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Read about the work and travel of VSA's staff.


Behind the camera in PNG and Bougainville

Published on 28th November 2014


VSA's Graphic Designer Chris Mitchell travelled with Media Officer Sarah Barnett to Papua New Guinea and Bougainville at the end of August to capture stories and photographs of VSA’s work. He has written a blog his experiences. See a selection of his favourite photos from the trip here.

A PNG woman sits on the beach; across the water, the volcano billows smoke

The eruption of Mt Tavurvur was a dramatic start to Chris's journey.

It’s not often I get a phone call at four in the morning. It is even rarer for me to receive one whilst on a photography assignment in Papua New Guinea. To answer the phone so early and hear "Chris, get outside the Volcano is erupting" makes it the most insane phone call I’ve ever had. There were a few seconds there (possibly even minutes) where I really did think I was toast.

 

Sitting on a tropical beach at 5.30am watching a volcano expelling its largest contribution in 20 years was in many ways exemplary of my time in PNG and Bougainville. I was witness to an obstacle that would make life more difficult for people, but an obstacle that wasn’t really going to affect me in any way. I was a spectator and documenter. One who left feeling very appreciative of where he is lucky enough to live.

 

Lack of education, domestic violence levels among the highest in the world, severely under-resourced hospitals – these were some of the things I knew about life in PNG before arriving. When I got there I could see it was tough work just existing. People walking when they don’t have access to transport made me consider the implications. What if you can’t even get to the hospital when you need to? How are those rural kids getting to school?

 

Our journey started right up at the topmost tip of Papua New Guinea in Kavieng. Sarah and I were visiting volunteers and their counterparts to capture stories and photographs for our communications work. We spent three days there before travelling on to Kokopo.

 

The people I met were friendly and excited to have us there. I did have some anxieties about how my photography would be received. I worried there would be reluctance when I pulled my camera out (as there usually is amongst Kiwis). That all disappeared as soon as I started snapping. Throughout the entire two week trip I only had one person decline to be photographed. Not bad going for 3,000 photos.

 

The most moving part of the trip for me was our visit to Kabaira Girls' Vocational Centre. I am a South Islander and am most at home when out of a city's hustle and bustle. We arrived at the Centre at seven in the morning. It was a very peaceful setting. We were greeted by VSA Volunteer Lorena De La Torre and my first impressions were that the area was deserted. As we walked around I began to see young faces peeking out of windows and around corners. I decided it was now or never if I was going to get photos. I approached a small group and asked, "Enup me kissim, pixa lo yu?" ("Can I take a picture?") The lighting was perfect. The young women were delighted to have a photographer there. Proud and shy and curious. It’s a morning I’ll never forget.

 

At the end of the first week in PNG I flew to Bougainville to take video and more photography. For this part of the trip I was travelling solo. Although close geographically to PNG, Bougainville has a different atmosphere. I felt that people kept to themselves more. When I engaged, the warmth and pride was just as captivating, but I could feel the undertone of conflict is still there 16 years later.

 

I particularly enjoyed meeting Paul Bedggood and hearing about his experiences. Travelling to Arawa and watching Annabel Norman developing the arts in a remote village was incredible. Hanging with the volunteers at Etta village and discussing the volunteer experience was also great. An intelligent and enthusiastic group of people making huge contributions to Bougainville's growth and development.

 

By the end of my trip I was desperate to see my family but after some time to reflect I realise what incredible places and people I had seen. Our volunteers are a diverse group of people but they were undivided in their willingness to share their counterparts and stories.

 

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