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Pictures of an expedition: Barbara Kirk revisits her PNG images

KATY WARD | Edited extracts

Barbara Kirk & tribesman
Barbara Kirk shows a delighted man his photograph on one of her expeditions to PNG

WELLFLEET, USA — It has been more than 50 years since Barbara Kirk pitched her red tent and camped along the coral atolls of the Trobriand Islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea.

Or flew in a missionary chopper with hip guys, or trekked a dense rain forest by foot, snapping photographs of tribal villages and their people while on assignment for National Geographic.

But to Kirk it feels like yesterday.

“So many memories,” Kirk says while sipping tea at her home on Paine Hollow Road in Wellfleet. “I was so impressionable and it was all so new.

“I remember the canoeing, flying for hours in little Cessnas and landing in difficult positions for the pilot to get more petrol. It was marvellous.

“Pitching our tent right by water with fish coming in and all the natives hanging out. There was lots of activity. It was interesting. What bugs me is I don’t like the way I dressed. I look kind of corny.”

Now 88, Kirk reflects on her days photographing the remote island country north of Australia.

National Geographic was great,” she says. “They were really special in terms of giving you time to get what you wanted or needed.”

Photographers needed that time to build up a rapport with the indigenous people who may never have seen a white person before.

Kirk and her ex-husband, Malcolm, spent several months photographing in New Guinea during the late 1960s and early 1970s. He had proposed the location and Kirk, who had found a passion for photography while pursuing a career in education, decided to go along for the experience.

“I’m sure times have changed since then,” she says. But at the time in New Guinea “women and men were very separated. You never saw a husband and wife strolling around. Men were respectful to me and knew we had a different perspective on things.”

Though Kirk has made a living as a photographer, it wasn’t something she always envisioned. She spent her childhood in New Haven, Connecticut.

Kirk graduated from Wheaton College in Norton with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in the German language. It was her German professor who organised the trip abroad that ultimately sparked her travel bug.

Kirk and her ex-husband went to New Guinea three times on assignment for National Geographic. When Kirk returned home her love of photography continued. She published two children’s books, ‘Grandpa, Me and Our House in the Tree’ in 1978 and ‘Sunny, the Death of a Pet’ in 1986. She also created a series of photographic stills for a historical novel.

But it’s the pictures in her mind of her days abroad that will always remain most colourful.

Comments

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Philip Fitzpatrick

Hello Heather.

I was a kiap at Nomad in the early seventies when Tom was still living there and I also spent about ten years living in Hervey Bay, not too far from where Tom lives. I hope he is in good health.

I've seen various spellings of both Bedamuni and Mougulu over the years from all sorts of different sources. Changing the spelling of people and places seems to be a perennial occupation of linguists and anthropologists.

I was at Mougulu a few years ago and couldn't believe the changes. A great credit to Tom and the SDA mission.

Heather-lee Ollington (nee Hoey)

Just to let you know that the proper name and spelling for the ‘Biami’ people who appear in this photo is Bedamuni, and the name of the place where they were taken is spelt Mougulu. I know because it’s my home and I was living there at the time.

Philip Fitzpatrick

The people in the photograph are Biami (Bedami) and it was probably taken around Mogalu.

National Geographic has just brought out a special edition in which there is an apology for its racism in the past.

They are referring to stereotyping and all the articles about 'savages', 'cannibals' etc. and photographs of 'unclothed' people in traditional dress.

I've got a small collection of old 'National Geographics' that I've picked up in op shops with New Guinea articles and a quick flick through them proves the point. A reflection of the times through 2018 eyes I think.

The Australian publication 'Walkabout' carried more balanced articles. I think that was because a lot of the writers were PNG based expatriates.

Remember the covers of the 'Pacific Islands Monthly' in the 1970-80s. Every month a photograph of topless young Pacific Island women.

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