I travelled to Papua New Guinea in November 2019 with the intention of better understanding a country that seemed so misrepresented here in the UK. Our tabloids often publish stories of terror on the Islands; one notable headline read “Couple escape bloodthirsty CANNIBALS after jungle tribesmen strip and kidnap them”. The story was later proven false by an Australian who set out to straighten the bizarre account. Certain public figures have also added to the harmful rhetoric. Boris Johnson referred to ‘Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing" in the Telegraph in 2006 and Prince Philip is recorded to have asked a student in 1998 who had been trekking in Papua New Guinea "You managed not to get eaten, then?".
It is not just destructive words that create confusion about Papua New Guinea. Spectacular images of people in their finest traditional costume are often shared in a way that is misrepresentative of what was actually happening. To the western gaze they can seem exotic and otherworldly, only exacerbating ignorance and pre-held misconceptions. It seems there is a craving for the belief of the eden, the original, perfect society, existing in far off lands, deep in jungles where very few people have ever set foot. Yet we set to destroy these idyls in the same breath with stories of violence and ‘inhuman’ behaviour, perhaps to settle our own misgivings about our daily existence.
With this in mind, it seems clear that careful honesty must be applied when sharing the experiences of a place that seems alien. An awareness of your ignorance, an understanding that words carry multiple definitions and a child-like curiosity feel to be useful in this regard. I know there is really only so much I can do as a service to the people I meet and I am conscious not to provide a foundation for harm. People need to be able to share their story in their own way leaving me to be a facilitator and collaborator in the process. Perhaps this is really what the modern definition of a photographer is, rather than ‘a person who takes photographs’.