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National Geographic’s long affair with PNG

The National Geographic, always a product of its time, remains an amazing pictorial record of Papua New Guinea over nearly 100 years

Kranz Miramar chilldren Gilliard Nat Geo 1955
E Thomas Gilliard's 'Miramar children' (or were they?) of 1955 (National Geographic)


MORISSET – The photograph above was taken during E Thomas Gilliard's bird hunting expedition to the Papua New Guinea Highlands in 1955.

The story of the expedition, together with many spectacular photographs, was published in National Geographic magazine in the same year under the headline, 'To the Land of the Headhunters'.

Bougainvilleans support Fijian and US troops, 1944. The local people became seen as brave and loyal allies rather than objects of curiosity (National Geographic) 

The photograph is captioned confusingly as being of a tribal chief from the ‘Miramar valley’ but there’s no indication of the location of the Miramar valley.

But, looking at the bilas and reading Gilliard’s description of the ceremonies and culture of the people, I’m pretty sure the photo was taken in the Wahgi valley, possibly around Nondugl, which he had visited on previous trips.

National Geographic is one of the world's great pictorial magazines but, like most popular writing on other cultures, it is a product of the Western worldview of the time.

Examining National Geographic’s articles and references to Papua New Guinea in issues over the 50 years from the 1920s to the 1970s, I have seen how writers’ perspectives (and presumably those of the magazine's editors) evolved and changed over time.

The earlier stories are about mysterious cannibals living in remote jungles untouched by white man.

Kranz Port Moresby Nat Geo 1928
Port Moresby, 1928 (National Geographic)

These primitive peoples with their strange and barbarous rituals are portrayed as if exhibits in a zoo.

It was World War II, a period when many American soldiers were based in PNG, brought about a realisation that its people were allies, strong, loyal and brave – and this realisation led to changed perceptions.

As a result, by the 1950s and 1960s, the articles have a more serious anthropological bent and, although sometimes containing errors and still prone to express awe at what are now ‘noble savages’ are more accurate and sympathetic.

And as independence nears, their tone has changed appreciably and PNG is now treated as an interesting new player on the international stage to be treated with respect and dignity.

The views and beliefs of Papua New Guineans themselves are also treated seriously as the rightful interpreters of their own culture.

Kranz Michael Somare hands free PNG flags to schoolchildren 1974
Michael Somare hands free PNG flags to schoolchildren, 1974 (National Geographic)

There is still an obsession with the exotic and unusual, but National Geographic has grown up over the years and its views have matured.

As Mark Twain said of his father, "When I was a boy I thought what an old fool he was, but by the time I reached middle-age I was amazed at how much he'd learnt."

My own Dad subscribed to National Geographic when I was a teenager and I looked forward to the latest issue when it was crammed into the letterbox each month.

I am very grateful for National Geographic’s amazing pictorial record of PNG over nearly 100 years despite its earlier faults and superficial interpretations.

Kranz Bougainville man NatGeo 1945
Bougainvillean man, 1945 (National Geographic)

The National Geographic has always been a product of its time, and remains of great value in relation to PNG because of its continuing interest in the country and its people.

Peter Kranz’s collection of historical photographs of PNG numbers around 4,000 and he regularly posts them to the Facebook group, ‘PNG Taim Bipo Photo History’. The photos, archived in the digital cloud, illustrate the culture, history and people of PNG since the 19th century


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Paul Oates

Thanks for that information Chips.

A former school mate of ours (Mal) passed on how he (tut tut) took a boat across the gap from where he was stationed in Southern Bougainville and visited the BSIP northern villages.

The people there used to call sharks up next to their canoe and then lasso them and when the battle was finally over, clock the shark on the head with a wooden club and paddle it to their village.

The shark meat was then dried in the sun and crumbed up into empty kero tins while a huge number of coconuts were opened and the plugged and set in the hot sand.

When the plugs popped out of the coconuts and the 'toddy' was fermented, the adults sat around and ate shark meat and drank toddy until it was all finished.

After the party, Mal reported, it was time to do the process all over again.

Ol stori bilo ol lapun tasol ya.

Chips Mackellar

When I was ADC Trobriand Islands I received a letter from National Geographic. It was addressed to 'His Excellency, the Governor of the Trobriand Islands' and announced a photographic expedition to the Pacific Islands to study the friendly interaction between people and sharks.

They said they had heard that Trobriand people communicated regularly with sharks. They asked if this was true they would like to photograph such a communication.

I had never heard of such communication so I asked the Paramount Chief. He confirmed this and said Trobrianders often communicated with sharks by calling them and hand feeding them.

He showed me how sharks were called. It was by the use of a rattle. It looked like a giant baby's rattle, and consisted a length of cane doubled over to create a handle, and inserted into the cane was a bunch of coconut shells. When shaken, the shells rattled.

The Chief said when the rattle was shaken in the sea beside a canoe, sharks could hear the rattle and would converge around the canoe and would be fed surplus fish by the occupants of the canoe.

The Chief said that the purpose of this process was to tame the sharks and make them friendly to humans so that sharks would not attack people.

He said that as a result, Trobrianders could swim in the sea and never be attacked by sharks. He said shark attacks were unknown in the Trobriands.

I passed this information on to National Geographic, and in due course an expedition of photographers and others arrived to film this process.

I had arranged for several canoes to take them out to sea with experienced shark callers aboard to call the sharks.

National Geographic had allocated five days for this photo shoot but it rained for every day they were in the Trobs and they could not risk taking their cameras out to sea. So they never got to record the shark calling and they had to leave the Trobs with job incomplete.

The National Geographic chaps were an interesting bunch of world travelers and during their downtime they regaled us all with tales of derring do and high adventure.

Their previous project had been to the Tuamotu islands (French Polynesia) where they filmed a similar sort of shark taming process. There, they said, people would catch small sharks, and take them home and raise them like pets in rock pools or enclosed reefs and hand feed them.

Kids would get into the pools and play with the sharks who became very tame. When the sharks were too big to hand raise, they would be released into the sea.

Thereafter, any encounter between people and shark in the sea became a friendly greeting. And just like the Trobs, they said shark attacks were unheard of in the Tuamotus,

The point of all this is that, during recent shark attacks in NSW I passed this information on to the relevant government authorities. But silence was the stern reply. Nobody here is interested in how other peoples guard against shark attacks.

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