New Guinea, an island divided in half politically independent Papua New Guinea and Indonesia- governed Irian Jaya has 1,000 aboriginal tribes, each with its own language and traditions. Their rituals marking life passages celebrations for the birth of a child, mourning at a death, a marriage feast, initiation rites for coming of age are unique from one tribe to the next. The imaginative use of masks, body paint and costumes, mixed with the people's profound belief in spirits who control their lives, created an irresistible temptation for photographer Chris Rainier. He spent months every year traveling New Guinea's coasts and highlands, and remote areas marked "no data available" on maps.
"I wanted a visual diary of the place where echoes of spirits still dwell," says Rainier, who journeyed by canoe and by foot "in mud up to my waist." In Irian Jaya he spent weeks in a swamp infested with leeches that so covered his body that he peeled off 50 at a time. "I could not burn them off hard to do in a downpour so I carefully sliced the leeches off with a machete, which sometimes left their tiny heads buried in my flesh." He suffered from malaria and ate everything from insect larvae to bats. But in the end, "I had the pictures I wanted," he says, and had learned from the people "how to fit quietly into their cultures."
Rainier's visual diary tells the story of his encounters with chieftains crowned with headdresses of bird of paradise feathers; warriors with bodies covered in bright paint as they went to battle over land at issue for hundreds of years; young women laden with shells and feathers, anticipating their wedding feast; and initiates, their faces painted like masks, going through the secret rituals of passage into manhood. Rainier's New Guinea photographs began a world tour at the Australian Museum in Sydney and are currently on exhibition at the Papua New Guinea National Museum. They are also featured in his most recent book, Where Masks Still Dance, published last year by Little, Brown and Company.
"In New Guinea," says Rainier, "I came unconsciously expecting a glimpse of mankind in the vestiges of Eden, but I found no romantic savages with mystic knowledge in the rain forests. In this land of a thousand languages, I simply found humans with a distinctive culture living their joys and sorrows. Whatever the spirits that still invest the forest, whatever the legends that bring forth the masks and their dance, I came to see how very much we are all the same."