Splendid isolation: Guy Needham

Freelance photographer Guy Needham travels to the little-seen parts of the globe to document unique cultures, and for this year's Auckland Festival of Photography he turns his lens on Papua New Guinea's indigenous Huli. A people unknown to the rest of the world until the 1930s, the Huli have a unique culture that has remained undisturbed for the good part of 1000 years. Needham travelled to the New Guinea highlands to meet the Huli people, study their culture and document their vibrant practices. All of which can be seen in The Huli exhibition at the Allpress Gallery in Freeman's Bay, June 3–4. The photographer talks to D-Photo's Point-Shoot blog about his travels.

D-Photo: Can you briefly tell as what The Huli exhibition is all about?

Guy Needham: The Huli is my tribute to a 1000-year old tribe in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, one that I spent time with in 2013. It reveals both the finery and the secrets of a tribe that has changed little since its ‘discovery’ by Europeans until the 1930s. The series is predominantly portraits that endeavour to tell a story of a proud, strong, male-dominated society, inevitably drawing on my favourite themes of identity and place.

What sort of things did you to prepare for the project and what sort of gear did you take?

Knowing that I was going to be there during the wet season, it was not going to be a five-star holiday. Desk research and liaison with Papua New Guinea Tourism put me on the right path. There was a lot of flexibility involved, so while I made ‘plans’ in advance more often than not they changed. Vaccinations, Gore-tex, Tok Pisin vocab and checking every lens seal were high on the 'to do' list. I took a Canon 5D Mark III and 60D, my Ls – 100mm, 70-200mm, 16-35mm and 24-105mm – plus trusty tripod and filters.

Were you travelling with anyone else in Papua New Guinea?

I travelled alone but met up with guides to get the lay of the land. In some cases in the Highlands they acted as drivers as well as translators, but once I was where I was supposed to be it was relatively easy to ask for directions.

Do you recall your first encounter with the Huli?

Yes, at the side of the Tari airstrip I was introduced to the local fortune teller who was there to meet a friend on the same flight. Here he was, dressed in nothing more than 'arse grass', a cassowary quill through his nose, bilum bag over his shoulder and an everyday ‘half wig’, standing in front of the most modern of contraptions – a real juxtaposition.

Did you run into any resistance to your presence as on outsider wanting to take photographs?

I actually found the opposite, especially in the Highland villages – partly because I was being shown around by one of the Huli and partly because I’m a dark-skinned guy who had a shiny white beard. The kids were fascinated although a little shy, and when they saw that I meant them no harm they suddenly all wanted to be models. I don’t take photos of anyone who doesn't want their photo taken, and when I got back I sent prints to the guides to pass back to the villagers.

How long were you there shooting and studying their culture – did you interact with the Huli much, or was it more hands-off observation?

I was in the Highlands for two weeks and felt quite privileged to be able to stay with the Huli. I ate with them, slept with them, watched them sow the crops and shared sugar cane with them. The boar’s tusks they gave me mean a lot personally, and I felt like they truly welcomed me into their isolated part of the world.

What would you say was your most memorable experience while there?

It would have to be sitting with the Huli during the lengthy preparation for the end-of-the-year sing-sing (traditional dance). They let me watch and ask questions as they donned their ceremonial wigs, added feathers, adjusted hornbil necklaces are smeared their body with oils. Then out came the distinctive Huli face paint. First a white undercoat, then a clay ochre base and finally earthly red highlights, all applied with meticulous detail while looking into a cracked compact mirror. They were magical moments of preening that were matched only by the celebrations that followed.

Can you tell us a bit about the ceremonial wigs the Huli people are known for?

The Huli’s ceremonial wigs are elaborately decorated hairpieces, and it all begins at an early age. At 16 a boy is separated from his family to spend 18 months with a spiritual teacher as part of his initiation into manhood. There, far from the temptations of the opposite sex, he learns the secrets of wig-making, including how to make his hair grow faster.

What I saw – and this was real and not a “for tourists” event – was the teacher on the banks of a stream casting spells upon the water. The boys then ritualistically sprinkled the water on their head to make their hair grow faster. I was shown the special ‘sleeping log’ that they rest on at night so their magically-imbued hair is not touched. Once their hair is a certain length it is cut off to make a wig, and the process is repeated but only while he is still a bachelor. The hair is collected over time to form the base of a wig to which flowers, coloured mud, bones and Bird of Paradise feathers are added. Each wig – including all of the ones I saw – is different; an individually styled expression of its proud wearer.

Do you have an image from the series you are most proud of?

The close-up image of the man preparing for the sing-sing, where I captured the moment he is applying the finishing touches of make-up (below), is the image I am most proud of. Already it has featured in international travel magazines and websites.

What do you hope people will take away from your exhibition?

I hope people will appreciate how special tribes like this are in the age of connectivity, and that sometimes splendid isolation can lead to the most amazing cultures.

What's next for you?

Still to be decided at this stage, but I know I’ll get inspiration from the festival and the approaches that others take to their work.

What other exhibition in the festival are you looking forward to?

Obviously the Cultural Memory symposium – a real treat having Ans and Chris there – plus I find I get inspired by artists who highlight beauty in our own subcultures, especially street photography. Great South Road in the Fringe Festival is one that I’m not going to miss.

The Huli exhibition runs June 3-14 at the Allpress Gallery in Freeman's Bay, and you can see more of Guy's work at his website.