in isolation with minimal contact with outsiders. However, the villagers appear to enjoy a carefree and untroubled lifestyle, depending on the sea for their livelihood such as catching fish, prawn, crabs, and mussels. Some peddle seafood, dried fish and Bakan wood found in mangrove forests, while others hold eco-tours for curious visitors.

Village children lead a carefree life along their home's coastal shores.

Alpha 7R II | FE 28mm F2 | 28 mm | 1/3200 sec | F4.5 | ISO 2000

Seen simply dressed or frolicking around naked without footwear, village children possessed a happy-go-lucky outlook in life, often taking pleasures in sea activities as influenced by their parents. Harnessing the wealth of the sea seems to be what they come to know and love. Interestingly, some families have also begun adopting modern comforts such as watching televisions and riding motorcycles. 

A glimpse into the village's sea-based life.

Alpha 7R III | FE 24-70mm F4 ZA OSS | 24 mm | 1/160 sec | F4.5 | ISO 100

Parents also understand the importance of education for their children. While they can receive free education in local government schools, some parents chose to send their children to Singapore. According to them, the Orang Seletar community does have relatives in Singapore.

What I prepared before shooting

I started by preparing a task list; this includes photos, locations and people I planned to photograph. Focusing on the geographic context, I built my story around personal encounters with characters in the villages. The geographic context includes their living environment, the fishing village and the children’s playground. As this is a story centered around the villagers, I consciously shot more environment portraitures in a context relevant to their present lifestyle and living situations.

The Orang Seletar villagers also enjoy modern comforts such as watching shows on televisions.

Alpha 7R II | FE 24-70mm F4 ZA OSS | 24 mm | 1/25 sec | F5 | ISO 3200

I also built relationships with the community by conversing with them during multiple visits to the village. This is probably one of the most important elements when engaging strangers. It is important to gain the trust of the people you are photographing. Once they get comfortable with you, you’ll be able to get up close and personal for more intimate photos.


Riding on motorcycles is a mode of transportation in the community.

Alpha 7R III | FE 24-70mm F4 ZA OSS | 62 mm | 1/8000 sec | F4 | ISO 400

How I chose my gear

As this community is relatively insulated to outsiders, I have to be extremely careful in the choice of my camera gear, and only picked out equipment that would appear mild and harmless to them.

I chose Sony’s Zeiss 24-70mm F4 lens as my main lens, considering its compact size and weight, paired with the Alpha 7R II mirrorless camera. The constant F4 aperture and great optical performance were two important factors I considered. With this setup, I was able to cover my storytelling with three types of images: wide-angle shots that revealed contextual clues of the environment, medium shots for portraits and everyday situations, and close, intimate shots that detailed my subject’s living and working conditions.

With that said, I tried to avoid posed portraitures and shot mostly candid snapshots as I preferred to find moments that tell the story. Posed shots do not capture the strength and dignity in their faces.


Shot with FE 55mm F1.8 ZA , the lens offers a stronger bokeh background for portraits.

Alpha 7R II | Sonnar T* FE 55mm F1.8 ZA | 55 mm | 1/125 sec | F1.8 | ISO 100

I relied on Sony’s Zeiss 55mm F1.8 lens when I needed stronger bokeh backgrounds for a portrait. This is another compact lens that touts outstanding sharpness and does a wonderful job of rendering a smooth bokeh. 

The verstile FE Zeiss 24-70mm F4 ZA OSS lens encompasses various shooting styles, such as wide-angle, mid-range, and close-ups shots.

Alpha 7R III | Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm F4 ZA OSS | 24 mm | 1/640 sec | F4 | ISO 400

Final tips

In summary, I find the following tips important in creating a visual photo story:

•   Prepare a task list before your journey.
•   Gain the trust of the people you are photographing.
•   Be mindful of the type of images you plan to shoot and prepare the appropriate camera and lenses.
•   Use Autofocus and Eye Autofocus so you can capture the images instantaneously.
•   Be patient and find the decisive moments that tell your story.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of Sony Singapore.

Yeow Kwang’s Gear
Alpha 7R II


Alpha 7R III


FE 28mm F2


Sonnar T* FE 55mm F1.8 ZA


Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm F4 ZA OSS