Photographer shows portraits from New Guinea
“Facing Others: Portraits from New Guinea,” a new show by Ellen Land-Weber, will be at the F Street Gallery in June. An Arts Alive! reception is slated for Saturday from 6 to 9 p.m. at the gallery, located above Swanlund’s Camera at 527 F St. in Eureka.
“These distinctive, bold, close-up images from a fabled land may startle you,” said Land-Weber, professor emeritus of the art department at Humboldt State University, where she taught photography for over 30 years.
Since retirement Land-Weber’s focus has been on travel and photography, closely connected activities for her. She is especially drawn to experiencing and photographing people still maintaining a traditional culture and lifestyle, which is what inspired her to make two trips to New Guinea in recent years.
“In the spring of 2014, I had the opportunity to travel to Papua New Guinea for about three weeks,” said Land-Weber. “To visit the difficult terrain of the interior, I was part of a small group that flew in bush planes from the coastal capital city of Port Moresby to two locations where roads are few and conditions simple. First was a small lodge on the Karawari River, a tributary of the middle Sepik. Each day we went by ‘river truck,’ an open aluminum boat, to villages along the narrow banks of the Karawari. Villagers separated by only a few miles spoke different languages and varied in traditions of dance and ceremonial dress, but everyone, including small children, got about by dugout canoe. The second area was the Tari Valley in the southern highlands, home to the Huli, by far the largest native group, whose culture, while still largely intact, is seriously threatened by the multi-billion dollar Exxon gas extraction scheme just going into operation while I was there. The remainder of the journey was by ship following a circular route around the perimeter of Papua New Guinea, where I visited numerous small villages on islands in various island groups including those belonging to d’Entrecasteaux, Trobriand, and the Admiralty Islands, each with its own unique culture and history.”
She continued: “In 2016, I returned to the Karawari villages, giving them photographs I had made there two years before, and taking more. Most exciting was the opportunity to go up small jungle rivers to remote villages in the Asmat region of Indonesian New Guinea, where in some places they had not seen tourists for over 10 years.
“Initially,” she said, “I had no advance plan about what I would photograph in these extraordinary places, but once there, I quickly gravitated toward emphasizing portraiture. Without fail, the people I asked to photograph were willing, sometimes eager. On several occasions they gave me small gifts in thanks. The opportunity to connect in this fashion with people living inconceivably different lives, while under greatly limited time constraints (a few hours in each village), seemed to work with a digital camera. I could immediately show each person how they appeared in my photograph and that created an, albeit superficial, but still genuine human bond.”
Despite being the world’s third largest island, if you count Australia, not everyone can pinpoint New Guinea on a global map. Papua New Guinea occupies the eastern half of the island as well as numerous offshore Melanesian island groups. The western half, known as Papua, is a province of Indonesia. Because of the rugged terrain of the interior, it is one of the most culturally diverse places on earth, as well as one of the least known. More than 800 languages are spoken in a population of about seven million.
European traders had been exploiting the bounty of New Guinea’s coastal areas since the 16th century, Land-Weber said, but none suspected that anyone lived in the impenetrable mountainous jungles of the interior. It was not until 1930 that an intrepid Australian gold prospector climbed the mountains, where to the astonishment of the world he found an agricultural society over a million strong, living in Stone Age conditions. In the short interlude since this first contact with the outside world, much has changed, but due to geographical isolation, and despite the veneer of modern influences, traditional cultures persist throughout the land, Land-Weber said.