One stormy day, Swiss photographer Beat Presser looked out at the small silhouettes of traditional dhow sailboats drifting off the coast of Tanzania. “I thought, oh my god, what am I getting into?”
The 63-year-old photographer had dedicated some 25 years to an epic voyage: documenting life on and around boats in Madagascar, Tanzania and Indonesia.
He has brought black-and-white images from his journeys with Indian Ocean communities to Phnom Penh in an exhibition of about 70 photographs, entitled “Sea of the Ancestors,” that opened on Thursday at Meta House.
Asked what his favorite part of his adventures was, he answered: “I’m still alive.”
Born in Basel, Switzerland, Mr. Presser began the project in 1988 after he was sent to Madagascar to make a film for Swiss television. He ended up living there for about five years.
“I didn’t understand where did the people come from,” Mr. Presser said. “The longer, the more I got interested.”
Then, in 2009, a separate trip took him to Tanzania, where he documented the dhow boats that ferried people and goods along the East African coast. “This is a kind of boat that still sails today, probably like 5 or 6 thousand years ago,” he said.
Finally, in 2012, he decided to explore the ancestry question, tracing back the heritage of those who settled in Madagascar to Indonesia.
Rocking amid sacks of rice, mattresses, fresh fruit and electronics, Mr. Presser lived with crew members as they prayed, slept, fished and kept themselves amused aboard.
“I don’t make an organized trip, I float,” he said.
Leaving off the port in Makassar, Indonesia, the photographer said he followed an invite by a crewman he met at the harbor.
“He said, ‘You should come with me to Bonerate,’” Mr. Presser recalls. “I said, ‘Yeah but how do I get there?’” The crewman replied: “‘You go here, you go there, and then you take the boat from there, and then you take a small boat and then a big boat.’ I said OK. And 10 days later I was there.”
In the three countries, Mr. Presser encountered different communities on each ship and in the port towns where they docked. “In all three cultures, there’s a lot of fishing communities,” he said. But there are also differences in how each community sails—from the way they build the boats to the amenities on board.
“In Indonesia, you have 17,000 islands and 7,000 islands which are full of people,” he said. “Many many islands are so small, big boats they can’t even go in there.” Slimmer boats, as well as the legendary, two-masted pinisi, transport whatever supplies are needed, he said.
“While it’s rather sophisticated in Indonesia, in Madagascar it’s very simple. They really go with small boats.”
And whereas the Indonesian pinisi can be built out of 16 different types of wood, Mr. Presser said, Tanzanians make their boats mostly out of mangroves.
“They go look what could be perfect, and then they cut,” Mr. Presser said, “and they form it a bit with fire.”
This fascination with ships and seafarers came to him early, Mr. Presser said: “When I was 6, because my father built his own boat in Switzerland, and then we were going up the river with the boat.”
He got his skipper’s license at age 14 and, after finishing high school, 19-year-old Mr. Presser embarked on a trip around the world, gaining passage across the Indian Ocean for the first time on a ship taking Pakistani and Indian refugees—exiled from Uganda under the dictator Idi Amin—back to Karachi, then on to Bombay.
“I wanted to learn something, and I came a long way,” he said.
It was also on that trip that he found an unlikely calling to Asia.
“On this trip, I had a very very bad car accident. I was hitchhiking. And then they brought me to a Buddhist monastery in Thailand—Korat—and they cured me there because I could not walk anymore,” Mr. Presser said.
“I visited all the five Theravada Buddhist countries, and the last one I came here in 2004. That’s how I came to Cambodia, that’s how I’m sitting here, due to that accident in 1972.”
His adventures, however, aren’t over yet, he said.
“You know Sinbad the seafarer? He made seven travels,” he said. “I want to make seven stories.”
“Sea of the Ancestors” runs through January 24. Mr. Presser’s book, “Surabaya Beat,” a collection of his images from Indonesia, was published last year.