The Sepik River is infested by crocodiles and guarded by Papua New Guinea’s crocodile men. Photographer Tom Parker shows the beauty and diversity of the people living along the river of Papua’s diverse landscapes. In eleven days, Tom witnessed spirituality, poverty and tribal rituals that were unique to each tribe. We talked to Tom about Papua as a travel destination.
How did you end up in Papua New Guinea?
I was on assignment with Departures travel magazine. I was assigned to go up the Sepik River with a very well known British journalist called Sophie Roberts. The Sepik River is the longest river in Papua New Guinea and not many people have documented it. We were following the footsteps of British travel writer and conservationist Mark Shand, who died recently and had explored that region. We were doing it to commemorate his death, as he was a great explorer.
Why the Sepik River?
We chose it because no one had really done it. It has got absolutely fascinating tribal groups that had never had any communication. It such a diverse and remote place so it was incredibly exciting. This river is very famous for its crocodiles, and its crocodile men who go through a scarification process. They scar their backs and arms to look like crocodile scales. And they do that when they are 18 or 19, and they go and live in a spiritual home for six weeks, where they can’t leave and there’s fire constantly burning. We were lucky enough to go into a spirit house.
How did you capture this diversity in your photographs?
We shot people from lots of different places. We shot places like the praying mantis tribe, who are in the upper reaches of the Sepik River, so it’s very remote. It is also a very poor area that is not used to outsiders but incredibly interesting. I went to some tribes just outside of the city, to the tribes by the highlands and nearby the Solomon Sea.
How was it like to be accepted in the communities and using the camera?
In any of these places you have to go with the right guy. You can’t walk into these places and start shooting. In Papua, it is financially driven, it sounds very cynical but it’s just the way it operates. It is good in a way because it is very clear from the beginning. We just pay a fee that will be used for something useful in the village.
What’s the significance of the masks, feathers and body paint?
They don’t wear it every day, as it will be highly impractical and uncomfortable. They wear them on certain special occasions and different ceremonies. For example, they wear the mud masks when they go to battle.
How’s the daily life in these communities?
A lot of them fish, they hunt for wild boars and birds and some of them go to school. Also, they farm, trade and there is a little bit of tourism. It’s very poor, there’s not much economy. There’s also a lot of inter-tribal violence and witchcraft – a lot of people still die in Papua New Guinea because of tribal feuds. They are hunter-gatherers almost, so a lot of these places run very independently and free from the government.
Despite the poverty, do you think it is important communities like this still exist?
Yeah, there’s a lot of poverty but there’s a lot of simplicity and it varies a lot from place to place. I think generalizing the whole place is tricky. Life is tougher by the highlands than by the Solomon Sea.
There are only a few women in your photos. Is gender difference really marked in these communities?
I think for the sake of photographers there is a slight conservatism towards women and foreign photographers. I think there are definitely gender issues in Papua New Guinea you just have to Google it to find out. It’s a male dominated place and you kind of get what you are given when you are negotiating the photos shoots.
So, how’s travel photography different from social documentary work when photographing places where human rights issues are so evident?
I wasn’t in Papua to document that and it’s not that I don’t think it is important, but other people will probably do it better. There are definitely issues that other photographers have documented, like the effects of witchcraft. I prefer to celebrate things and I am always drawn to the beautiful elements of the place.
What’s the secret to get these amazing travel assignments as a photographer?
Hard work, persistence and a bit of luck. It’s not easy, but like anything if you know roughly what direction you want to go, you can achieve it.
Article By: Laura Rodriguez Castro