Photo Essays | Rio Helmi's East Kalimantan | Selections from "River of Gems: A Borneo Journal"


This book was something that my good friend, the late Lorne Blair, and I dreamed up sometime in the very late 80s over way too many cups of coffee, lamenting how sedentary our lives had become (at least it felt that way). We were both still very much in the phase of exploring what was still something of a wild and unpredictable archipelago, a republic of islands so diverse that adventure seemed guaranteed. We had both traveled hard in a time and place long before mobile phones, internet reservations, and hordes of mindless tourists.

Kalimantan (Lorne could never quite give up “Borneo”) beckoned, but we needed a focus – and a sponsor. We decided to concentrate on the river Mahakam, at some 900 kilometers the second-longest river in Indonesia. The Mahakam back then had everything – rainforest at the headwaters, jungle fauna and flora, native gold panners, a variety of Dayak tribes, lakes, no roads that cut into the hinterland (big bonus!!!), and remnants of the Kutai sultanates.

Thrown into the mix downstream were a rather big gold mine, a huge coal strip mining concern, and natural gas wells. In the end, VICO (Virginia Indonesia Company), which ran the LPG business, ended up sponsoring our project. It took around nine months of backwater travel in or on anything we could get our hands on – slow boat river taxis, long boats, jungle treks, and every once in a while we’d even get lucky enough to fly into remote areas on a light plane.

Beginning with getting lost in the jungles up above civilization, to incredible nights in longhouses, to running crazy killer rapids in longboats, to the muddy, hot estuary — it’s a long story but a rich experience. It truly was a river of gems.

— Rio Helmi, esteemed photographer and writer


Pak Jehnau Ding, guardian of the sacred Hudoq masks associated with fertility and the earth, in the Bahau Dayak village of Long Hubung on the mid-section of the Mahakam river. 1990.
© Rio Helmi


A shaman of the Benuaq Dayak tribe in the lakes area of the mid-section of the Mahakam River. 1990.
© Rio Helmi


A Kayan woman carries her baby in a traditional beaded carrier into one of the apartments of a longhouse in Apo Kayan.
© Rio Helmi


Lejau, a Punan tribesman performs a traditional dance in a resettlement community near Long Lebusan — originally hunter gatherers that roam the inner forest. By chance, Lorne Blair and I went to see how this resettled community was doing, and beyond all odds, there we stumbled on Lejau who had been Lorne's guide in the jungle 10 years before. Festivities and hilarity followed!
© Rio Helmi


An Aoheng Dayak woman works on a beaded piece in the upper Mahakam village of Long Apari, at the time the last proper village before the headwaters of the river.
© Rio Helmi


A married Aoheng Dayak woman traditionally had to have these kinds of tattoos done, here in Long Apari.
© Rio Helmi


A married Aoheng Dayak woman traditionally had to have these kinds of tattoos done, here in Long Apari.
© Rio Helmi


Bahau women during festivities in Ben Hess, near Muara Wahau.
© Rio Helmi


Rio Helmi



Born in Switzerland in 1954 to an Indonesian father who was the Indonesian Ambassador to Switzerland and the Vatican, and a Turkish mother, Rio Helmi has been capturing images of Asia and writing articles since 1978. His work can be seen in magazines, documentaries and more than 20 large format photographic books. Solo exhibitions of Rio’s still photography have been held in Bali, Jakarta, Madrid, Miyazaki, Palo Alto, San Francisco, and Sydney, and his works are held in private collections around the world including in Boston, Hong Kong, Jakarta, London, Los Angeles, Rome, San Francisco, Sydney, Tokyo, and Washington.

In the past, Rio has focused on the interaction between indigenous peoples and their environment, and as a result has traveled extensively across the Indonesian archipelago and further afield across Asia including Malaysia, Thailand, Japan, India and Mongolia, photographing remote communities and ethnic groups. In his early career, he worked in collaboration with John Darling and Lorne Blair on the documentary feature Lempad of Bali, as second cameraman and stills photographer. From 1979 to 1983, Rio worked as a photographer/writer and associate editor in the Indonesian media (Bali Post, Mutiara, Sinar Harapan, Tempo). Since 1983, Rio has freelanced contributing photo essays for many regional and international magazines (Asiaweek, Geo, Harper’s Bazaar, New York Times, New York magazine, Tempo, Time, Vanity Fair, Vogue, etc.).

Rio has been based in Bali for more than four decades, and speaks five languages fluently: Indonesian, Balinese, English, French, and German - as well as what he describes as a “very light smattering of Tibetan.” He writes in Indonesian and English, and also blogs sporadically about a wide range of topics including for the Huffington Post. He has also moderated panel sessions and conducted public interviews at the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival which is now an annual event of international repute. His latest book is called “Travels on Two Wheels, a broader perspective on Bali” a series of unconventional panoramas about the island, and was published in 2014. Rio’s previous book was a retrospective portfolio of Balinese ritual over the last 30 years called “Memories of the Sacred” launched early October 2010.

He is currently finishing work on his book about Balinese architect Popo Danes to be published by Rizzoli and launched at the Architecture Biennale in Venice in 2020. The latest multi-photographer show he participated in was called “The Age of Photography” at Tony Raka Gallery in Mas, and explored the work of Indonesia based professional photographers in the realm of contemporary art, curated by leading Indonesian art critic Jim Supangkat Ongoing long term projects include a series of urban-scapes and a documentation on migratory workers from Java to Bali. Rio also continues to work almost daily on a series called “Good Morning Ubud” for his website, Ubud Now & Then and published daily on the eponymous Facebook page. This year Rio has just completed a documentary project “Jangchub Lamrim” over four years on a series of teachings given by The Dalai Lama in South India working closely with the organizing committee. He is also currently working on TV series called Swadaya about community self-empowerment in Indonesian villages.


Published Works

Rio Helmi’s articles and photo essays have been published in various media including:

Asiaweek, Discovery (Hong Kong), Geo (France, Germany), Gulliver (Japan), Jakarta-Jakarta (Indonesia), Kikan Minzokogaku (Japan), Kompas (Indonesia), Matra (Indonesia), Merian (Germany), Mutiara (Indonesia), New York Times (U.S.A.), Seven Seas (Japan), Suara Pembaruan (Indonesia), Tempo (Indonesia), Time (Asia), Vogue (Australia, France, Singapore), Vanity Fair (Germany, Italy), and Winds (Japan).

Rio Helmi has served as the sole or main photographer for the following books.

Bali High, Paradise from Above — joint aerial photography Leonard Lueras (Times Editions), Bali Style (Times Editions, Thames & Hudson), Made in Indonesia (Equinox, Jakarta), Memories of the Sacred (Afterhours, Jakarta), Nusa Dua, Reflections of Bali (Editions Didier Millet, Singapore), Over Indonesia — an aerial view of the country, joint photography with Guido Rossi & Georg Gerster (Times Editions, Singapore), River of Gems: A Borneo Journal (Image Network Indonesia, Bali), and Travels on Two Wheels, A Broader Perspective on Bali (sponsored by Kawasaki). 

Rio Helmi’s photographs have been published in large format, multi-photographer compilation books. 

Borobudur, A Prayer in Stone (Editions Didier Millet, Paris), Borobudur, Golden Tales of the Buddha (Periplus Editions, Sing), Brunei Abode of Peace (Editions Didier Millet, Singapore), Crafts of Indonesia (Times Editions, Singapore), Indonesia, A Voyage Through the Archipelago (Millet- Owen-Weldon) [worked as Coordinator and Chief Photographer on this project], Malaysia, Heart of S.E. Asia (Editions Didier Millet, Paris), Mysteries of the East (Time-Life, USA), Nine Days in the Kingdom (Editions Didier Millet, Singapore), Offerings, The Ritual Art of Bali (Image Network Indonesia, Bali), Seven Days in the Kingdom (Times Editions, Singapore), and Seven Days in Myanmar (Editions Didier Millet 2013).


Special thank you to Rio Helmi for generously providing this photo essay to display on Art of the Ancestors. Stay tuned in the coming months for more features from Rio!