Photographs by Stephen Dupont
8 April – 18 June 2017
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
February 18, 2013
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 Dion, 1952
A blanket of heat and the sweet stench of humidity mixed with city smells greet my arrival at Port Moresby International Airport. It's only a short jump from Cairns in Queensland's far north coast, but I began my journey some 700 miles away, via Sydney from home in my south coast village of Austinmer, Australia. I walk across the steamy tarmac, then join the customs queue inside the arrivals hall. A lovely young female officer hands me back my passport and tells me to pay the usual roo kina visa fee on my departure: the visa exchange section is closed today. Nothing to declare; the custom's official waves me through. More than a year on from completing my Gardner Photography Fellowship, I can't seem to shake New Guinea out of me. Like a noose around my neck, it keeps pulling me back for more adventures, more stories, more risks, more life.
In the airport kids are running around, whole families excitedly waiting to greet loved ones returning from the big trip Down Under. I push past the crowds and climb the ramp that leads to the car park. Taxis are waiting, and I wave the closest one. The driver, an intense-gazed Highlander, looks me up and down, that familiar Highlander stare that serves as the outside world's first visual greeting to Papua New Guinea. The look feels aggressive and intimidating; even after many visits I find it hard to read the body language. The driver doesn't speak, his penetrating eyes are glazed, half closed, his jaw grinds away on buai (betel nut mixed with lime powder), and red-paste spittle dribbles from the edges of his mouth. He turns his head and spits; a projectile of red mucus flicks the car boot. I put my bags inside and climb into the back seat. It's like the opening to some Sergio Leone spaghetti Western; no words have been spoken by either of us. The driver is grumbling and looks mad as hell; he takes his seat and mutters something barely audible about a woman and money owed.
Whatever it is, it doesn't concern me. One thing I've learned in PNG is to never get involved in matters that have nothing to do with me. The driver reverses the taxi, the locks click shut all at once, and we drive through the familiar streets of 6 Mile and beyond. Fires are burning in settlements, both rubbish and slash-and-burn. Down by the river a large group gathers - a tribal dispute meeting, no doubt. This might be the capital city of a westernising nation, but traditions and indigenous culture still prevail. I tell the driver to take the main highway and take his grunt as a yes. Negotiating the roundabouts we pass Gordon's Market, famous for sporadic violence, the scene of many a tribal fight and police showdown. Past the South Pacific Lager Brewery, the Coca Cola plant, and Moresby's one and only mosque. Soon we turn off the highway and drive past the main office of the Post Courier newspaper. Last week, its front-page headlines screamed, "Burnt Alive! Terror reigns as mother of two dies brutal death." An all-too-familiar occurrence these days, a young woman accused of sorcery thrown into a fire in Mount Hagen.
In Port Moresby it's rare to find a taxi driver who isn't a Highlander, and I'm getting used to that chillingly familiar gaze. It's just how Highlanders look: whether happy, sad, or angry, they look like they want to kill you. My driver has loosened up now and asks me where I'm from. I tell him I live on the coast south of Sydney, near Wollongong. He calls me a "Dragons" supporter because I live in the Illawarra region; it's expected that I support my local rugby team, the St. George Dragons. Talk with any Papua New Guinean inevitably turns to rugby league - not just a sport in PNG, but a national obsession that people have been killed over. In fact, it's rugby league that has brought me back to Moresby, where I'm making a documentary film about a grass-roots team from the settlement of Kaugere.
My driver stops outside the Australian Broadcasting Corporation house on Koni Hill, my usual place of residence lately, thanks to the hospitality of my hosts and friends Liam and Jemima. I hand him 40 kina for the fare and he grumbles while spitting red specks of betel nut in my general direction. I'm looking at a massacre site inside this man's head, an endless cavern of rotten teeth. He demands 60 kina and we settle on 50 as I climb out of the cab. Nick, the ABC security guard, retrieves my bags as I say goodbye to the man from the Highlands. Look im yu, I say.
It's 5 p.m. and I join Liam and Jemima on their balcony. It's a view I always welcome, overlooking the majestic Port Moresby harbor and surrounding green hills, a place to unwind and have good conversations, a refuge from the madness that Moresby can serve up. There's no beer, so Liam and I head down to the Royal Papua Yacht Club, a regular drinking hole that serves edible food-sometimes. The crowd, an assortment of white and mixed-blood expats and nationals with some locals thrown in the pot, a familiar throng of drunken chatter, blokes in shorts, thongs, and the odd safari shirt. Don't judge the scene by appearances, though: these men and women are the upper class, the super rich of PNG. Businessmen, diplomats, builders, engineers, mining executives, security company CEO's, explorers, gangsters, importers and exporters, even bookmakers. Stepping inside the club conjures up a time gone by, colonial days. There's a bell at the bar that when rung means automatic rounds for everyone in the club. I've heard stories of shocked patrons having their bank accounts drained for testing the tradition.
Liam and I down our first handles ( the local term for a glass) of South Pacific Export beer overlooking the waterfront. There's a welcome breeze stirring the monsoon heat as the sun sets in a tropical mirage of colours across the bay, penetrating and silhouetting the sails and masts of the yachts and big-game fishing boats below us. This is about as Hemingway-esque as it comes, really. This could be Havana, or the Florida Keys. But then look back at the crowd, all these weather-beaten faces from harsh years in the bush-building roads through rugged mountains, mining and prospecting, dealing with the land of the unexpected. The stress, the dangers, the blood and adrenaline rushes of this country leave unique scars and wrinkles on your face. In some ways nothing has changed since the early days of first contact, the time of explorers and patrol officers like the Leahy brothers and Jack Hides. In the Yacht Club today you see these weathered faces of modern history, cracked skin like a satellite map river system, the new explorers and capitalists of one of the world's toughest frontiers - and one of the places on earth most richly endowed with natural resources.
I love this country. I didn't think I ever would, but something here gets into your blood. Like the men around me, I've got a little of the explorer in me as well. I'm travelling in the footsteps of some of my heroes: Robert Gardner, Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson, Michael Rockefeller, Susan Meiselas, Damien Parer, Frank Hurley, and Don McCullin. The Gardner Fellowship handed me the opportunity to take my cameras, diaries, and sketchbooks into some very wild and remote places - a chance to do what I do best, be a nomad, a storyteller, and capture the beauty, mystery, and the trauma of this strange and epic land. Like Jack Hides, I feel a little like the outside man, and it gives me observer status to capture life here in PNG, capture something only my eyes see. I'm no anthropologist or historian; my intentions are more personal, artistic, even experimental. Through my photography I hope to capture a passing footprint of society here, to highlight detribalisation and the cultural changes taking hold in Papua New Guinea. It's not just art. It's a piece of history-photographs, observations, notes, drawings, and reflections that offer an alternative window into one of the most intriguing and inspiring places I have experienced.
This land speaks its beauty in my pictures, and its brutality, as well. This is the language of reality: I'm not judging events, merely capturing them as they unfold before my cameras. That's what's happening now, as I continue my coverage of Kaugere settlement, a place I've come to know so well. Raskols, my first book, evolved from here; Piksa Niugini again has a foot in this Port Moresby community. Working alongside Papua New Guineans, I am touched by their generosity, friendship, and spirit. In PNG itself I feel I've found a true and fearsome friend.
- Stephen Dupont
Image: Stephen Dupont, 6 x 12 contact sheet: Sing-sing performers, Hagen Show, Western Highlands. Image courtesy of the artist.