Warning: this article covers violent subject matter that may be troubling viewing for some readers
For three years photojournalist Vlad Sokhin has been exploring the dire and dangerous human rights issue pervading the society of New Zealand's Pacific neighbour, Papua New Guinea (PNG). At significant personal cost and risk to his own safety, the photographer has been tirelessly documenting the truly shocking incidence of violence towards women throughout the island nation.
With rampant physical and sexual abuse a part of everyday life, along with a disturbing tradition of sorcery accusations and their grizzly consequences, Papua New Guinea is one of the most dangerous places for women – and their advocates – in the world. Vlad has amassed gripping, appalling evidence of this situation in his book project Crying Meri, which he has just released in New Zealand.
D-Photo catches up with Vlad ahead of the book launch to discuss his laudable approach to photojournalism and hopes for the future of his troubled Pacific subject:
D-Photo: Can you give us a brief bit of background on yourself and your photography?
Vlad Sokhin: I got my first camera in 2004. At the end of 2005 I was in Serbia and decided to go to Kosovo, just out of curiosity to see what was going on there. It was post-war time and I crossed the border between Serbia and Kosovo and saw many military instillations, tanks on the streets, destroyed houses. I only stayed a few days there but I was very excited and decided to write a few notes and took a lot of pictures with the small camera I had with me.
When I came back I decided send it to some publications to see if they would like to publish them. Nobody replied to me but one editor who said, 'We can try to publish something like this, we will edit it of course, and we'll need the pictures'. I said sure and I gave him the whole un-edited archive of my images from Kosovo. A while later he got back to me and said, 'This is anything but photography'. And I was a little bit pissed off; how can you say this is not photography?
Of course now I look back at those pictures, which I never showed anyone else, and I understand it was not really photography, they were just snapshots. So his reply to me made me curious, I wanted to know what real photography was and I started to learn more about it, the practice. I got a new camera and enrolled in a photography course in Lisbon. For two years I studied photography and continued taking pictures, and in 2009 I started to get my pictures published in international media.
That's how I got my start in photography. I've always been a freelancer, never worked as staff.
How did you come to focus on Papua New Guinea as a subject?
In 2011 I moved to Australia. I was checking out what I could do there, what I could photograph, and of course Papua New Guinea is one of the closest neighbours to Australia and I had dreamed of going there for a long time. When I was trying to discover what Papua New Guinea was all about by chance I came across a report about domestic, street, and social violence in the country. I was shocked because those reports – which are not accurate, they were 20 years old – stated that 50 per-cent of women are abused in Port Moresby. And in the Highlands these rates go up to 99 per-cent, so almost every woman at least once in her lifetime would experience violence.
I was shocked by these numbers, I couldn't believe it was that bad for women. So that's what triggered my interest, then I researched to see if other photographers had been there, I wanted to see the photographic evidence. But I found almost no one went there; there were some images but almost no one worked on this issue. So I decided to give it a try.
I pitched the story to several magazines, no one replied to me, no one seemed to be interested, but I went anyway.
What was your initial experience of Papua New Guinea – did you feel properly prepared?
I had never been to Papua New Guinea before, so it was a complete discovery for me and I was not really prepared to see what I saw there. My first trip was in January 2012, I spent a couple of weeks just in Port Moresby and I visited family support centres and shelters. And I spoke to abused women in their homes, I found people that would introduce me to them.
I also spoke to perpetrators. I spoke to the local Raskol gang called Dirty Dons. I went to the police station, to prison cells. What I discovered was most of the women I met there confirmed that at least once in their lifetime they were bashed by a husband or raped on the street, or by their husbands. So it was true what I read in this report.
The other surprise for me was all the men I met were not hesitant to tell me about their crimes. They would say it on record, they didn't mind me taking their pictures, didn't mind me showing their faces internationally. They didn't really care about what was going to happen to them because they told me:
"There is no justice in this country, we are not afraid of the police or being arrested. If we are, we just pay the police and they release us."
Crying Meri puts viewers in intimate proximity with very difficult material, why is that important to you?
My interest as a human rights photographer was not to show pictures of undeniable wild beauty or cultural diversity, but to document some of the ugliest aspects of the human character. With these photographs I want to provide a face to the shocking statistics. I always tried to be respectful and sensitive. I never approached women by myself, I was always with someone else. because I understand this is a very sensitive thing and you can't just take advantage of these women.
When I saw these women I started to have flashbacks to my own childhood. That's not why I wanted to do the story, but I started to have flashbacks to when my step-father was abusing my mum, he was an alcoholic. So I experienced some things that I was traumatised by as a child.
So I was supportive, I understood and I was completely with these women, and the children. You look at the children and you see how scared they are, even though many of them are now in safe places. It affects children, and I could say I know what they went through. So it was important for me personally.
How did you get yourself in a position that the women in your book felt safe telling you their stories and having their picture taken?
I was always approaching them with human rights workers, social workers, advocates, or family members. A couple of times I was at the hospitals and they would bring in women who had been the victims of rape and the doctors would say, "Do you want to talk to her?"
She was shaking and crying and the doctors told her, "The photographer is here, do you want to talk to him?" And she said yes, and she signed the consent form. But I still felt as though I was taking advantage of her. So I didn't take her picture; I asked her if I could come back in a few days and we could talk properly, and she said yes.
Most of the women wanted to share their stories, because they suffer in silence but they want their voices to be heard.
Those stories are extremely harrowing – does hearing them and witnessing the fallout take an emotional toll on you?
Of course it does. But I always try to separate my personal life from my work. Of course it affects me but I think, "Right, this is my work and this is what I have to do to show the other people". My photographs might help these women, so it is what I have to do.
I try not to be involved very deeply in their stories, to protect myself. But of course it's not easy to do. On the other hand, some of the women became my friends and I am still in touch with them.
We are also able to help sometimes, to change their lives. One woman was attacked by a stranger and he bit off her lower lip. In partnership with some of the aid agencies we were able to help her, she went through the free surgery and her face is now much better.
This helps me, I'm doing this work and I know there will be some good to come of it.
The male perpetrators of violence all seem very candid about their crimes. Why do you think that is?
The law is not working in Papua New Guinea. Men can be arrested and they are arrested, but they just pay to get out. They have their Wantok, sort of their relative or people from the same clan, who will get them out. Everyone knows everyone, and they just talk to the bosses and they get their way.
Also, the police are not reacting very well. For example, for a victim to report to the police they must come to the police station first and if it's a remote village that might take several days. Then police would say:
"Well, we are under-resourced. If you pay us for gas we will come and look for the perpetrator. Otherwise we can't."
And paying for gas can be like $25, and that's a monthly income for some of these women that sell their crops in the local market. And of course they can't afford it and that's why justice doesn't work, that's why these people are not caught and prosecuted. That's why the violence still happens.
It seems as though violence of many kinds pervades Papua New Guinea life, did you ever find yourself the victim of it?
Yes. I don't want to make a sensation out of it, but I was attacked several times while working on assignments in Papua New Guinea, most of which was just crazy people wanting to take my camera or my bag. Once I had to run from the Raskols because they wanted to take my camera, luckily I was able to get into the transport and get out of that settlement.
I was once attacked by police. There's a picture in my book that shows them beating a man suspected of sexual assault and when I was taking this picture the police started to scream at me not to take the picture. I didn't want to delete it but I put my camera down, but they were just screaming at me and they shot above my head to scare me. I was very scared, of course. Then they arrested me and forced me to format the card, and I did it.
Of course I managed to recover most of the pictures, but that was not a pleasant experience.
Once I was travelling in the Highlands and people would block the path, because they see a white man travelling in the car. They were all drunk and wanted money from us to pass, they were swinging machetes around my head. That was a little bit scary.
The project paints a very bleak picture, but you also encountered element of hope while in PNG – is there anything in particular that makes you optimistic about the country's future?
First of all, not all men are violent. I met many heroes, many good fathers and husbands that protect women and advocate among their neighbours and the male community. There are many people working to solve this issue. Of course, it is very difficult and it will take a lot of time but last year the Prime Minister of PNG, Peter O'Neill, publically apologised to all women for the situation in the country. Then they passed a family protection bill which, for the first time in PNG's history, criminalised domestic violence.
They also repealed laws from the colonial past which criminalised women accused of sorcery; basically people could use this law to kill women and nothing would happen to them. This act was repealed.
It will take a long time for these laws to start working. It is law now but it's still difficult to implement it. In the remote areas, for example, there is no presence of government or there is just one policeman, and the only difference between him and the other people is his uniform. His brother could be a perpetrator, his father could be a perpetrator, and of course he will not go against them.
But things are happening now, so I'm really hopeful it will get better.
What conclusions have you drawn from your time in PNG putting this project together?
I tried to put everything together in one piece, in a multimedia project and book form, just to say, "OK guys, this is what happens in your country – you can look at the pictures and maybe do something about it".
Some people criticise me and say I'm showing a bad image of Papua New Guinea and it's not that bad. But I didn't rape these women, I didn't brutalise them – that is what the people of PNG have done.
But there were so many people saying "we are really thankful for your work". When you see all these images in one place, in the book for example, people read it and say, "Fuck, this is really bad – We need to do something about it".
This exhibition was shown on 24 November at the Papua New Guinea Parliament House, it was supported by the Prime Minister. The book was launched there too. That says a lot, it says the Government wants to do something and I'm really happy they are using my work to change things for women in Papua New Guinea.
What do you hope the Crying Meri project will achieve?
There are only a few shelters for women in Papua New Guinea, yet every day thousands of women all around the country are abused and they have nowhere to go. So after they are raped by their husbands or relatives, or after they are accused of sorcery and tortured and are expelled from the communities, they have nowhere to go.
So they come back to their villages and they are tortured again, raped again. I really hope that maybe this can help to build new shelters for these women.
Funding serious long-form photojournalism like Crying Meri is a difficult thing these days, how did you manage it?
It was difficult. The first two trips I paid for out of my own pocket. I used my credit card. because no one was interested, and still the media is not very interested in this project. They say it is very harsh and they don't want to publish it, they don't want to upset the people who place advertisement is their magazine.
Local organisations and international NGOs that work in Papua New Guinea, they really like my photography. After the first two trips they started calling me to do some assignments for them, so I continued to work on my personal project while also collaborating with them. That's how I was funding the project after the first two trips.
As well as being released as a photo book, Crying Meri is also available in digital form and you've produced videos, audio presentations and multimedia pieces around your work in PNG. Do you see working across these varied platforms as an essential part of being an effective photojournalist in today's climate?
Definitely. Photography is good, but there are so many ways to show these things.
A big achievement for me was partnering with Duckrabbit Multimedia Production company. We produced a one-hour long radio documentary for the BBC World series and it was broadcast all around the world. People in remote villages of Papua New Guinea could hear the accounts of women. They will never go to my website, they will never buy my book, but the radio programme they would hear. I think journalist now need to work on all different platforms to get the story out, to send the message.
What's next after you've released the Crying Meri book into the world?
I'm launching this book in several countries.
I'm done with Crying Meri, it took me almost three years to produce this project. I'll still keep working on gender-based violence in PNG and the rest of the world, so I have some projects in mind that I want to be doing. I'm also covering gay rights in the Pacific, and climate change, and refuges in the Pacific.
You stop when you die, there is many things to do so I will keep working.