Who are the people
in these pictures?
The pictures on this website where taken in the Highlands
of New Guinea in the Mountains around the Baliem Valley in Spring and
Summer of 2002 and Fall of 2003.
The men in these pictures are some of the
few people of the Yali, Dani, and Lani tribes in this region that still maintain
their traditional ways of life in 2002 and 2003.
The entire population in the Highlands of
New Guinea was sheltered by steep mountains from any outside modern
influences untill their “discovery” by westerners in the 1930’s.
By having the men and the women live
separately, and keeping sexual taboos and practices that are unpopular with
most westerners, as well as by practicing head hunting, the population
growth has been kept to a minimum.
The low population growth combined with
the fact that the gardening style that was practiced in harmony with the
environment resulted in a way of life that demanded very few working hours
to feed the people. This lucky combination of harmony with the environment
and low population growth due to headhunting and specific sexual taboos,
also did not provide any need to develop metal or other technologies that
are ultimately more harmful to the environment.
So it is very remarkable that in terms of
sustainability these cultures that have continuously been around for 10,000
years, represent the most successful cultures ever recorded on planet
I read about them for the first time in
1981 in Germany in anthropological books.
During my research before the trip I had
narrowed in on 3 tribes that I wanted to visit and photograph. First I
spent one month in a village in the Sepic region, but missionaries had
already made it here and destroyed the original culture. The same turned
out to be true for my third part of the first trip.
My second try was the Highlands around
the Baliem Valley. After hiking with one guide and 3 porters through dense
rain forest, up and down steep and slippery mountains with no visible
trail, crossing many fast running mountain streams, I lucked out and we
arrived in an area where the culture seemed still intact for the most part.
My guide Jonas is a Lani that lives in
the only town in the region, spoke some English. Jonas hired 3 porters, 2
more Lani, Wendius and Mecki and one Dani man. Sam, the Dani man spoke some
Yali, so once we made it through the rainforest, I could communicate to my
guide Jonas, who translated to my Dani porter Sam, who translated to the
local Yali man.
By the time the answer came back to me, it
usually seemed to be referring to a different subject. This encouraged me
to just interpret the situation using the references I had from reading
anthropological books about these people and to communicate directly with
every one using gestures more the tone of my words than the meaning of my
The first few days, Jonas and Sam where
at my side, ready to check out what was going on, and after that I just
spoke to people in English and gestured a lot and they just spoke to me in
Either way, patience, acceptance of the
situation and a lot of friendly gestures and sounds, together with smiling
and laughing can turn any situation into a good situation.
A picture really speaks a thousand words,
I was giving away Polaroid pictures every once in a while. A 170 total on
After a few days some young men even came
from a neighboring village after they had heard about me. They came all
dressed up to get their pictures taken and to get their Polaroid pictures.
With the help of my guide Jonas we
arranged for me to accompany groups of young men on hunting trips in the
forest and on daytrips to their gardens.
My guide Jonas was great; after assisting
me for a few days he came to understand that I only shot in soft light,
sunrise, sunset or fog, rain and clouds. The men that I photographed
figured me out very quick as well.
I remember being out with a group of
young men, without my guide or porters and asking them to wait for the
cloud to come so that I can take some more pictures at that particular
scenic spot. I was just gesturing and talking in English and sitting down
and the entire group sat down with me, waiting for the better lighting. It
also seemed that people showed as much interest in me as I showed in them
and of course that people had a lot more patience and time as we do in our
This also meant that for weeks, I was
never by myself, even going to the non-existing bathroom drew a crowed.
On one excursion to a valley with
incredible vegetation, a little higher up in the mountains, I was the only
one wearing clothes of course and we also brought my sleeping bag. We
stayed 3 nights and the group totaled 13 men.
It turned out to get very cold at night,
and so I gave each man in our group one item of clothing. I myself was O.K.
inside of the sleeping bag.
One guy was sleeping around the fire in
my shirt, another one was wearing my boxer shorts, another one wore my
pants, another one my rain jacket, my socks , one item per person with
every item being used.
The next morning I was the lucky one to
get them all back to wear them for the day till we changed for the night.
Did I mention that these men did not wash
as much as I did, since the only water available was fast running, very
cold mountain streams.
Anyway, I was staying with the men in the
men’s house, and having Jonas and my 3 porters Mecki, Wendius and Sam
watching out over me at all times.
I was absolutely dependent on them for my
survival. And even though I had my moments of fear and doubt in my own
physical limitations at times during the first strenuous hike out there, I
never had a moment of doubt that Jonas, Mecki, Wendius and Sam were the
perfect companions to do this with.
My personal doubt was about the ability
of my body. For example when we were crossing big fast running rivers
wading through the fast running water on top of slippery rocks, or when we
were walking all day through pouring rain, being wet and cold to the bone
while having thick leeches feasting on my legs. Or while I was hungry and
weak when I was struggling with the lack of oxygen in the high altitude.
One time, at the beginning of being in
the rainforest, I ventured out on my own, backtracking to take some
pictures of huge fern trees in the fog. I had gone further and further away
from the camp in pursuit of the perfect shot.
I had a whistle and a compass around my
neck at all times anyway, since there was no clear trail. And on my little
solo excursion I never felt lost. While half way on my way back to the
camp, I heard Sam, my porter coming towards me calling my name trying to
Jonas, my guide, the wise man in charge,
had gotten concerned; he thought that I might have gotten lost. Which was a
very real possibility.
Ever after this incident, there seemed to
be someone always discreetly keeping an eye on me. I very much appreciated
this level of commitment to my well-being and I felt as safe as I could
have thanks to my great companions.
When I came back the next year and met up with Jonas,
Mecki, Wendius and Sam again for another excursion it was great to be back
amongst good friends. Having an adventure with great people together is a
great bonding experience.
One last thing that I like to mention is
the experience of the silence of the forest.
I am not sure if it is possible to grasp
the concept of being away from all the noises that are surrounding us in
our modern world versus experiencing only the sounds of nature with very
few human voices for a few weeks at a time. Maybe, it was just part of the
experience of being in nature for several weeks, but the first thing that
struck me when we returned to the town in the region was all the noise.