I first went to Papua New Guinea in 1964, as a very young and inexperienced photographer. PNG was then a United Nations Trust Territory under the administration of my then employer, the Australian Government. I worked there for three months in the lead up to the first elections prior to independence. I had just turned twenty one and this was my first adventure, leading the life I had dreamed of as a globe-trotting photojournalist. To cap it off, while there, I scored my first publication in Time Magazine. The dream was becoming reality.
This country was/is exotic. There are areas where first contact with Europeans is still within living memory. It exerted a strong pull on my imagination. Over the ensuing years I went there time and again. Whenever I became jaded with life in Sydney, I would invent an excuse to go back
I covered elections for Newsweek, travelled on papal tours, did travel stories about head-hunters and cannibals, and about the Huli who built me a house deep in the Southern Highlands, beyond Tari. You could say the place had got under my skin.
In 1985 Polaroid, to whom I had been an occasional consultant, released a new large format transparency material called, Polaroid Professional Chrome 5×4. They asked me if I would test it and write a review. This film was ideally suited to shooting in the field and as I was about to go on a travel writers’ trip to the Sepik River, I suggested that it might be a good idea to test it there. The advantage of using large format 5x film was that it could record such fine detail. The disadvantage was that large format cameras are heavy and cumbersome and would require working from a tripod.
Since the late 1950’s, there has been a unique custom of tribal gatherings called sing-sings, where the diverse peoples of the country come together to compete in dress, dance and cultural display. This was originally an idea instigated by the Australian Government. It was seen as a way of allowing these diverse tribal and clan groupings to get to know each other; groups whose prior contact might in the past have only been war.
PNG has approximately 800 languages. These are distinct languages. Not dialects. The country has the most diverse tribal groupings of any nation on earth. The Australian government saw the sing-sings as a good, if perhaps high-risk, way of helping to dissolve the barriers to communication that would be necessary to build the concept of nationhood. It was highly successful and the sing-sings became an annual event, with people travelling from all over the fledgling nation, to show off their culture.
My inspiration was the Edward S. Curtis portraits of Native Americans and the Australian photographer, Frank Hurley’s pictures in Papua in the 1920’s. Back in Australia, I initiated a project to shoot a series of large format portraits of Papua New Guineans using this film.
The logistics of this project were formidable. The main problem was how to capture as many different tribal groupings as possible. Then it occurred to me that rather than travelling all over the country, I could actually have my subjects come to me. It occurred to me that by setting up a daylight studio at the sing-sings, I could invite people in to be photographed. Irving Penn had done something similar in the early 1960s. Polaroid, jumped at the idea and with the support of the national airline, Air Niugini, over a period of eighteen months, I travelled three times to PNG to shoot these pictures.
No attempt was made to achieve false authenticity. People were photographed just the way they were when they placed themselves in front of the camera. If they were wearing a digital watch, carrying a Pepsi, or had some Christmas tinsel in their head-dress this is the way I photographed them. I wanted them to dictate how they looked, so that the pictures would be a genuine benchmark of the way the people of Papua New Guinea were in 1985/86.
The pictures were published in a number of magazines and also exhibited. There used to be some very large Cibachrome prints on the wall at Polaroid’s headquarters in Sydney. In light of Polaroid’s eventual business decline, I wonder where they might have fetched up.
Earlier this year, I came across the pictures stored in a box where they had lain for twenty years ago. Having recently bought large format scanner I decided to do a few scans. Even though I had seen these pictures printed at life size, I am still amazed at the amount of detail and again I’m blown away by the colour and diversity of the people of Papua New Guinea.
When I look at their faces I feel that familiar itch to visit old friends and travel the rivers and mountains of that exciting young nation. Maybe it’s time to introduce my seventeen year old son to the wonders of Australia’s nearest neighbour. There I go making excuses to hit the road…
To see more of these pictures visit my Photoshelter collection here.