This week on Photojournalism Now: Friday Round up – the incredible Sandro launches his new series I Am Papua New Guinea in Chicago. Also, the 2020 FotoEvidence Book Award with World Press Photo is open for submissions. Deadline October 10.
Sandro – I Am Papua New Guinea
The birth of an idea does not follow a linear path. Its kernel may form in a random thought, or in a moment when the mind wanders into memory, ambling down a path long forgotten. Often it comes from an encounter that resonates at a subconscious level. A spark ignites deep inside. A thought surfaces. You ask yourself, what if?
American photographer Sandro has spent a life asking “what if”? Through the lens of his camera, his natural curiosity for the world and love of humanity, has taken him physically and spiritually to places that have opened his mind and given him insights that infuse his work with a depth that is palpable.
His new work, I Am Papua New Guinea, began as “an unshaped dream” to document the cultural iconography of Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) indigenous people through intimate portraits. He tells that as he sat on the long-haul flight from Chicago to Sydney in 2015, he thought about what it would be like to create portraits of PNG’s indigenous people. He pondered about travelling with a makeshift studio around what is one of the most under-developed countries on earth. His mind wandered to stories of the mysticism and also the barbarism that exists in remote mountain villages, his knowledge “limited by history, popular culture, archaeology, political misstatement, propaganda and mythology.” He also thought about the fact that PNG, one of the most lawless countries, was also home to some of the deadliest creatures “snakes, crocodiles and spiders as big as my fist!”
A serendipitous meeting
In Sydney in 2015 for the Head On Photo festival he met Torsten Blackwood the former Agence France-Presse’s chief photographer for this region. Blackwood had spent over 20 years covering this beat and his experience of PNG gave Sandro the insider knowledge he was looking for. The pair struck up a friendship and Sandro’s dream edged closer to reality, the Chicago-based photographer pushing aside his misgivings.
Sandro began to consume every bit of information about the country’s indigenous people. “The more I read about the geographic compartmentalization and educational isolation of (these) migratory indigenous tribes, the more I felt that I had to document them before their rituals, beliefs, customs and practices were further diluted, modified or even forgotten under the weight of Western indoctrination.”
In his research Sandro discovered that much of the existing imagery of “Papua New Guinea’s indigenous population was tribal people documented from afar by long lenses in a manner that a voyeur might photograph—peering unseen into an environment; not engaging with the subject; not separating the subject from the background; accepting the environment rather than controlling it; accepting visual clutter and congestion that is both uninformative and distracting.”
The distant, almost disinterested approach Sandro describes, is the antithesis of the style of portraiture that defines his career. Sandro’s work is seated in the desire to connect the person in front of the camera with the person behind the camera and to the audience also; it is an invitation to engage in a multidirectional conversation based on mutual respect.
“My portraits are personal and intimate in a way that the viewer may feel as if I have known my subject for a lifetime. There must be a relaxed, uncomplicated story being captured through the gaze of the eyes or the gentle awkward stance…I feel that the Papua New Guinea tribal portraits anchor aspects of their lives to ours and unite their historic moment to ours.”
More than 40,000kms and 400 portraits
The trip to PNG from Chicago is 13,582 kilometers and takes 28 hours over five flights and across fifteen time zones. Sandro and his crew did this trip three times from 2015-2017, amassing 400 portraits. In each location they visited, they’d set up a makeshift studio and Sandro would work his magic.
Sandro is incredibly gregarious and genuine in his love for people. It is no wonder that so many were happy to sit for him and have their portraits taken. Sandro says it was often the first time these people had seen a camera or been photographed. He carried a small printer with him – why not add another item to the 15 cases of gear he carted across the world – and he gave a print to each person photographed.
“I remember being very excited and feeling my heart pounding with anticipation and crazy passion,” he says of seeing the first portraits flash onto the computer monitor.
One of the early random encounters was with a group of women working in a coffee factory (above). The women were tasked with manually picking out the sub-standard beans. Squatting on ground, beaten down by a cruel patriarchal society, Sandro’s invitation to take their pictures was a way of saying, I see you, I acknowledge you, you are important. He says the women were shy at first and then intrigued, laughing and giggling together. It was one of the most memorable and joyful sessions, with hugs all round as Sandro left for the next destination.
While this mammoth project was undoubtedly an amazing experience – and Sandro is used to these major creative undertakings – working remotely, far from home, and in conditions vastly different to his studio in Chicago, presented its own challenges. Language and cultural barriers, remote jungle locations, lack of technological infrastructure, not to mention the bugs, humidity and the jet-lag, were just some of the hurdles!
But the pain was worth it! These portraits are remarkable, and substantial both in the wide range of subjects, tribes and geographical locations and in their cultural significance.
Sandro says, “I feel joy from the thought that these portraits may actually become an important part of archaeological and anthropological history, evidence of time, place and identity.” Looking at these images, I am thankful that Sandro’s idea found its way from ‘what if’ to reality.
September 6th- November 9th
Catherine Edelman Gallery 1637 W Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL