MY FATHER was a hobbyist photographer. When he wasn’t taking photos of the varieties of hibiscus he grew in our backyard at Waigani, he turned his lens to a somewhat reluctant subject – me.
“Sanap pastaim” he would say. “Wait…wait”, as he peered through the camera viewfinder, adjusting the focus while I decided whether to run or oblige him.
Then I would hear the familiar click of the shutter, and I would hurry off to avoid getting roped into more awkward posing.
I showed more interest in being behind the lens, but seeing as I was too young to handle a real camera, I insisted he buy me one of those wind up Kodak disposable cameras.
I photographed everything I saw within the first 20 minutes until I was out of film: the unsuspecting stranger, a bug, trees and my feet.
To his credit, my father indulged my “creative” discovery and did not once dissuade me. A hobby might keep me out of trouble, he’d said.
I grew up and a few misguided life decisions later, I took my father’s advice to learn a practical set of skills that would make me valuable to society and allow me to give back to my community.
Photography didn’t appear to be a viable career path in that sense so I went and studied to be a nurse.
I continued to take photographs. In a time before phone cameras, it wasn’t unusual to attract curious glances when I pulled out my camera. I grew accustomed to the raised eyebrows, the looks of amusement and the occasional, “You carry a camera around like a white woman” or “Are you a journalist?”
I wasn’t fazed in the slightest. The creative process of photography appealed to me. I enjoyed the art of visual story telling, and how I could take elements of light and composition and use them to deliver a narrative in one glance.
I was self-taught for the most part so I had no formal training save for the occasional visual arts classes at school where I learned the basics of composing an image.
In retrospect there was no deep meaning behind why I held a camera. The meaning came later. At the time I was merely a girl, unsure of my young voice and my own values independent of my upbringing
When I eventually found my voice as a woman, I realised I had a breadth of experiences to draw from that very much shaped the way I chose to photograph and who I chose to photograph.
Having been raised in Port Moresby, societal norms taught me that there was generally an accepted culture of misogyny.
I was conscious of it in the way I picked an outfit for the day that didn’t show my femininity, so avoiding being the target of lewd remarks and sexual assault. I bristled when I was cautioned over being too opinionated and outspoken, especially in the presence of men.
I was made aware of it in the way men openly harassed my sisters in the street with no fear of repercussion. I was dismayed by it in the way a rape victim was blamed and judged by society.
“What was she wearing?” they would enquire. “Na em mekim wanem lo hap lo kain taim? Painim rape.” I saw it in the way neighbours turned a blind eye to the man next door who would come home drunk and beat his wife and children.
At times I was even taken aback by how my fellow women bought into the misogyny, partaking in verbal slanging matches in an effort to cut down their sisters.
Then there was the matter of colourism, entrenched in my people’s way of thinking. It didn’t occur to us that to lament why we were not as light skinned or why our Afro hair was thick and woolly and not soft was, in fact, the beginning of self-loathing.
I observed girls and young women aspiring to an aesthetic that was not our own and fawning over images that hardly reflected us.
It was perplexing to me. I didn’t want to raise daughters (and sons) conditioned to think this way.
Contemporary American poet Nayyirah Waheed writes, “If someone does not want me, it is not the end of the world. But if I do not want me, the world is nothing but endings”.
I could relate. Without self-value, I wasn’t in any position to appreciate anyone else, much less add value to their lives.
When I set out to make images, it began as a personal project to challenge what I had seen when growing up and to create what I wanted to see.
I was “making” for myself, in affirmation of all the natural beauty and the innate strength and perseverance I saw in PNG women.
I felt that self-validation was essential in our reach for equality, and I wanted my photographs to evoke a sense of empowerment and inclusion.
I decided that, through my lens, the everyday PNG woman would be celebrated from the naturally woolly and curly textures on her head to her unique shade of melanin.
Through my lens, our sense of cultural identity and rich tradition would meld with modern influences.
Through my lens, we would be worthy of respect, no matter what we chose to wear, or where we came from and what our walk of life was.
Through my lens, our narratives would be told without shame or fear of being silenced. Through my lens there would be freedom of self-expression.
I see myself holding a camera for a very long time.