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Beauty is relative, and relatives are beautiful

The galleries from native Papuans highlight this dispatch from the Digital Village

There could scarcely be anything more beautiful than the birds of paradise of New Guinea, believes David Attenborough, the British naturalist and documentarian. The males are blooms of color, festoon and finery, and they display and prance and preen about the branches to attract the duller-hued females.

To see the Huli men dressed in wigs that bud with the brilliant recurving filaments of bird feathers, it might seem they would exhibit the same allure, the same glamour, to their women. Yet when we give an HP digital camera to Mathar, Paul Poki’s first wife, and ask her to go off and photograph what is beautiful in her world, she returns with no images of bright feathers, birds, decorated men, or even the luminous flowers that riot through her village.

She takes pictures of her family, of the orderly women’s house, of female friends harvesting coffee, corn and pumpkins. And she takes pictures of pigs.

Paul Poki has a different take. In the soft matutinal light of an exquisitely beautiful Highlands day he makes pictures of wild sunflowers, hibiscus, and roses, planted as ornamentals around his sweet potato fields. He takes a picture of a grand view from the top of a hill, and of a running creek. His aesthetic sensibilities in many ways mirror those of us visiting from the outside, until he heads out for a second round.  This time he returns with images of the high mud wall of his protection trench, his taro crop, and one of his mother’s grave, who died in 1988.

The extensive family
There is no end to the fascination on both sides of the cultural fence as Paul’s family goes about creating images that are beautiful, important, and even unsightly in their lives and eyes. Ope, Paul’s seven-year-old son, takes 57 shots of his buddies, and even has one turn the camera on him.

Hapo, the 60-something uncle, takes a still-life of stones laid alongside the path, saying they are beautiful because they make the fields fertile, and are the types of rocks used for cooking a mu-mu, the barbecue pig feast prepared with an earthen oven.

And James, the teen, shutters his lens at pandanus trees and the reeds used to make men’s skirts and roofs for huts. He also makes a portrait of his grandmother, and two of his brothers.

A theme throughout is familial commemoration. When we ask that they photograph a person each considers beautiful, they take group portraits of their sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and wives, rarely distinguishing an individual.  Life is communal here, with males crowding into a men’s hut to eat and sleep, and women the same in their own (which from a small sampling generally seems to be the tidier quarters, even though often shared with the family pigs).

When we ask why most images are of kin, each speaks about how he wants to hold a moment in time of those important to them. Mathar especially takes pictures of children and remarks that they will quickly grow up and she wants to remember how they looked as little ones. Paul and Hapo primarily take photos of the adults and talk of how they will die, at any time, and they want images to maintain the memories. In one case Paul positions Hapo by a path and takes a photograph of his elaborate human hair wig, saying “It is a beautiful wig… it fits, and he looks after it. Nobody else can wear that wig.”

Then we turn the concept and ask they shoot something in their environment that is unsightly, the inverse of beauty. Paul takes pictures of a broken bottle in the field, an artifact of the outside world that has made its impress just in the last half century. He explains that the glass could hurt playing children, and hurls the ugly shards into the river. Ope shoots a pile of pig excrement. James crafts an image of sand and stones, saying they are not living things, not good for crops, therefore unattractive.

One’s view of beauty is another’s not
Hapo records a shot of a fire pit that is rimmed with rubbish, saying that the ash represents to him the end of life. And Mathar first takes an artsy image of a rickety old house where a deceased woman once lived that now houses only pigs. And then she shoots a photo of a fresh grave, where one of Paul’s seven sisters, who died just last Tuesday, is now buried. It is the second grave shot of the day, one by Paul of his mother who died 16 years ago — which he includes in the beauty category — and this by Mathar of a relative dead less than a week, which she cites as the contrary.

Finally, after a day of interpreting beauty and its antithesis, Paul’s family is asked to compose one last shot, a picture of something that means very much to each, a precious trace, something that will be treasured in time.

James arranges leaves in the hair of his cousin and poses him against a wooden fence, explaining he is important because he looks after the family’s well-being. Ope and Mathar take shots of each other pointing cameras at the other, as mementos of this special day. Hapo makes a visual report of his elder brother, saying he thinks he will die soon and wants to remember him as he appears today. And Paul searches for his young niece, and when he can’t find her he instead takes a close-up of a ten year old girl, the daughter of an ex-girlfriend.

He says she is young, like a beautiful flower. When a forest flower withers and dies, he knows it will be replaced by another, ever-fleeting pieces in the flux of nature. Yet he knows what the young girl does not, that when she becomes old and her beauty is gone there will be no second spring. When that time comes, Paul says, he wants to show her this photograph of her shining moment of loveliness.

Beauty is the beholder
Like most New Guineans, the Hulis have no written language. Unlike the coastal dwellers, they do not preserve their histories, myths, and traditions in carved pieces of art. Instead, the Huli keep the legends alive with songs passed from generation to generation. “These photos are like the Huli songs,” Paul says. “They will keep us alive after we are gone.” Mortality and the cruel passage of time, though kept as weightless as possible, covered in masks, in the European cultures, are keenly felt here, sitting in minds like stones, revealed in the pictures they produce.

It all seems so familiar and alien to the western eye. Flowers evoke splendor in most every culture, and indeed here. Yet in the “developed” world the concept of human beauty is well-defined, penetrating and pervasive, and billions of dollars are spent to achieve or acquire, though as John Dunne mused, “love built on beauty, soon as beauty, dies.” 

Here, in the Tari Valley on the island of New Guinea, a person beautiful is ascribed to someone in the family, no matter the shape or size, symmetry or features. The ideal of beauty for the Hulis, in this misplaced land that has changed so little in the centuries, would seem to be directly related to their well-being and perpetuation, to the fadeless love of their blood relations. And that is a beautiful thing.

Great Escapes is exploring Papua New Guinea in search of the Digital Village, filing daily dispatches along the way. If you have a question or comment, mail us at