Terra Incognita | Photos from Papua New Guinea, a Land Little Explored

An intimate photo journal of one of the world's least visited nations

by Zoe Springer; as told to Kieran Morris
Feb 21 2019, 6:00pm

Chasing the remote, the undisturbed and undocumented, is the modus operandi of any self-respecting adventurer. It’s one thing to tick off all the best adventure spots: one mountain here, one trek there - the same ‘breathtaking views’ you’ve seen on the cover of glossy magazines. But it’s another to go in pursuit of a whole other way of life, where time moves at a different pace, and the trappings of modern life are so distant as to be inconceivable.

Photographer Zoe Springer went in pursuit of this particular state of nature, manoeuvring a boat around Papua New Guinea, heading all the way down to the Solomon Islands, speaking to people and documenting the vast natural beauty as she went. Capturing this largely-unvisited corner of the world, Springer was able to shine a spotlight on the South Pacific with this photo series, offering a unique insight into everyday life disconnected from the hecticness of Western culture.

(Ali Island, Papua New Guinea)

A Catholic church on Ali Island, one of the four islands located close to Aitape off the coast of Northern Papua New Guinea. Consisting of five villages all consciously constructed to lead to this chapel. Catholicism is the dominant faith throughout these islands.

(Ali Island, Papua New Guinea)

This little boy, who most likely hadn’t ever seen a camera before, sneaked an inquisitive peek that bordered on a scowl during the Sing Sing, a traditional dance performed as a ritual for the Papuans.

(Garove Island, Papua New Guinea)

Oscar coyly followed me around on Garove Island. Feigning shyness as I attempted to capture his portrait several times, he finally tugged on my shirt to proudly present his coconut as he timidly posed.

(Garove Island, Papua New Guinea)

Geraldine, her face still finished with the traditional blue and white paint of this island’s ritual attire, had never seen a camera before, yet boldly demanded her portrait be taken, and poised herself with an aloof confidence amid the sweltering, green backdrop.

(Garove Island, Papua New Guinea)

Located within a collapsed Volcano caldera, Garove Island, part of the Witu Islands, is encompassed by steep cliffs flourishing an extraordinarily abundant vegetation, so dense it illustrates why there is only one small settlement on the island. Black sands envelop the green precipices, and vivid reefs lie within the inky water of the caldera.

(Garove Island, Papua New Guinea)

A trio of teenage boys on Garove Island languidly posed as they observed me with cool composure from afar.

(Pavuvu, Solomon Islands)

As enthusiastic as the small children were of my presence, young boys were equally aloof and seemingly ambivalent of me until my lens met their gaze.

(Sepik River, Papua New Guinea)

A grandmother, mother, and son. Kopar village houses no more than 200 inhabitants and encompasses an eerily enticing landscape of mangroves and swamps. Like all of the villages presented, there is no sewage system here and the only source of electricity available is generated through miniature solar panels.

(Sepik River, Papua New Guinea)

A grandmother and grandson confronted my lens with a hard stare, reminiscent of the tangibly heavy air of the Sepik River. Unlike any other place visited, the Sepik possessed an ominous gloom permeated only by the vivaciously colourful clothes worn by the villagers. Family ties are paramount in this culture, as large families all live under one roof and retain a powerful support system throughout their lives.

(Sepik River, Papua New Guinea)

This little boy wanted nothing to do with me and promptly showed me his bottom to prove his point.

(Sepik River, Papua New Guinea)

This woman possessed an unparalleled stature of pride and charisma; her grandchildren uneasy in my presence, peered at me from afar. Houses in the Sepik region, as well as in most of Papua New Guinea’s villages, are built on stilts in order to protect homes from rising water and tropical storms.

(Tsoi Island, Papua New Guinea)

Jacob clearly relished the attention he indubitably received from me. As he took me to his home in order for me to find a shady place to change my film, his uncle playfully called out that you could easily tell which children enjoyed the water most by the lightness of their hair.

(Vanimo, Papua New Guinea)

I managed to coax a timid smile from Christina who had surveyed me with bashful inquisitiveness. Although a young girl, she carried herself and her elegantly draped towel with the silent confidence of a woman beyond her years.

(Vanimo, Papua New Guinea)

A group of young school girls adorned in traditional dress after performing a Sing Sing. Once again so effortlessly graceful and elegant, I was stunned by the confidence these children possessed despite never having seen a stranger amidst their homes.

(Vanimo, Papua New Guinea)

Mother and child in Vanimo, one of the most remote regions in the Sanduan Province of Papua New Guinea. The mother, having already met passing travellers was all too keen for her photograph being taken, yet her child shrieked at the sight of me and preferred to shield his small face in the confines of a Gucci snapback.

(Vanimo, Papua New Guinea)

A vibrant little market arranged off the white beaches of Vanimo exhibited hand crafted wood carvings, sea shells, and woven bags.

(Vanimo, Papua New Guinea)

Children were either incredibly enthusiastic of my visit, leaping into my frame at every opportunity they felt fit, or completely terrorised, wriggling away from my sight while shrieking and shouting. I had to wait silently, partially hidden in the greenery in order to sneak up on these two boys playing in the sand.

(Sepik River, Papua New Guinea)

As my presence was met with skeptical apprehensiveness I carefully tread my way towards this tender moment between mother and child. The stylish elegance of the manner in which people don their clothing reflected the poise and grace of the young women I photographed.

(Sepik River, Papua New Guinea)

This man welcomed my attention as I entered his home. By shooting entirely on film I was able to form a connection with the subjects captured, as its constraints are unforgiving and the shots limited.

(Sepik River, Papua New Guinea)

The steeliness of the children encountered in the Sepik Region alluded to destitute conditions and a much tougher life than previously seen in other villages. Moments later, I encountered a group of young men gutting juvenile hammerhead sharks; the fins harvested for sale, the meat saved for their families.

(Kadovar Volcano, Papua New Guinea)

A very active Kadovar blasted acrid sulphurous gases from its sub-vent. Approaching this volcano via Zodiac, I was able to get within 200 metres before I was forced to turn back as the noxious gases engulfed my lungs. Papua New Guinea boasts one of the highest volcano activity in the South Pacific.

(Garove Island, Papua New Guinea)

A line of young children moments before the traditional Sing Sing, a combination of pride and bashfulness exuded from them. Each island has its own distinctive traditional attire, in this case the stunning blue and white facial paint. All children are obligated to attend school until their teenage years, and every village visited boasted a small yet prolific learning centre.

(Madang, Papua New Guinea)

Two women resting after a traditional sing sing in Madang. This town was central to heavy fighting during WII with over 34 sunken ships to be found in the harbour, considered one of the most beautiful in the South Pacific.

(Ali Island, Papua New Guinea)

I was changing my film underneath a tree when a falling branch struck my head. I heard a piercing giggle and saw this young girl gawking at me from above. She tentatively smiled as I shot her portrait, unaware of what exactly was happening but enjoying the attention all the same.

Papua New Guinea