Parallel worlds: The real story behind the portrait

[intro by Narina Exelby / photograph © Mark Eveleigh]

A picture, according to the old adage, is worth a thousand words. Usually those words belong to the viewer – because when we don’t have access to the story behind the photograph, we tend to create our own. It might be arrogant to form assumptions about people we’ll never meet, but that’s human nature for you. We’re a curious lot.

The woman in the orange jumper captured my imagination the moment I first saw her shy, soft eyes. Who is she? What’s her life story? What was happening in that very moment the shutter was released? The correlations between what we assume about photographs and the real story behind them can be fascinating, so I asked Mark, who took the photograph in November 2009, to indulge me in the picture’s background. While he wrote the real story from his Pamplona office (which is actually a café, he tells me), I sat on my veranda in Cape Town and wrote my own version. How does your story compare?

Notes from a fascinated observer

[words by Narina Exelby]

The woman in the orange jumper lives in Bali. I know this because of the way Mark’s labelled the image file. That’s actually all I know, yet I’ve wondered about this woman since I first saw the image last November, two years after it was taken. There’s something in this intimate moment of almost sad elegance that has me fascinated; longing to know more. Who is this beautiful woman who wears three rings that may or may not hold any significance? There is a lifetime of stories – probably only a few of them shared – in her eyes, and the gritty reality of life under her nails.

What was happening in the second that Mark captured this shot? I’m curious. Was a storyteller drawing her away with an intricate weave of words, or was a child climbing too high up a tree? Maybe she’d been charmed by the blonde man who wanted to take her portrait. What is that expression? I can’t quite work out whether it’s amazement or delight. Or possibly disbelief.

It’s very imposing of me to contemplate, but I wonder if she has children, and grandchildren too? Or perhaps Mother Nature – or circumstance – hasn’t been that kind. Either way, I’m sure she’s constantly surrounded by little ones who’re drawn to her gentle spirit. Because while it doesn’t capture everything, the camera, as they say, doesn’t lie. And although I’m left with so many questions, there is one thing I know almost for certain: the woman in the orange jumper has a generous heart.

Notes from the photographer

[words by Mark Eveleigh]

The identity of the lady in the orange jumper was still a frustrating mystery to me when I snapped this portrait – and it’s possible that she was involved in a lifelong “identity crisis” herself in a way. I’d been commissioned by CNN Traveller to do a story on the “original Balinese”. There are only five Bali Aga villages left spread widely across the island and, after coaxing a protesting Suzuki jeep over the volcanoes, I finally found the village of Sidatapa on the semi-arid northern slopes.

Culturally and religiously, each Bali Aga community is unique. This lady would have little in common with the Balinese of surrounding villages, but would share even less with her “cousins” in their picture-postcard Bali Aga tourist-trap at Tenganan.

Few tourists ever get to Sidatapa and it took a couple of hours of wandering around, chatting (I speak passable Indonesian) and sipping endless cups of sugary “kopi” before the moment felt right to start asking for portraits.

I spotted the lady in the orange jumper as an ideal “model” the moment I entered a little general store, but she was shy. I had to photograph a couple of customers and clown around a bit to get everyone laughing before I was able to coax her out of the shadows. She was rather stiff and my first couple of shots looked like passport-photo poses. It was only when she started to laugh again at this crazy Westerner who couldn’t stop snapping photos, that I finally got the portrait I wanted.

PS It takes a rare talent, practised skills and careful consideration to capture moments that have us asking questions and wanting to learn more. For tips from Mark on how to take better portraits, click here.

Interested in the Bali Aga villages? Read more about them at


  • Wibi Udayana says:

    absolutely love this. glad that someone finds interest among the balinese locals. 🙂

    • mano@mano says:

      Selamat pagi Wibi! I might be biased but it is hard not to come across fascinating people in Bali. It is one of my ambitions that Indonesia in general should allowed far more editorial space. Incredible how those 17,000 phenomenally diverse and culturally rich islands are over-looked. Another things that I would like to work on through this blog. ME

  • derrick horn says:

    A good foto telling her life story. She looks good for her age.

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