Striking Photos of the Past and Present of Papua New Guinea

From tribal traditions to urban strife in the island nation

Joseph Kayan, a Goroka Show participant from Chimbu Province, wears boar tusks and the tail of a tree kangaroo around his neck. The design of his headdress is specific to his village: it includes bird-of-paradise feathers, with reeds to fill out the shape. His armlets hold sprigs of plants from his region. (Sandro)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

Is any place on the planet less familiar to Americans than heavily forested, mountainous, linguistically complex, faraway Papua New Guinea? The images on these pages document just a few points on the wide spectrum of life in PNG today. At one end is what might be called extravagant tradition. To see that, the photographer Sandro, who’s based in Chicago, went to the Eastern Highlands and attended the Goroka Show.

That’s a three-day festival where people from all over the country showcase their customs. In a makeshift studio Sandro photographed men and women wearing costumes unique to their villages.

This kind of undertaking is not without risk. Anthropologists rightly caution against ethnic stereotyping, and a Papuan elder in feathered regalia doesn’t stand in for the entire population any more than a woman wearing a calico bonnet in Colonial Williamsburg is a typical American. But his headdress is an amazing heirloom, a thing of beauty deeply linked to an ancient way of life.         

At the other end of the spectrum is the underworld of Port Moresby, the capital, a city plagued by carjackings and other street crimes. Many of the perpetrators are young men who left the countryside in search of work, only to end up unemployed and living desperately in grim settlements. Sandro’s pictures of them reveal a combination of fierceness and vulnerability that is downright poignant.

Then there are the women Sandro photographed. They toil on the other side of the world, but they’re familiar—one stooping under her burden, another smiling with a youngster on her hip. These women don’t represent PNG. They represent humanity. They’re us.


The red and yellow face paint worn by this man from Jiwaka Province is made from colored rock. The black is a mixture of charcoal and pig fat. The white is traditionally made from clay, but nowadays correction fluid is often swapped in since it’s longer-lasting and comes with a handy application brush.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus