I love Papua New Guinea.
I love it with reservations; the same kind of reservations one has about a disordered cousin whose heart is in the right place, but whose life is always a tumult of chaos.
I admit: I was cautious at first.
I had been warned before I booked the flights for my Jim Cline Photo Tour with Karl Grobl: early arrival in the country “is not recommended as there is nothing much to see in Port Moresby and it is not advisable to head out on your own.”
Add to this: the Australian Government ongoing travel advice to “exercise a high degree of caution”, and the damning 2016 Human Rights Watch World Report, which says: “PNG is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman or girl, with an estimated 70 percent of women experiencing rape or assault in their lifetime.”
So, on entry to the country I was nervous. I became more vigilant when the person who had been assigned to meet me at the airport was a betel-nut chewing man with little English in tattered jeans and a grubby polo shirt. And, thanks to the vagaries of flight schedules, I had – against advice – arrived an extra day early.
I didn’t go far and I didn’t take the cameras on my solitary forays around Port Moresby. It was true that the neighbourhood I was in was dusty and dirty with little to recommend it except for the beautiful bougainvillea that climbed the barbed-wire fences. But, I never once felt uncomfortable or afraid. The people who passed by on the sidewalks looked like they were going to work and weren’t remotely interested in me. The other people squatting or sitting on the verges, selling eggs and cigarettes and hand-made bilum bags, were all chatty and friendly.
What I found most confronting in those first days, was the ubiquitous use of betel nut. Classified as carcinogenic by the World Health Organization since 2003, the effects of chewing the seeds of the Areca catechu palm tree were evident in all the broad smiles that welcomed me. From teething toddlers to toothless elderly, chipped, stained and decayed teeth, and receding gums, attested to the harms of regular chewing.
In many situations, this made taking pictures difficult: people were happy to smile, and their smiles displayed dismal oral hygiene. My pictures were at risk of looking as exploitative as the faux travel guide: Molvania: A Land Untouched By Modern Dentistry (Jetlag Travel Guide).
That, plus the insanely chaotic backgrounds, is one of the reasons I decided to experiment with monochromes when I was processing the pictures from our first “official” group outing, to the newly opened Koki Fish Market just outside of Port Moresby.
The Koki Fish Market is an interesting place, giving local shoppers a central place to buy their freshly-caught fish for dinner.
It also provides visitors with a nice, safe, bite-size “slice” of colourful every-day PNG life.
If anything, it’s almost too colourful!