Violent crimes in Papua New Guinea capital, Port Moresby have become common due to ethnic divisions and poverty.
“We believe that photography must reconsider its function. It is the nature of the camera to deal with what is – we urge those who use the camera to retire from what might be. We suggest that, as photographers, we turn our attention to the familiarities of which we are a part. So turning, we in our work can speak more than our subjects – we can speak with them; we can more than speak about our subjects – we can speak for them. They, given tongue, will be able to speak with and for us. And in this language will be proposed to the lens that with which, in the end, photography must be concerned – time, and place, and the works of man.”
– Dorothea Lange and Daniel Dixon, 1952
The remote Oceanic Island of Papua New Guinea has long attracted photographers with its richly diverse cultures, dramatic topography and celebrated artistic traditions. Among these bold voyagers have been Harvard and Peabody Museum image-makers. In 1961, Robert Gardner, the director of Harvard’s Film Study Center, led an interdisciplinary expedition to document tribal warfare in the Baliem Valley, on the western half of the island, which is now part of Indonesia.
Almost 50 years later, I travelled to the independent democracy, Papua New Guinea, on the eastern half of the island. In 2011, courtesy of the Peabody Museum’s Robert Gardner Fellowship at Harvard University, I captured innovative portraits of contemporary Papuans. From the mountainous Highlands and the serpentine Sepik River to the dangerously gritty capital Port Moresby, I wanted to open a window into the human condition of modern tribal identity and custom.
Moreover, by exposing behind-the-scenes elements such as backdrops, onlookers and the edges of frames, I sought to call attention to the photographic process itself and to interrogate the role of the photographer in Papuan history.
I used white and black bed sheets to create an outdoor studio that not only captures my sitter but also allows me to reveal the audience gathering and the environment around the sheet. This is meant to give the viewer a real sense of place and time. You feel as if you are on the streets of Mount Hagen or in a Sepik village. Had I used the backdrop in a solely conventional way, to isolate the subject, you’d have the impression that they were taken anywhere – New York, Sydney, or in a studio.
I first went to Papua New Guinea in 2004, a journey that would for ever plant a seed of passion for exploring new places and photographing fragile cultures and marginalised peoples. Using an old Polaroid Land Camera with Polaroid positive-negative film, I infiltrated an urban gang inside one of Port Moresby’s most notorious settlements.
From inside a Kaugere settlement safe house I made portraits of each gang member, with the aim of capturing the face behind the facelessness of gang warfare in one of the world’s most dangerous cities. The project titled Raskols (Melanesian pidgin for criminals) opened the doors to a deep personal fascination for Papua New Guinean society and culture.
I then went on to make my first tribal portraits at the annual Mount Hagen Show in the Central Highlands. After commissioning locals to construct an outdoor grass hut studio, I set about taking photographs of “Sing-Sing”, a Melanesian pidgin term for a ceremonial display of groups and individuals in all their customary plume and glory. It was like a tribal Woodstock with heaving masses of jumping, prancing, singing bodies all in unison and was the first of many of these cultural gatherings I’d attend over the years throughout the Highlands.
The idea and concept behind my backdrop photography began back in 2006 while I was covering events in wartorn Afghanistan. A project titled Axe Me Biggie, or Mr Take My Picture, opened my vision to a new and exciting approach to portrait photography. Along a dusty roadside in central Kabul, using Polaroid film, I captured anonymous Afghans against a borrowed local photographer’s outdoor studio backdrop.
Moving away from traditional outdoor studio approaches often captured by ethnographers and anthropologists and some professional photographers such as Edward Curtis and Richard Avedon, instead of isolating the background, I included it and the crowd gathered around.
This new approach brought something so much more to my portrait photography, creating an environmental kind of portraiture, whereby the viewer engages not only the sitter, but the people and landscape around the sitter, exposing a more documentary feeling.
I want to showcase not just the visual anthropology of a race and land, but to highlight the rapid changes taking place in traditional values and cultural identity.
In recent times Papua New Guinea has gone through some of the most significant cultural shifts and changes since the early days of colonisation. My photographic philosophy aims to document what I see as “detribalisation”, whereby Papua New Guinea society is losing its culture and traditions owing to the effects of colonisation, globalisation and Western interference.
In the end my vision is one of beauty and confrontation. I respect my subjects and want to capture the human spirit with each frame. My photographs offer a light of humanity and a reflection of hope inside one of the world’s most unique countries.
This article first appeared in the Al Jazeera Magazine.