Tag Archives: Papua New Guinea

A walk on the wild side…

On the 8th and 9th of August I was immensely privileged to be able to accompany a group of Aboriginal Australians on part of their walk of the historic Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea. The trek, backed by the Jobs Australia Foundation, was part of the Indigenous Leadership Youth Program.

The end of the journey for the participants in the Jobs Australia backed expedition at the Kokoda Memorial , 9th August 2010. © Rob Walls 2010

My part in this adventure was what the Papuans call in pidgin, “sumting, nutting” (something, nothing i.e. of little consequence). With blind trekker, Steve Widders, and trek guide, Dion Taylor, I walked from Kokoda to Daniki; a hard climb for two elderly men, let alone a blind one; and then back from Hoy Village after camping overnight, to Kokoda in the pre-dawn darkness. Steve, of course handled this with aplomb, even telling Dion when he sensed we had taken a wrong turn on the track.

In photographing them together, I couldn’t help remembering George Silk’s famous photograph from 1942.

Steve Widders is helped by Kokoda Spirit guide, Dion Taylor on the way to Daniki.

For me one of the highlights, apart from the knowledge that I had completed a demanding physical challenge, was the opportunity to wash off the sweat and mud of the trail in this cool, rushing, mountain stream.

Almost there. Participants in the Indigenous Youth Leadership Program trek across the Kokoda Track relax in a cool mountain stream at Hoy Village just a few short kilometres from the end of their gruelling march across the Owen Stanley Ranges in Papua New Guinea. © Rob Walls 2010

The Kokoda Track is said to be one of the most challenging treks in the world. I salute all of those who completed the entire journey. You have my ungrudging admiration and respect. You must be proud.

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Reflecting on photography and travel…

Wide awake at 3am. In a few hours, when the streets are filling with people heading off to work, I’ll be setting out for work too. To Papua New Guinea.

It’s 47 years since I first went there, and in the intervening years, I’ve been back about fifteen times. Why so often? Part proximity, part adventure, part curiosity, but always enthusiasm. I like the place.  During those years, my reasons to go there have been to cover the young nation’s independence, several elections, a papal tour; and sometimes I’ve just dreamed up excuses to get back to this bewildering, exciting, slightly dangerous country.  This time I’m going there to photograph twenty-four aboriginal Australians walking the Kokoda Trail.

The reason though, is not important. To be travelling, is an end in itself. For me, the camera is not just a creative outlet, it is the key to experience, the key to satisfying my curiosity. For nearly fifty years, a reasonable competence with this instrument has privileged me to travel to out-of-the-way places and corners of the world. Tomorrow, it will do so again. It is more than twenty years since I was last in Papua New Guinea. I wonder what changes I will find?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote down these quotes from Alain de Botton’s book, The Art of Travel. In the small hours of this morning they seem particularly apt.

“It is not necessarily at home that we encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, but who may not be who we essentially are.”

“Journeys are the mid-wives of thought.”

Better go back to bed. It will soon be time to get up and go to work…

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My big break…

Me 1964

A clean-cut, clean shaven young man with Crown Graphic on the hill overlooking Koki Market in Port Moresby, 1964

Right back at the beginning of my career,  I had what I like to think of as my “big break”. While it was a break for me, it was a far less welcome break for the other photojournalist involved.

In 1964, as a young, and very inexperienced photographer I was sent by the Australian Government to the Department of Information in Papua New Guinea to fill in for three months, while the local photographer took long service leave. This was an exciting assignment to get so early in my career. I had been working as an assistant photographer for just on a year and here I was, thrown in at the deep end, in nominal charge of a photo department, with several staff and a hell of a lot of responsibility…and to New Guinea; still a distant and exotic location.

Because it was the run-up to PNG’s first election prior to independence, I got to travel all over the country, covering the country’s first election campaign, flying in to all sorts of isolated airstrips in old DC3s and Cessnas. Even Time Magazine considered the story important enough to send a journalist and photographer, David Beal, from Sydney to cover the event. Getting to meet a professional Time photojournalist made a great impression one me. After all, it was my burning ambition to see my work published in magazines like this.

Encountering each other on the campaign trail, David and I shared a few beers but then we both headed off in different directions; he to the highlands, me to Rabaul in New Britain. In travelling the country, something that even today still has to be done mostly by plane, our paths crossed once again in transit at Lae airport. David was looking very sorry for himself; he was hobbling on crutches with both his legs in plaster from ankle to thigh.

While shooting with a long lens in the highlands, with the camera to his eye he had stepped out onto a narrow one-way bridge just in time to share it with a large truck. The impact broke both his legs and his Nikons sailed over the bridge and into the river below. The outcome of this unlucky accident was that my pictures ended up with the story in Time.

Time photo

Time Magazine, February 28th 1964

I think it was this particular tear-sheet that swung me a staff job on new national daily, The Australian, later that year.

But this is not the end of the story. David Beal went on to establish the biggest and best audio-visual company in Australia. When I wanted to produce an audio-visual portfolio piece on Indonesia, I decided to engage his company. When it was completed we launched the audio-visual with a little party at the AM studios. David was there for the showing and the drinks afterwards.

Late that night, he woke up to the clatter of  rocks being thrown on the roof of his house in Paddington by some drunken louts. Racing out in his pyjamas to give them a verbal spray over the back fence, he leapt onto a garbage can. Losing his balance in the dark, he toppled off the can and broke his leg! For a few years after, David and I kept up a running joke that after meeting with me he had almost as many broken legs as we had had face-to-face meetings. I’m certain he made a deliberate policy of avoiding me after that so he could remain ambulatory.

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How I shot the Pope

In 1984 I covered a papal tour: the visit by Pope John Paul II to Papua New Guinea. It was my first experience of competing with genuine Italian papparazzi. The accompanying Italians dressed stylishly and had charming accents,  but they were as aggressive and competitive as any photographers I have ever worked alongside.  At every photo opportunity they would just wade in through police lines in their efforts to get closer.The more authority-compliant Australian press just looked on open-mouthed. But then we realised that if we were going to get any pictures that didn’t include the back of the head of an Italian photographer, we’d have to get in amongst them.

As a result, each day the police would ramp up the security surrounding the Pope. Barriers were put in place. They were ignored. Then they increased the number of police in the cordon. When this didn’t work, they brought in dogs and dog handlers. When even these were ignored, the police called in the army. Gradually, we found ourselves being forced further and further back…and all because of these excitable, pushy Italians.

The last photo opportunity of the Papal tour was a visit to St Josephs’ Hospice in Port Moresby. By this time most of us were despairing of getting anything worthwhile. Some had actually given up. Inside the hospice we were coralled on a mezzanine floor high above a ward full of dying AIDS victims. The light was marginal, the distance too far for effective flash use and under the circumstances flash would have been inappropriate. It was now that I realised the effort of lugging my heavy Nikkor 300mm 2.8 and a sturdy Manfrotto monopod, had been worthwhile. If I remember correctly the exposure was 1/30th of second wide open. I didn’t expect much attempting to hold a 300mm lens steady at such a slow shutter speed. Of the dozen or so pictures I shot in a burst with the motor drive, only three or four were sharp, and two of these had subject movement. But amongst them was this moving photograph of Pope John Paul blessing one of the dying.

Pope John Paul II blessing the dying, St John's Hospice, Port Moresby

Pope John Paul II blessing the dying, St John's Hospice, Port Moresby

After this, I knew there would be only one more opportunity for pictures as the Pope left the hospice. This time security was the highest. A shoulder-to-shoulder line of soldiers blocked any chance of pictures. Disillusioned, one by one the photographers packed their cameras away and headed off. Something told me to stay. At best I thought I might be able to get off a few frames in a wild “Hail Mary” (the sometime desperate, but often succesful tactic of shooting with the camera held up high above your head, a rather appropriate description in the circumstances) over the top of the troops. I felt a little foolish hanging on. I was the only photographer left and the rest were now relaxing over cold beers back in the bar of the Port Moresby Travelodge. And that is where I wanted to be.

After half an hour, there was a flurry of excitement as the Pope emerged from the hospice between the ranks of soldiers. I prepared for my unaimed high-angle pictures. Then all of a sudden, to my delight, the soldiers all pulled out cameras and broke ranks. And there right in front of me, unobstructed, close enough to touch, was the Pope. He was so close I had to lean back hard to fit him in the frame…and I was using a 35mm wide angle lens!

Is there a lesson here? Tenacity pays off? Maybe. All I know, is that for me, I find it very difficult to walk away from a shoot until I’ve extracted every last picture from it.

Pope John Paul II leaving St John's Hospice, Port Moresby

Pope John Paul II leaving St John's Hospice, Port Moresby

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Plumes and arrows

PNG2

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 5×4 (inch) 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…

Arua Pamu an elder of Waima village, Central Province

Arua Pamu an elder of Waima village, Central Province

Mekeo tribesman, Mark, from Kairuku, Central Province

Mekeo tribesman, Mark, from Kairuku, Central Province

On location near Tari, Southern Highlands

On location near Tari, Southern Highlands

To see more of these pictures visit my Photoshelter collection here.

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