Posts Tagged ‘Vanuatu’

The crazy, frustrating world of ours

October 23, 2010

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I’ve been back in Sydney for some time now. With all the trips back and forth over the years, it is no longer strange to be jump between these worlds, which are so different from each other.

I keep thinking of Vanuatu. In particular I’ve been thinking of the big question of development there, the tourism development or whatever development for that matter. As I had mentioned in past posts I photographed some people and places in order to help promote a couple of the lesser known regions to tourists, in a sense to develop tourism there.

Before I left Vanuatu I managed to get a photo story into Air Vanuatu’s inflight magazine “Island Spirit”. Besides being on the airplanes the publication can be found at every single hotel and guesthouse around the bigger towns of the country. That will be a good little push for George and South West Bay, hopefully. But I keep thinking about where the potential development, where all that interaction with tourists and all the building of new guesthouses, new facilities will lead. Will it really be positive, as I perhaps naively hope? To be totally honest, the country for most part is perfect, or rather it would be perfect, if there weren’t these conflicting views that the modern, developed, “white-man” world is bringing.

Prior to leaving the island of Santo I met an interesting young anthropologist. He had a very cynical view of where things might head. History, he said showed that development had never been good for societies similar to that of Vanuatu. Urban drift, alcohol consumption, increased crime rates – these were all byproducts of the so called modernization. I could only imagine in horror how the wonderful places I’d been to might be affected if things don’t go quite as planned.

In some ways I agree with the anthropologist, but another part of me feels that at times the thinking and reasoning of academics is quite unrealistic. He suggested that it would be better to keep things as they are, the locals don’t need all this crap that we have, they’ve been living for hundreds of years without it. Agreed. But then I had been in Vanuatu long enough and had spoken to enough locals who lived in between these two worlds – the modern and the ancient and they were desperate to see more of our world, to do those things that the “white-men” get to do. Young, a good friend I made on the very remote Rah Island had worked in Port Vila – the capital of Vanuatu for a few years, he acquired a taste for TV and he desperately wanted to see different parts of the world. When I told him that what they have is special, that they don’t need to seek happiness elsewhere or to change things at home, he replied “Yes, but I want to see why it’s so special here. I want to see other countries and to be able to decide for myself.” Fair enough, I think.

He also said something that was very simple and ultimately really insightful. “The white people used to come here and say – you must all change, become modern, wear clothes, stop your rituals, worship Jesus. Now they come and say – go back to the ways of the past, become more traditional, we want to see more of your culture. What are we to do? We are very confused now! What is it exactly that you want from us?” What Young said reflects the way many young Ni Vanutu people from the islands must feel. He’s confused and somewhat frustrated, and; who’s to say that development will answer his questions? Who’s to say that Port Villa isn’t going to become the next Port Moresby (considered by many one of the least livable cities in the world)? If Port Vila is indeed heading that way, tourism will be a pretty small concern in comparison the multitude of serious problems that will arise.

And so I keep asking myself. On the one hand; what is the point of development in a place like Vanuatu? On the other hand; what is the point of preserving things, if all the young locals want to do is watch “Rambo” and “Lost”? Can they really be blamed? Are they lesser people than us that we should decide what’s good for them and what’s not? And then ultimately I ask myself; what is the point of doing what I started? Meaning helping the locals attract more tourists to their areas and in effect “develop” them.

I guess I find comfort in one story that was told to me by an American NGO worker who I met along my journey. He had the same dilemma as me at the beginning of what has now been a four year commitment to developing medical centers around the country. He once asked a more experienced NGO worker: “What is the point of what we’re doing? These people survived for so long without us. Are we just f–cking up their world, by pushing them forward and changing their ideology with what we are doing?” To this he got the following reply. “Development is inevitable, you aren’t going to be able to stop things or go back to the stone age, but things can move forward in different ways. Development can put everything on its head and basically destroy an entire society or it can be brought on more gently, more gradually and that will lead to a much smoother transition and a less disastrous result. You’re one of the people who’s trying to achieve the latter and that is a good thing.”

I hope that my involvement would put me in the latter category too. I should also mention that in Vanuatu development has so far only been “passed down” to the locals from the foreigners that have invested in the country (or before colonized it). The foreigners are in power, while the locals are mostly picking up the crumbs of the benefits of this “development” and they are often having to do this away from home, because development is centered only around the capital and the island of Espiritu Santo.

Tourism outside of the main islands, would actually put a lot of people in an entirely different position. They would not have to go outside to earn their money, they would become business owners (some already are), they would be empowered to make their decisions and whether that would be to go back to the ways of the past or to watch DVDs well, that’s a decision which I believe they deserve to make.

Well, that’s about it for this post. I needed to get those thoughts out of the system. I invite anyone who has read this post in full to share their opinions; whether cynical or not I am very interested to read what other people are thinking. What have some of you learned from your journeys or perhaps from living in countries which have seen rapid development recently?

You might not hear all that much from me in the coming weeks (though I’ll try). I’ve been busy archiving my collection with the aim of putting up on Photoshelter. I’ll also be slightly redesigning the website and the blog. Good changes are on their way. Stay tuned.

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Close to Paradise

September 23, 2010

child jumping-lagoon-Rah Lava-Banks-Vanuatu

As I mentioned in my last post about Bob, my photography to assist tourism development continued in Rah Lava and to a lesser extent the bigger, neighbouring Mota Lava.  The two islands belong to the very remote Banks group, they’re pretty much in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by endless stretches of the Pacific ocean. If you’re looking for a place to completely escape the busy, modern world and you like the sea, this is the place to escape to.

I’ve seen a lot of beautiful places over my travels and it’s not that easy to impress me anymore, however, I am a sucker for sea and mountains and whenever I find a place with both, well, I instantly fall in love. It’s not that I like to climb mountains, it’s that I love the sight of mountains rising over the sea. In my books it’s hard to come up with a better backdrop to a photograph than something like that. The beach and the lagoon at Rah Lava offered me those very kinds of backdrops, along with some fairly thick, lush greenery in the island’s interior. Besides the great scenery Rah Lava had something else to offer and that was some incredibly amazing (usually very expensive, but not here) seafood – I managed to live out my dream of eating lobster for breakfast, lunch and dinner (ok, I’m sick, I know, but it’s so tasty). Of course, to top it all off, as elsewhere in Vanuatu the people were absolutely wonderful. Quite naturally, I had to stay a while in Rah and I did, it was my longest stay in Vanuatu so far – two and a half weeks.

The reason I came to Rah was because George Thompson, the man I was helping out in South West Bay advised me to make the journey there and help out a man (in the same way – take photos for marketing) by the name of Luke Dini or Father Luke as he introduces himself (he’s a retired pastor). Both George and Father Luke were members of Vanuatu’s bungalow association, in fact they were probably the first two men to join a few decades back. The association was meant to set some sorts of standards for bungalows as well as service in those bungalows. The government was meant to help out and direct tourists to those places which were a part of the association.

It appears however that whatever project the government of Vanuatu undertakes, that project is destined for not fulfilling its potential and that has certainly been the case here. Father Luke opened his Bungalow in the seventies and he waited for fifteen years for the first foreign visitors, who happened to be a group of New Zeland Yachties needing to stay on land for just one night. After that there were no more tourists for another five years, but for whatever reason Father Luke didn’t abandon his idea of running a bungalow.

For years the place would receive just a handful of visitors a year, most of them – discount-seeking government workers who found the bungalow through the association (they seem to be the only people who turn to the association to find accommodation). From my understanding, the income was meagre, but Father Luke understood; for a small community like that of Rah Island, tourism was the only kind of business that would empower the locals and give them a chance to earn  a decent enough income. Perhaps more importantly, it could keep the youth closer to home and this is a big thing, considering that many young, ambitious Ni-Vans leave remote places like Rah in search of jobs on the more developed Efate (where the capital Vila is) and Santo (where the second capital Luganville is located). Most often the youth come back, disillusioned, disappointed in their experiences in the world outside. The money they earn on the more developed islands is small in comparison to their sky-high expenses of living away form home. Things like food and accommodation are free for them, while they stay close to home in the huts that they build, near their gardens and the sea in which they know every fishing spot. In the outside world everything has a price tag and because of foreign investment and influence, things are pretty much out of reach for the regular citizen of Vanuatu.

When the youth come back to places like Rah after a disappointing tenure in the capital, they find themselves in an unusual situation. Having been exposed to the world of televisions, DVDs and night clubs they can’t look at life in a quiet island paradise without modern facilities in quite the same way. Sometimes they come back with new skills, which they can’t use because there are no industries of any sort. They’re left in-between two words, confused, a little frustrated and dreaming of what things would be like if their fortunes turned.

Father Luke had a vision, he felt that the presence of tourists on Rah could contribute to the entire community. Starting from the canoe-taxi across the lagoon from “mainland” Mota Lava, which every visitor must take to get to the bungalow, to the fishermen, lobster and coconut crab catchers who sold their catch to his the restaurant, to the traditional dance performers and so on. Everyone would benefit, everyone interested would have a chance to earn an income which was while fairly small, went a long way on an island like Rah. I was surprised that Father Luke was able to see such a big picture, this was very unusual for a man from a remote, forgotten island in the Pacific.

It turned out that Father Luke, besides being a Church pastor in the past, was a politician in the more distant past. In fact he was second in charge of all of Vanuatu during the colonial years and secretary to the president, once Vanuatu gained its independence. I was pleasantly surprised that Father Luke resigned from his high position because he strongly opposed the increasing corruption in the higher ranks of the government. It was then only at the beginning of its growth, these days the corruption in Vanuatu is legendary.

“My wife liked living the lavish lifestyle, having chauffers and eating in restaurants, so she didn’t want me to quit. I told her this; we can continue like that, but in a few years you will lose your husband, for I cannot stand living a lie, I’ll probably die from stress, from a heart-attack or something like that. I want to keep my dignity and to be able to look in the eyes of the people back home on Rah.” These were Father Luke’s words, to which his wife replied – “Let’s go home” meaning their modest house on Rah Island.

And so in some ways Father Luke is similar to George Thompson. He is a man who puts dignity and community above money and easy life. Thankfully, unlike George, after years and years of struggle things have taken turn for the better for Father Luke’s bungalows. They probably get close to thirty visitors a year on Rah Island and although the number does not seem impressive, it is when you consider the beginnings.

Since this is a photography and travel blog, I feel obliged to tell the readers about Rah Island as a travel destination, not only a photography destination. As I mentioned, it’s the ideal place to escape the hustle and bustle of the modern, developed world. It’s still not luxurious comfort living, but there is solar power, a shower and flush toilets – things that are not so common in the outer islands of Vanuatu. Father Luke’s bungalows are pretty cheap too, not South East Asia cheap, but fairly cheap by other standards. It’s about US$30 per person per day and that includes food, which after my recommendation will include more fresh fish and the possibility to eat lobster and coconut crab whenever your heart desires.

Ok, that’s enough of that. Let’s get to the photographs. The one above is of a local kid doing a back-flip from a canoe in the lagoon.

young girl-walk through forest-bush, Rah Lava-Banks-Vanuatu

Saron returning from her family’s garden with the village dog. Vanuatu is one of the greatest agricultural societies on the planet, every family has a garden and every village family lives from one. The gardens are usually located somewhere in the bush and almost daily a family member will venture out there in order to tend to the crops or to bring some produce back home.

lobster hunding-Rah Lava-Banks-Vanuatu

Silas and Young lobster hunting. The men look for familiar spots where they’re likely to find the crustaceans. The easiest time to catch them is during the moment of feeding, which lasts for approximately half an hour in the evening. 

catching lobster-Rah Lava-Banks-Vanuatu

Silas putting one of the lobsters into the boat.

hunting-coconut crab-Rah Lava-Banks-Vanuatu

While on the subject of edible crustaceans, here’s another one – the legendary coconut crab. Near extinction in most of the world, the coconut crab is in abundance in lots of the Torba province, of which Rah and Mota Lava are a part. As you can see they grow pretty big, in fact according to Wikipedia, it is the largest-living arthropod on the planet. Those claws mean business too, Joseph is very experienced at catching and handling the creatures. Here some village youngsters watch him as he separates the coconut crab from his bate – the coconut.

tennage boy climbing-tree-Rah Lava-Banks-Vanuatu

As I mentioned in the last post, the men of Vanuatu are generally pretty amazing tree-climbers. By the time they’re teenagers they are strong enough to climb some crazy-big trees. David is one such teenager. As many other boys his age he climbs up trees to hunt (with a sling-shot) small birds and flying foxes, a delicacy in many parts of Vanatu.

father and son-reef-Rah Lava-Banks-Vanuatu

Another image of Bob and his son Jeff. I wanted to include this one here just to emphasize the incredibly clear water around the reef. I’d dreamt about being in places like this for a looong time, now I feel like I’m getting a little spoilt.

view on-Vanua Lava

The view out the front of the bungalow, just after sunset. Like I said, I’m a sucker for sea and mountains.

children in a canoe-lagoon-Rah Lava-Banks-Vanuatu

Dimitry (front) is one of Father Luke’s grandchildren. The kid is a CHARACTER, that’s for sure. He’s only four, but he’s very savvy, Tanya had to work real hard to become his buddy, he’s the type of kid who you have to constantly attract with something interesting. Dimitry is also unusually interested in his tradition (for a small child) he always tries to perform the island’s famous snake dance with the bigger boys and has a great sense of hearing.

wood carving-Rah Lava-Banks-Vanuatu

Franklin is a master wood carver, he creates some true masterpieces. Interestingly though, while Franklin learned the technique of wood-carving from his father, he learned how to carve more complex traditional works from photographs taken in a Museum of Pacific Arts somewhere in Europe. His ancestors sold a lot of the carvings to Europeans over a century ago and even the elders in his village (on Mota Lava) had never seen the carvings in the photographs.

Through a strange twist of fate, the “white men” who laid path for the destruction of the culture of the inhabitants of Rah and Mota islands over a hundred years ago also managed to save a part of it and to indirectly help revive the same part of that culture many decades later.

Franklin is a fascinating man and not only because of his determined approach towards wood-caring, it wasn’t unusual for him to go through five pieces of wood before getting things just right. Franklin is also a field worker of Vanuatu’s cultural centre, which means that he studies and records his own culture. Had I had more time I would have gladly spent hours chatting to the man, asking him endless questions.

snake dance-beach-Rah Lava-Banks-Vanuatu

The snake dance of Rah has become famous all over Vanuatu. It is usually performed at weddings and special occasions, but these days it’s become a regular performance for tourists too. I have to say that usually I think stuff like that is lame, but I’ve reconsidered that approach in Vanuatu and particularly with the snake dance. We watched it about 4 times and every time it was pretty cool.

dancer in makeup-snake dance-Rah Lava-Banks-Vanuatu

A dancer having his body and face painted for the snake dance.  I don’t know if anyone who is not part of the dance group has been behind the scenes for this dance before, back in the day seeing the preparation was strictly taboo. The paint used, as well as the material of the costumes were the performers’ secret and if anyone were to find out that secret they may have very well been killed, such was the kastom law.

view from-Rock of Rah

A view from the rock of Rah, one of the most accessible high view points I’ve ever come across (you can get there in about 10 minutes from the village). No photograph will do it justice. From the rock you have a 360 degree of the surroundings and they are magnificent.

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I couldn’t resist including another shot of children in a canoe in the lagoon. That place was ideal for photography – dramatic mountain backdrop on one side and the setting sun on the other, doesn’t get much better than that.

That’s all for now folks.

Hanging out with Bob

September 23, 2010

Bob-on-top-of-the-Rock-of-Rah-Banks-islands

The rhythm of life and the rhythm at which I’ve been shooting in Vanuatu has been completely different when compared to most of the places in which I’ve photographed. It’s probably closest to (my home country) Belarus, because everyday I usually only get to shoot a few images and deal with just one or two people. What this also means, as it did in Belarus is that I get to make more meaningful relationships, even friendships with those who I photograph. Bob, the man in the shot above is one of such new friends.

As I’ve mentioned in the last post, I’ve decided to volunteer my photographic services to some local folks interested in developing tourism in their regions. The first was George and the community in Southwest Bay, Malekula. The next was Father Luke Dini (more on him in a future post) and his community of Rah Island in the remote Banks Islands group. As was the case in Southwest Bay, taking these sorts of “promotional” shots (highlighting some of the culture and the natural beauty of the region) is an excuse to get into some great photo opportunities. You get to see people in their traditional costumes (something you mostly only see in festivals, dances or special occasions) observe what they do day to day and basically you can be a kid and play around with photography.

Back to Bob. If this whole thing was indeed one big chance to play, then Bob was the perfect “play partner”. The man pretty much matched my enthusiasm to make photos with his enthusiasm to take part in them. Get on top of a dangerous, narrow rock? No problem! (see top shot) Go spear fishing? Easy! Climb up a banyan tree? How high? That was Bob’s approach.

Since our first shoot, Bob and I have been having small kava nights, along with Young (the bungalow owner’s son and another great new friend) and some other boys. It is during kava drinking that a foreigner in Vanuatu has a chance to really get to know the locals. I suppose it’s a little like going to the pub in the West, except there’s no chance of some drunkard coming up and asking “What the f– are you looking at?” to start a fight.

During our kava nights I’ve learned that Bob is a truly fascinating character. He’s an athlete – he runs 100m in 10.97 seconds (despite smoking), he’s active in all sorts of cultural activities (because he loves his culture), he’s travelled around Vanuatu more than most of his fellow villagers, oh and he’s a shaman healer. The latter is the reason for why he travels so much. Magic (good and bad) is something that’s considered very real in Vanuatu and Bob’s job is to lift curses as well as cure people that have been affected by the bad (black) magic. He does this with the help of special plants and a little magic of his own. I can’t testify whether there’s any truth to any of the magic business, but the stuff sure makes for great stories by the evening bonfire on the beach, where we drink the kava.  Anyway, to the photos.

climbing-up-a-banyan-tree-Rah-Lava-Banks-Islands

When I was younger (and cared more) physical prowess and general machismo was a big part of my life. At school we’d compete to see who has the best body, who jumps the highest, who’s the strongest etc. A lot of the men in Vanuatu would put most of us folks from the so-called developed world to shame (even ones who think they are something special). Bob is probably the best example of one of these “hyper-masculine” men. The dude climbs trees better than a monkey, (as I mentioned) runs like a leopard, swims like a fish and he’s built like a freakin Greek statue. Sometimes hanging out with someone like that makes you feel rather inferior. Well, if I have a son one day, I’ll make sure that he can climb trees like Bob. 🙂

hunting-fish-with-a-bow-and-arrow-Rah-Lava-Banks-Islands

The men of Rah Island (and boys) are experts at something that you’re not likely to see in too many parts of the world. When the tide is low, the crystal clear water around the reef allows them to see the fish and to shoot them with the same kind of bow and arrow that they hunt bats and birds with. One of the festivals on Rah Island includes this kind of traditional “fishing” competition, where a whole bunch of fish are rounded up with a long net and the competitors shoot as many as they can.

The little dude in this image is Bob’s son – Jeff. He seemed like such a quiet boy when I first met him. Boy was I wrong. Well, he is quiet in the sense that he doesn’t talk too much, but the kid is a bundle of energy. At 5 years of age he climbs coconut trees just like his dad, runs around like crazy and spits small berries from bamboo tubes at passing birds and bats. Quite a character.

diving-for-fish-Rah-Lava-Banks-Islands

There are deeper parts around the reef and in those places the men dive with the good, old “lastic” (the rubber and wood underwater gun). Here I went down a couple of meters to follow Bob, as he turned over stones behind which the fish might have been hiding.

spear-fishing-Rah-Lava-Banks-Islands

Unlucky day for one fish. Bob swims towards the surface with his catch.

canoe-in-a-rough-sea-Rah-Lava-Banks-Islands

When the tide is high, it’s usually time to take out the canoe. The sea was pretty rough on the day of this shoot and I could only get this particular shot from a spot where my feet could still touch the ground. As I had hoped, the Aquatech housing has opened up a whole lot of opportunities shooting around water. Without it I would have been really limited and would be kicking myself in these situations. More images around water to come soon. That’s all for now though.

South West Bay, Malekula – Where pristine nature meets ancient traditions

September 21, 2010

Traditional-boy-near-waterfall-South-West-Bay-Malekula

A few posts ago I mentioned that  I got involved in helping some locals with the promotion of their regions as tourism destinations through my photographs.  In fact I not only ended up doing the photos, but also dished out quite a lot of advice, since the people on most islands of Vanuatu (besides two main ones – Vila and Santo), well they don’t have much of an idea of what foreigners actually want and their misconceptions could not be further from the truth. That is of course very understandable, since their culture and general approach to life could not be much more different from that of “white people” or most foreigners in general.

For the moment and likely for at least five years or more, most of outer islands of Vanuatu (as all the islands outside of Efate where the capital is located are called) are pretty darn far from being “real” tourist destinations. I mean this in the sense that they are not particularly suitable for those who want to relax in comfort, eat well, drink or party. Outside of about three major towns, there’s no electricity, running water is very uncommon and perhaps the most painful thing, at least for me, is that the locals, for most part could not care less about what they eat. There’s no food culture, which equals to no tasty local cuisine as you get in most places around Asia or elsewhere where there is a food culture.

All the minuses aside, Vanuatu offers something that few places offer these days and that is untouched, pristine and absolutely stunning nature. On top of that the people (the Ni-Vanutatu or Ni-Vans, as they call themselves) are some of the most charismatic, friendly and likeable on the planet. There’s also no hassle, no one attempts to sell you crap that you don’t need, no one tries to trick you or rip you off. As much as I love places like India, Nepal and Indonesia, it gets pretty annoying when people constantly see you as a money bag and come up with the most ridiculously creative ways of making you part with your money. You just don’t have that in Vanuatu, at least not yet.

Besides the already mentioned virtues, there’s of course the culture. As I also mentioned in a past post, the culture is undeniably disappearing, but it hasn’t disappeared yet, at least not everywhere. And while there are still places where you can experience this incredible culture in at least some shape or form, you have to go. In some very strange way it appears that the foreign interest in the culture of Vanuatu’s islands has made a lot of  Ni-Vans realize just how precious their culture is. At the end of the day, it may very well be tourism which will help ensure that not all is completely lost.

But let me now get specifically to South West Bay. It is one of two regions which I photographed with the aim of helping promote it. As you might have already gathered I am also ready to promote it through my blog and the internet in general, but that doesn’t mean that I’m simply going to sugar-coat everything. I’ll tell the truth, and in this case the truth is good enough to get people to come.

My idea to do this little project came after I met a good man by the name of George Thompson. George was born and grew up in the very remote South West Bay, Malekula. Through some visionary thoughts, hard work and twists of fate he was able to become the leading tour operator and the head of the tourism department  in his region. This role even gave George an opportunity to travel to Europe for a tourism expo in the late nineties. He saw places that very few Ni-Vans get to see – France, Germany, Denmark. While he loved the experience, travelling abroad made him realize that things back home were not as bad as some of his fellow countrymen had imagined. Sure, Vanuatu is a poor country by Western standards, but paradoxically there are no homeless people and no one begs for money or food. On top of that the air is fresh and the culture is rich.

When George got back, he had become even more inspired and passionate about showing off his region to the occasional tourists. By 2000 things were looking good, tourist numbers were slowly growing and  the income that tourism provided made people’s lives just a little easier. However, things in Vanuatu can change rather quickly. Corruption and “mismanagement” of funds at the higher level are common and around 2004 the nationwide tourism company “Island Safaris” the branch of which George led successfully in South West Bay went down due to “mismanagement”. Tourism numbers started to decline faster than they rose, without the support of a bigger company there was no way that George or the locals could market their region to the outside world. To add even more pain to the dilemma, the airport of South West Bay was sporadically closing and opening, thus making it harder for anyone to get to the area. In a couple of years there were virtually no tourists visiting South West Bay.

Because of George’s past friendships and connections he was able to get a good job, managing a small resort in Port Villa. He had a relatively easy life and a high salary, by Vanuatu standards. George worked at the resort for a couple of years, but soon he became haunted by the thoughts of home. He was away from his family and he knew that while he was having it easy, the people of South West Bay were struggling. He felt pain and guilt and before long he got back to South West Bay with the hopes of reviving the small, but once stable tourism industry that he helped build.

Fast forward to 2010 and things are not looking so bright. Over the past few years tourism has still been near non-existent. Instead of helping bring up the lifestyle of others, George found himself in a similar situation as them. He didn’t tell me his story when I met him, he’s not the kind of person to whine or complain about life, that doesn’t seem to be part of the Ni-Van mentality in general. Instead I got all of this information out of him during the two weeks that I spent in the area, this of course made me even more motivated to help the man in at least some way.

The particular idea about me making some photos came after George showed me some of the past photos of the places in his region sent to him by tourists. According to his stories, the places were beautiful and the people in those places fascinating and so when I saw images that were let’s say not very inspiring I felt a little uninspired myself. I know that I’m not the only one who gets excited about a place by seeing a single beautiful image of it and so with that thought in mind I suggested that we create a little tourism marketing campaign. The campaign would be a combination of documentary images of some of the more photogenic activities, places in the region, as well as some set up shots of the locals dressed in their traditional costumes in their beautiful surroundings.

For me personally the shoots were a reward in themselves. I have been shooting documentary stuff for years and I’m always interested to be placed into new photogenic situations. As far as the set up shots, it was in a sense even more fun to do them. I’d made a couple of short fiction films while at uni and photo shoots of this sort, while fairly new to me were in a some ways similar to making short films. In this case you could say that the shoots were a blend of fiction and documentary (the line was very thin). Our “actors” had to be themselves, they simply had to be in specific locations, wearing costumes which they used to wear in the past and still wear during celebrations  or as was customary for the chiefs and some village members while greeting visitors (i.e. tourists). The dances, which are a big thing in the region are performed in similar outfits, (usually more elaborate) so all in all the images we created showed what was most visually exciting about the region of South West Bay and something that the visitors would get a chance to see themselves.

And so let me get to the photos. This is a just a portion of the images I created, you can see more HERE and in the coming months. The image at the top is of one of the boys (Pillison was his name)  who I had seen performing the kastom dance at a pig killing ceremony a couple of days earlier. I wanted to photograph him in a similar costume in front of the waterfall, one of the hidden little gems of the area.

Boys-in-a-canoe-South-West-Bay-Malekula

Pillison was a great model so we got him and his little mate into a canoe and asked them to row along the shoreline a little. For full impact, I expect this or a variation of this image to be shown in a bigger medium than the 450 pixel photo on a blog. You can get a better view by clicking on the image (to make it larger). Mountains and sea always look dramatic to me and more so when they’re bigger.

Chief-Ayar-in-the-bush-South-West-Bay-Malekula

This is Chief Ayar again. I blogged about him HERE. I took quite a few shots of this fascinating man. I expect that some of them will be used in something like a brochure, while I’d like to use others, like this one along with images that make up a story, which, if things work out will hopefully appear in some of Vanuatu’s tourism magazines.

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A moment from the pig-killing ceremony. During my stay in South West Bay, two chiefs “upgraded” their ranks. Two pigs were killed and meat was shared with the villagers.

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Every pig killing is preceded by a traditional or kastom dance. Only certain individuals are allowed to take part. The young are once again being taught the steps of the dances as part of a cultural revival in South West Bay.

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For those who like hiking, there’s a fascinating hike to the creepy ancient burial site in the hills above the village of Melmes. The guide, a young chief by the name of John was very passionate in telling us about the history of his people. Below those skulls is a mass burial hole, but before the bodies were placed there they were put onto a high rock. Because John’s tribe thought that they descended from the eagle, they had a little custom associated with this bird. They believed that if the eagle were to eat the eyes of the dead body (when it was placed on the high rock), that person would go directly to paradise, if not, well they go to hell. When I asked John whether many of the dead actually had they’re eyes eaten and went to Paradise, he replied with an uneasy smile – “No, most of our ancestors went to hell.”

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Mat-weaving is one of the women’s main occupations. They weave mats for home as well as for sale in big towns like Port Villa in order to generate a small income that usually contributes to the ridiculously high school fees they must pay for their children each year.

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Another documentary image taken inside of the village bakery. The baker is cleaning out the ash before putting the bread inside the oven. Once I am home, near a fast connection I’ll try to post some video that I did in this very atmospheric little spot.

Old-chief-South-West-Bay-Malekula

George’s uncle is one of the highest chiefs in South West Bay, people like him are an “attraction” in their own right, they are living history and chatting to folks like that is always a highlight of any trip. George’s uncle (his name escapes me, it was a long traditional name, not a Western one) had never had a white man in his house before, so he felt a little nervous when I came to photograph him there. He still had reservations about white people in general because in his youth the presence of a white man was usually bad news. He signed to me that they used to kill the locals by making the cutting of a neck gesture with his hand.

My presence I was sure left him pretty puzzled. I was using the off camera flash in a soft box, which meant that I’d click the button on the camera and the flash would go off (away from the camera). George later confirmed that the flash was indeed a source of bewilderment and amusement as his uncle told fellow elders “This white man came to take my picture. He pressed the button in one place and then this bright light would go off in another place! He’d talk to his woman, she’d press something on the thing that makes the light and then the same thing would happen again, over and over!”

The-coastline-South-West-Bay-Malekula

South West Bay is stunningly beautiful. I am not a landscape photographer, but even I was seduced by the scenery of dramatic, red, cliffs and greenery lining the shore. There are much more scenes for the landscape photographer and if I was one of them I’d probably stay even longer.

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More beautiful nature  (click the image for larger size) and another youngster in a canoe. This is in fact a lagoon about a half hour’s walk from George’s house. Beautiful place, warm people and you only have to dip the net in for a few minutes before you catch fish. Once the traditional owner of this area builds a thatched bungalow, this will be a great place to spend a couple of days.

Trees-at-sunset-South-West-Bay-Malekula

Just a few hundred meters from the lagoon, you come to this place, which made me feel a little like I was in a forest in Europe. The setting sun made for a perfect lighting scenario and I couldn’t resist making a couple of exposures.

Some final words: For those who are into photography and interested in visiting Vanuatu there are some good news. Through working with me George learned a good bit about what sort of stuff more serious photographers might be interested in. In other words he knows that we don’t like cheesy pictures of kids giving us the thumbs up (very common in Vanuatu) or people standing with their hands by their sides like soldiers before a march. He also understands that sometimes real life is the most fascinating subject of all, so he can help the photographers get access to shoot stuff like that.

I might be doing a workshop in Vanuatu at some stage and if I do there will only ever be one. However for the more independent minded or more advanced photographers, I highly recommend you to get over to South West Bay and to let George show you around. I’ve only scratched the surface here. There’s reportedly a great reef for those who love shooting underwater (I had left my housing near the airport not knowing this) you can go on a wild pig hunt with a couple of dudes with bush knives and a pack of dogs. There are more traditional villages and fascinating elders in the mountains and some folks shoot river fish with bows and arrows.

Oh and did I mention that the whole thing will be extremely affordable, especially by Vanuatu standards? Whatever you pay will go directly to the community, there are no middle-man organizations (as is often the case when you do things through bigger companies). I don’t get anything out of it apart from satisfaction in knowing that I helped someone.  I’ll post more on the prices and the possibilities at a later stage, but if anyone is already interested, feel free  to contact me via this blog or the email on my website.

Fishing on Maskelyne Island

August 31, 2010

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Those who have been following my blog for a while know that I have a bit of a photographic obsession with fishermen and things related to fishing. It’s not that I like fishing myself (I find it a little boring), it’s that there’s something about the visual aesthetic in the things around fishing that appeals to me. All those gadgets – boats, canoes, nets, sails, oars. Of course I do love eating fish and whenever you’re photographing fishermen, there’s a good chance that there will be at least some fish for dinner. If you ask me, that’s a great bonus.

Because so much of Vanuatu is along the coast, one would think that fishing would be done in every single coastal village. While there’s certainly a lot of fishing, it’s not quite as widespread as I imagined. Nevertheless one of the places I visited – Maskelyne Island, also known as Ulleveo was pretty ideal. Here people mostly fish with small canoes and the process involves a lot of rowing, casting fishing nets and even the occasional use of the local spear gun called “lastic”, probably because essentially it’s just a piece of elastic tied to a piece of wood. I’m proud to say that I tried it out and even managed to spear one fish.

Anyway, the process promised to be pretty interesting and photogenic and I had been dying to use my underwater housing to photograph something besides coral and fish (no offence to coral and fish, it’s just that these subjects just bored me eventually). I went on two little fishing trips – one with a bunch of local children, the other with a few guys around my age. The children were spear-fishing and unfortunately they didn’t go for very long because the sea was a little rough, so rough that I almost floated away because of not initially wearing my fins.

The older “boys” technique included the use of a net. They’d spread it out and then someone would start swimming and making strong splashes in the water in the hopes that the fish will frantically swim towards the net and get caught in it. Once in the net the fish would meet their doom as one of the chaps would swim towards it, spear it, extract it and put it into the canoe. At the end of the trip guys didn’t get much fish, turns out I was always in the wrong place while taking photos. I’d scare the fish and cause them to flee in the wrong direction. To console my fishing mates I decided to buy them a bucket of kava, which they appreciated greatly.

About the photos, these aren’t my greatest photographic achievements, but these are the better shots of what I’ve created so far using my Aquatech housing. The big problem was that to shoot something like this (at least the underwater part) truly effectively one needs to know what the heck is going on, what to expect and I didn’t know either. I’ve learned though and my next destination – the remote Banks islands will hopefully provide me with plenty more opportunities to photograph this sort of stuff.

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One of the main reasons I got the housing was to get shots like these. What I mean is shots taken from the level of the water. It’s not underwater stuff, but without the housing you just ain’t getting a shot like this one.

In this particular scene the younger boys are getting ready to jump back into the boat after doing some spear fishing.

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One of the youngsters taking aim at a fish with a “lastic”. Boys start doing this sort of stuff from a very early age. By their teens they are incredibly good swimmers and I guess they’re not bad at shooting either.

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The older guys looking around for the right spot to cast the net. They have a few favourite spots which they come back to all the time and they can recognize them without GPS or anything alike. Another interesting example of a close bond between people and land or in this case water.

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Spreading the net for the fish to become tangled in. I like how the light penetrates through the water, creating a fairly dramatic effect. The thing that I’ve learned so far about light and underwater photography is that – the more light you have the better.

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Often the fish hide in underwater burrows and amidst the coral. The fishermen know where the best potential hiding spots are and always make sure to check them out.

A note on the Aquatech housing. I’ve been using the housing for long enough now to form some kind of an opinion on it. I have to say that it’s pretty cool, though there is a bit of a learning curve as in how to get the most out of it and how not to accidentally destroy your camera. I almost killed my 5D MKII because there was a little knob which got loose. I didn’t realize that water could come through because of that. Luckily it didn’t get too loose and the results weren’t disastrous,  there was simply some leakage. Still, the camera began to act strange and though it’s back to normal now, I can only hope that some vital part inside it is not meeting a slow death by salt water as I type this.

All in all the housing works as it should. It’s great to have a port for a zoom lens (24-70mm) that allows it to be used as a zoom. Though I shot most of the stuff as wide as possible, I did need to get closer without physically getting closer a few times and you aren’t exactly going to be able to change lenses under water and so, the zoomable port is a huge bonus.

I will write much more about the housing later. I think it’s a good product and for the price range it seems like there’s nothing really better, so I think there’s some more valuable info I can share with anyone searching to get a housing for similar use.

Chief Ayar Randes

August 29, 2010

Chief Ayar Randes portrait

I mentioned Chief Ayar in my last post. I also mentioned that he is one of the favourite characters that I’ve come across through all of my journeys. Chief Ayar is a unique man, he is sometimes considered strong headed, very opinionated and one might even call him a little cunning.

Two things that matter to Ayar more than anything in the world are his land and his culture. He has needed to possess at least a little of the mentioned qualities in order to hold onto these in the quickly modernizing, changing world which swallows and absorbs everything in its path without waiting.

For Ayar, his land is much more than just land. He believes that the spirit of his people came from it, from the thick forest, mountain rivers, creeks and some of the most fertile soil on the planet. Ayar is of that land and the land is a continuation of him, it’s can’t be separated, like an organ vital to the body.

Ayar realizes that others might want to take his land away. Vanuatu’s infamous land disputes are a testament to that and in order to basically not get screwed, you have to be ready to fight and to protect your land and your rights. Before the fighting was done with weapons, now one must play by the rules of the modern world. Ayar has negotiated with the government to create a law which ensures that his land will never be sold and the only way it can be transferred is from generation to generation, just as it has been for as long as anyone can remember.

Should there be any doubt or dispute in the future, Ayar’s children, who have all been given modern, Western education will be able to stand up for their land. The youngest is studying law, the middle is a director of a trading company, both in Port Villa (Vanuatu’s capital) and the eldest owns a small shop, in a village close to the ancestral land.

It is the eldest son to whom Ayar has entrusted the task of keeping the family history and his tribe’s culture alive. He told me that he once pulled the boy aside and said “You’ve had enough white-man education, now it’s time to learn about kastom (the word used for tradition/culture in Vanuatu).” Ayar taught  his son how to beat the traditional, wooden gong, how to dance, how to paint masks, how to prepare ceremonies and sacrifice pigs.

It’s hard to tell whether kastom will indeed stay alive for generations, but the pattern which the culture follows in parts of Vanuatu defies reason, or at least it defies the reasoning of most white-men, as the locals refer to almost all Westerns. On Malekula, the home island of Ayar there were still cases of Cannibalism and tribal warfare until late 60s. Then, as majority of the population was finally converted to Christianity, the natives suddenly turned away from their past and at times even became ashamed of it. The Church did their best to discourage anything that would remind the people of their bygone  “savage” ways, calling grade-taking and ceremonial pig killing, which were vital parts of the culture for so long – sinful.

By mid seventies, in South West Bay, the area of Malekula island, where chief Ayar’s ancestral land is, most traces of what once made the  smol nambas, the formerly fierce cannibal warriors of the region distinct and unique was almost gone. That is until Ayar, inspired and influenced by the knowledge passed on to him by his father decided to hold a grade-taking ceremony, to kill a pig, to become a chief and to begin the revival of the smol nambas culture in South West Bay.

Fascinatingly, before Ayar decided to become a chief he was already a prominent Church member, which meant that he had close ties to the very institution which tried their best not to revive, but to rid the natives off of  their history and culture. This didn’t seem right to Ayar and after the pig killing that made him Chief, he went to the Church to pray.  This move was intentional, Ayar wanted to show that Church and kastom could go hand in hand, that they could co-exist. The way Ayar saw it, both were about love,  peace and respect for other human beings.

The Presbyterian Church had a different opinion and decided to “discipline” Ayar by keeping him away from Sunday services for three months. Unshaken and still convinced that Church and kastom could and should co-exist, Ayar went up into the hills to build a church there for the few unconverted or (semi-converted) tribes. Once the church was completed he started attending the services in nothing more than a namba (a banana leaf around the private member). This was a big no-no once again, but no one could discipline Ayar up in the hills. Again he wanted to show  how Church and culture could co-exist, but to his surprise the mountain natives quickly exchanged their nambas for “white man clothes” and began to move away from their ancient traditions without ever really looking back. Unknowingly and unwillingly chief Ayar pushed the only remaining purely traditional people away from their history and culture.

This story would have a very sad ending, if it were to end this way and in most cases, in most countries, it would have. But let’s get back to what I said about the way that the pattern which the culture follows in Vanuatu makes no sense. Interestingly and strangely enough, Ayar’s pig killing and grade-taking gained a small wave of support among some of the older chiefs. It’s as if he reminded them that what they had was too precious to lose, even if it was considered sinful by the Church, and so began a small revival of the old ways, minus the cannibalism or the warfare.

Today South West Bay, Malekula remains a fascinating destination and the main “draw-card” for the few visitors that ever make it there is undoubtedly the culture, which still stubbornly holds on with its last breath, thanks to people like chief Ayar Randes. The younger generation have also recently caught on to the fact that there’s value in what their ancestors have passed on to them, not only spiritual, but commercial value. The few tourists that do make it to South West Bay are willing to pay to watch traditional dances and ceremonies and as a result new festivals and cultural programs are in the plans.

It’ll be interesting to observe which turn the culture of South West Bay takes in the next couple of decades. Will the youth continue to see the value in their past or will they be seduced to leave the small villages of South West Bay for “greener pastures” in Vanuatu’s capital and commercial centre – Port Villa? Will the traditions remain true to their original intentions or will they continue to exist purely as a form of entertainment or cultural experiences for the visitors? One thing for sure is that Ayar Randes is not very keen on festivals or ceremonies which stray away from the “correct” way of doing things, which don’t follow the tribal law laid out by his distant ancestors. He loves the idea of tourism coming and helping the locals understand the value of their culture, but Ayar won’t take what’s sacred to him and simply make a show of it all. The question is – will it matter when he’s gone? No one knows and perhaps for now, there’s no reason to think too hard about the future, but rather to try and catch the present, what still remains of the past.

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Chief Ayar showing some moves from traditional ceremonial dances. Every ceremony has its own distinct dance moves, costumes, masks and gong beats. Here he dances by the remains of his “Nakamal”. The same word used these days for Kava bars was initially used for a chief’s sacred house – a place of great spiritual significance for any village. Chief Ayar’s sacred house was destroyed during a hurricane a couple of years ago and it’s been one of his main goals to rebuild it, the same way that it was before.

If you click on the photo to make it bigger you might also notice that behind Ayar is a pole with a face painted on it. The pole has spiritual value, but what’s perhaps most intriguing about this pole, is the way that one has to obtain a right to paint certain symbols on it. The law that dictates this is like an ancient system of copyright. Each new adopter of a particular symbol/pattern has to pay the original owner/inventor or his descendent with pigs.

through the bush with dogs

Ayar loves walking through the forest (or bush as its called in Vanuatu) which falls on his land. He tells me that he isn’t really happy when he’s in the village. The village is community land, he doesn’t feel home there and so every day he walks through the bush, to feed his soul in a sense. He talks about how much he loves the fresh breeze, the smells of various plants, which he occasionally tears off and rubs against each other to demonstrate (the smell). His three dogs (two pictured here) help him chase off any wild pigs, which like to come and make a mess of his crops.

coconut drinking

The last time I saw a person so passionate and proud of what their land produced was back in Belarus, in my grandmother’s countryside house. It’s interesting how ultimately there are all these similarities amongst people regardless of where we travel.

Ayar opened up a couple of coconuts for Tanya and I before he masterfully chopped the top off of his own. This was indeed one of the best tasting, sweetest coconuts I ever tried.

Elder Ayar in Church

I was pretty shocked when I saw Ayar in this “white-man outfit”. I joked with him, saying that I didn’t recognize him from the man in the namba I had seen a couple of days ago in the bush.  To this day Ayar remains closely associated with the Church, in fact he is one of the senior and most respected Church elders in the village of Wintua, which borders with his land. Being what I could describe as a devout non-believer myself (I believe in God, I just don’t believe in names of God or religions) I had a few very interesting conversations with Ayar. At the end of the day it was interesting to know that he’d gladly leave Church and go back to the bush, which is actually what he is planning to do in the next couple of years. When I asked him the pressing question of “What would you chose – Church or kastom?” he replied “kastom – it is my life, my history, my culture.