BUSA JEREMIAH WENOGO
PORT MORESBY – It was only recently that I discovered my father was once a street photographer.
Back in the 1970s, he and some village friends took up the activity as a form of employment, to earn money, to put food on the table.
This was well before modern digital cameras and smart phones made photography simple and ever-present.
Fifty years ago street photography was a specialty. It required great skill to produce great photos.
My father and his cohorts acquired a Kodak-manufactured instant camera which was easy to load with a 12-picture cartridge. But, unlike today’s cameras that allow you to take multiple photos – editable, fixable, deletable without tears - when you pressed the button on the Kodak, that was it.
If you were taking photos on the street for sale, the images had to be good. If you made a mistake there was no easy way to improve the photo. Bad photos were very bad for a street photographer’s business.
A roll of film cost about $2 and a single photo cost about $1.50 to print. Each street photographer had an album of attractive photographs to show potential customers how talented he was.
My father said tourists were good customers and Sunday was the most profitable day as churchgoers dressed in their finest clothes would throng around the street photographers to have their photos taken.
The camera guys were usually left alone by the police to ply their trade. The police considered them part of the ‘working class’. Reasonable men earning a reasonable living.
This was important to the photographers at a time when the Vagrancy Act was vigorously enforced against unemployed individuals who could make a nuisance of themselves (pasindia as they’re called in Tok Pisin).
The police were also customers. My father recalled being escorted by eager recruits and driven to Bomana Police College to take their photographs.
He continued with street photography for about four years until 1977, when he joined Monier, the major building material company which he served for 38 years before retiring in 2015.
As the years have gone by, the mass production of smart phones and advanced digital cameras have forced most street photographers out of business. They’re a rare breed these days.
Armed with advanced cameras and sophisticated equipment, today’s professional photographers tend to ply their trade in the comfort of their studio or their subjects’ homes, offering their well-practiced art to high-end clients for a handsome return.
That said, however, a friend of mine who has been active in the photography business for few years reckons even that’s not as simple as it may sound.
Firstly, skillful photographers need true expertise in what makes a great photo. A professional holding a camera sees things differently from you or me. The saying ‘in the eye of the beholder’ very much applies.
Unlike the rest of us, skilled photographers can almost intuitively capture the essence, the inner truth, that often goes unnoticed by amateur photographers. It’s this insight that separates pros from amateurs.
My friend also emphasised that photography can be like any other business, requiring hard work, commitment and passion.
Getting that good quality picture is only part of the struggle. Other challenges revolve around business management and marketing and, of course, sales.
When I asked if he saw any good prospects of taking his skills to the streets of 2022, he quickly pointed out that, unlike in my father’s time, most streets in Port Moresby are quite unsafe for that kind of enterprise.
Of course, professional photography can serve other purposes in society. It can plays an important role in documenting and vividly portraying the realities that confront everyday Papua New Guineans.
In the cities, it can tell of the struggles of vendors and settlement dwellers. In rural areas, it can show the realities of hungry children, a closed aid post or a washed out road that has brought local commerce to a dead halt.
That great photo, the one that’s worth a thousand words, can instantly arouse anger, frustration and even a desire to bring about positive change.
You don’t need to write a long story to convince someone in authority to act. A couple of paragraphs and a remarkable photo can do a lot of talking. Photography shows as if first hand, the stories of the forgotten and the disempowered.
In such circumstances, a photo is not an abstraction it is a depiction. And it should be honest, not a happy snap that so often is seen on the front pages of daily newspapers or the staged shot that plays on TV.
If a photo can be worth a thousand words it can also hide a hundred lies. Perhaps a return to street photography and photographers seeking to tell a real story would enrich our understanding of the challenges that Papua New Guineans confront every day.
For a generation that lives in a new age of photography with smart phones and related technologies in the possession of huge numbers of people, we are better equipped than the street photographers of my father’s generation to use the imagery produced by the camera as a tool for economic empowerment and social justice.