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