Photographing Papua New Guinea

The kitchen that doubled as a darkroom, Post Courier flats at the 3-mile, 1971.

The kitchen that doubled as a darkroom, Post Courier flats at the 3-mile, 1971.

Today when I look at all the beautiful photos of Papua New Guinea on the internet, I can see that a great many of those digital colour images are vastly superior to the black-and-white print photos that Australian expatriates like me were producing 40 and 50 years ago.

I went to Port Moresby in 1971 after a four-year stint as a press photographer at the NT News in Darwin. I had met my partner, Denis Williams, there and he had convinced me that Papua New Guinea was a place where every photographer should be. As a rich source of photogenic material, he explained,  it had no equal.

Within a few weeks of our arrival, Denis found work with the South Pacific Post’s English newspaper, the Post Courier. He was its chief photographer, charged with the task of eventually doing himself out of a job by training five or six Papua New Guineans to become skilled darkroom technicians and photographers. The NT News and the Post Courier are part of the Herald and Weekly Times chain of newspapers, both still distantly controlled in those days by Rupert Murdoch himself. The weekly wage was modest but included in the salary package was a rent-free, two-bedroom flat at the top of the hill at the Three-mile.

My own path to employment as a photographer was bumpier but also more varied. I worked for a time for the University of Papua New Guinea, followed by a stint with the PNG Office of Tourism, before eventually setting up my own business in the Port Moresby suburb of Boroko. I was also expected to do myself out of my jobs eventually and I tackled the task with genuine enthusiasm. It soon became obvious, however, that despite my very best efforts, I was not a very good teacher.

Denis Williams and I had arrived in Port Moresby with camera bags loaded with Nikon cameras and lenses. We soon adapted our crude kitchen into an even cruder darkroom, by painting the glass window slats black and draping the door with a black curtain. By day it was a kitchen that reeked of the acidic aroma of photo fixers and stop baths, by night it was a laboratory that smelled of cooking oil, and in the quiet in-between hours it was blanketed with cockroaches. Despite three visits by the Flick man, we never did manage to completely eradicate the nightly visitation by the huge tropical versions of that chocolate-brown insect.

No one had air conditioning in those days and the ‘darkroom’ was uncomfortably hot and humid. We had to use ice blocks for temperature control. Out of this imperfect work space came our black-and-white negatives and prints, but also our Kodak Ektachrome colour slides. It was all a bit hit-and-miss.

Those seventies years were an exciting time to be an expatriate Australian in Papua New Guinea. Australia had finally pressed the accelerator and the country was in a state of rapid change, with self-government in 1973 and Independence in 1975. We stayed on for a few years after that but 1979 seemed like a good time to go. I’m vain enough now to believe that those old black-and-white negatives will have some archival value eventually, say in another 60 years or so, but others may not agree. I’ll showcase some of them over the next few weeks and you can decide for yourself. I sincerely hope that none of the photos will cause grief or give offence. Most of the photos are part of the collection of the late Denis Williams, but some were taken by me. Copyright is held by Veronica Peek and Vanessa Williams.

2 thoughts on “Photographing Papua New Guinea

  1. I knew Denis very briefly when I worked for DASF, in the days when Tony Crane worked for the Post-Courier. (Tony and I hark back to primary school in Armidale, NSW). What a wonderful Blog site and thank you for sharing with us some of Denis’s pictures from the dark room! I too have countless slides taken mostly in Port Moresby between 1967 and 1988, and most have been dated through a tedious but thoroughly enjoyable process!

    • For me the best thing about starting this blog has been that it has encouraged me to go looking for current PNG bloggers and there is some very informative and well-written stuff being posted these days. It’s nice to keep in touch with PNG through their online bloggers and journalists because our own media doesn’t seem to have much to say these days. I do remember Tony Crane and I am on the same page as you with the archiving. Very, very time consuming but also very rewarding.

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