Don’t be alarmed, but start making plans. It looks like everyone in rural Papua New Guinea, outback Australia, the African savannah and all other remote faraway places in this globalized planet are soon to die out…to extinction. Like the dinosaurs. But don’t expect to be museum cast for the future, because Jimmy Nelson has done tribal people the gracious job not just of forewarning us but taking the last photos for the historical record. I know the next generation or so may be difficult, and well, morose, as all the people you know keel over and die out (I dare not imagine anything more violent, I’m thinking a vapory swoon to death), but the important thing is that we have been forewarned. By a photographer.
[I hope he broke the news gently to these lads]
It’s not unlike the SS telling you to pack winter clothes for the camps. Chin up! Make way for the future! Only this time all kinds of tribal people get to leave beautiful chromogenic prints behind.
Adapt or die, it is true. Only in some cases, adapt AND die. Because after Edward Curtis made the same statement in 1905, taking his 5x7 camera throughout the American southwest to cepture the last 'pure' Native Americans, they didn't actually die. They survived as 'impure' or 'debased' versions of themselves. No one wants to buy the shot of Geronimo wearing an ipad and earbuds.
If you happen to be in Germany this month, the internationally awaited exhibition of the ‘epochal series’ of photos “BEFORE THEY PASS AWAY” is on exhibit at Berlin’s CWC Gallery ( “– being an honor that has never been awarded to any artist by CAMERA WORK before”,” we read).
The Germans are very good at this thing. First, of course, was the planned extinction of Jews, gypsies and insubordinates: That succeeded on many levels. Then Leni Reifenstahl turned from the SS to objectify the ‘Vanishing Africa’ in all its gorgeous near-naked male beauty.
Just recently we’ve also been graced with Jared Diamond’s newest bestseller, The World Until Yesterday, which stakes a claim for the primordiality of Papua New Guineans. That’s code for ‘dying race.’ In the book itself, he echoes most of the mid 20th C laments of his age mates about the metaphysical consequences of modernity on fragile, isolated ever-noble savages. He sounds Frantz Fanonesque in bemoaning the cost of joining the modern world (alas, we learn again, the only option for the black man is to become white).
Diamond borrows anecdotal material from a young woman who was raised in the remote West Papua highlands, with the Fayu people, by her German missionary parents. She returned to Europe to face the horrors of cultural conflict at age 17. Romantically, her memoir presents itself as the purest form of ethnography: the jungle child, a westerner socialized to be native, and thus miraculously able to report to us about the Other. How admirable that she survived, as a missionary German child, the throes of that idyllic childhood’s fatal end in sudden European immersion. Has she lost her Fayu sensibility? Can she really become modern now? Is she prt of nature, or her new culture? Some might ask whether she is not like every postcolonial subject in the European world. The 'modern man' of early postcolonial Indian, African and Caribbean literaure? Why, perchance, does our interlocateur still have to be.....European?
This is the same feeling one always has when we view beautiful shots of other worlds by top photojournalists today. Isn’t this a job better done by local people themselves? we might ask. Is it really true that for one ‘savage’ to pick up a camera or a pair of shorts, they must leave their entire worldview behind?
Is it not possible, like Kumian Kolian from Skul Bilong Wokim Piksa in Goroka twenty years ago, to deftly adapt the technology of western modernity to an indigenous culture without corrupting the latter. Kumian had been the offsider to French anthropologist Maurice Godelier, while he and Ian Dunlop shot their ‘cathedral’ of films about Baruya male initiations. Inspired, like so many of Jean Rouche’s colleagues in Africa, Kumain learned to use a videocamera himself and eventually shot his own film on the Baruya, called Simnia, which became one of, if not THE, first ethnographic film by a Papua New Guinean (which I introduced with Mary Catherine Bateson at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in NYC one year).
But it is precisely this bi-cultural state that western romantics bemoan. Rather than celebrating what indigenes are capable of, what they gain from the west, people prefer to harken back to the ideas of yesteryear that equate all cultural synthesis with a corrosion of some primordial purity. And that is what Fanon was cynically referring to when he said that postcolonial peoples would only appreciate what they had lost after they had completely lost it. Adapt, and die of social ostracism. Adapt, and become boringly middle class. Adapt, and never again be 'indigenous.'
We must thank Jimmy Nelson for staging these lovely shots as reclamations of a lost yesterday, not documents of the present, where wristwatches, mobile phones and, yes, instamatics are all a matter of course. Indeed, we suspect that Nelson stayed with Trans Niugini Tours at their 4 star lodge, Ambua, in Tari, and was able to capture the image of several Tari men standing on rocks in full tribal bilas, while he was on a day tour from the lodge. He would certainly have needed to pay them to dress like that, removing secondhand clothes for traditional dress, just as he would have paid the Tari guide and waiters at the lodge. Yesterday, the lost purity of at all, was what he came to capture. And he bagged it.
Like any hard won trophy, his pictures now proves mighty valuable, because the gallery notes for his exhibition tell us one print will cost you 53,500 euros. Yes, that's right: 53,500 euros. For a unique 180 x 360 cm chromogenic print, framed. But it can be had, like all the others in the series, in different sizes and series numbers. Each image, that is to say, will raise 194,500 euro. That is K711,292.97 for each image.
Now, for the total set of 13 from PNG, he will garner K 9,246,808.61.
For the whole global series of 80 he can make Kina 56,903,437.60 from dying tribal people and their images.
To be fair, his dealer may take as much as 50% for each sale, which would mean Jimmy Nelson walks away with K 4,623,404.31 for his tour through PNG, and K 28, 451,718.80 for the world tour.
Not bad for a day's work. An Edward Curtis platinum print can be had for less.
The Nelson portfolio consists of 13 PNG images, some of them children from Goroka, and lovely portraits, from Mt Hagen and Tari. All taken while staying at Ambua, Rondon Ridge, and perhaps The Bird of Paradise Hotel. Not a stitch of modern dress in any of them, they would be staged portraiture that joins an ouvre of coffee-table-book photography from PNG that began over 100 years ago, and is best known by Malcom Kirk’s 1981 Hagen Show portraits in the beautiful oversized volume, Man As Art.
That book sold for $45, or about K90, had a very informative introduction by Andrew Strathern, and to my knowledge, was not flogged as chromogenic prints. Therein lies the difference.
[Malcolm Kirk image]
More recently, I was involved with the book by photographer Chris Rainier, New Guinea: Where Masks Still Dance. He now works for the National Geographic Society. When I met Chris, I was working as a temp Manager for Peter Barter’s boat, The Melanesian Discoverer, and he was traveling free, as do so many of these ‘photojournalists’, and being afforded every special service possible because we were traveling with the Board of Directors for WWF. Later he went on to West Papua and would fax me b/w versions of his shots with questions scribbled: Where is this? Am I in the Star Mountains? And so forth.
[Chris Rainier image]
Then he suggested I write the text for his book, which I did. But he stiffed me payment for it, although not before apologizing and saying he wanted to go with someone else. That someone else rewrote all my ethnographic information, leaving me with a ‘thank you’ at the beginning of the book. I remember one phone call from Chris during this period. He was living in Aspen, Colorado, where he said his neighbour’s house was being rented by Johnny Depp and Kate Moss. Nice digs.
There’s a wonderful quote that opens Chris’ website about how "We are at a crossroads today….’ blah blah… everybody must be photographed...by him.
From Chris’ CV we learn: “His life’s Mission is to help empower Indigenous peoples, - helping them to use photography and technology to the enhance their culture & lives Chris is a National Geographic Fellow, is a Co-Director of the Enduring Voices Language Preservation Project, a Co-Director of the National Geographic Society Cultures Ethnosphere Program, and Director of the Society’s All Roads Photography Program.”
All I know about his empowering of indigenous people in PNG is that he once came to the Karawari Lodge and recorded a song by the Kundiman people who live beside the lodge, for his ‘Enduring Voices’ project, and found his way hours upriver at one of our cave art campsites where he conned people into letting him stay at our place. He explained himself as a friend of mine. But I don’t know what pictures he took. He never contacted me.
No one volunteered to take him on a trek to the caves, thnakfully. We had to experience the pain of National Geographic magazine itself when they came and did a largely fictional story for their February 2012 issue called Last of the Cave People (i.e. they are DYING OUT), by Mark Jenkins with glorious photos by Amy Toensig (who also did not pay her subjects).
Did Jimmy Nelson arrive on a Business or a Film/Photojournalism Visa? We don’t know. I suspect not. Did he ask his subjects to sign a waiver? We don’t know, and would be interested in finding out. If so, did he ask them to sign away all their rights to the proceeds of his efforts? Did he pay them some nominal sum, like K20 each perhaps (a small amount, as the guide might have suggested, hoping to prevent inflation ), and show them a piece of paper for their signature—or thumbprint--?
I say all this not just from outrage over how the subjects are being screwed. They are. And the ramifications are many. But I say this because it has direct consequences for people like me. I live and work in PNG and am unavoidably identified with tourists and short-term consultants all the time. I am accused of graft all the time---of making lots of money off the backs of PNG poverty. Only two weeks ago someone punched me in the face saying much the same thing.
With my PNG partners, I run a small consulting company that’s nearing bankruptcy because we’ve used it to feed our NGO project, the Karawari Cave Arts Project. I live in low covenant housing, my kids go to public school. I drive a small car, feed tens of relatives, educated that many more, and like every single PNG middle class worker, am constantly borrowing money to make the rent.
But I am also an anthropologist, and so a lot of my work must accord by certain research ethics, not to mention the very strict protocol of doing business while living in PNG, which can be summed up in the rule of thumb: no good deed goes unpunished. While it continues to be possible to fly in and out of PNG, and sell yourself as an explorer-in-residence at The National Geographic or a humanitarian with a mission, selling books, making five figures for every speaking engagement, and keeping a pied a terre in DC and a summer house in Montana, the ordinary NGO worker, medical volunteer or low-paid resident foreigner in PNG is constantly being henpecked for the socialized distribution of their income. You can be rich and insular in PNG, like a politician. But try being poor and avoiding every associate and relative with a need for bus fare.
In fact, the sale of any single 'unique' chromogenic image of Jimmy Nelson’s would pay for the entire annual budget of the Karawari Cave Arts Project, not to mention build a school or aid post in the clan's settlement area of Tari.
Nevertheless, money is not why most resident expats in PNG are here. And while I may have very little to show for it, I do have a wee bit of common sense. Nobody is selling me to the media as this year’s glamourous humanitarian, but I know one or two things about what goes round coming round.
I know that there are many ways of being exploited. And I know today it's more than ever important that indigenes get a voice in their future, and a piece of their own objectification.
I also know that I wouldn’t call myself an anthropologist and travel a lecture circuit expounding on the meaning of PNG violence to the western world if I were merely a pathologist with a thing for birdwatching. Nor would I explicitly name a source in an international magazine if he had told me in passing that he was involved in a tribal fight. Even in the highlands of PNG, there is parliamentary law. People are not anonymous at home.
I know that I would never imagine mounting 53,000 euro chromogenic prints of my trip to PNG on the wall of a Berlin gallery without considering whether my merchandising of these nearly extinct tribal people of PNG might get back to the subjects of these photographs themselves. Maybe even through the social media.
And I know enough to be sure that, when those folks from 'Jalibu' in Western Highlands get wind of my profits, I should think twice about coming back to PNG.