Russian's compassionate eye floods unseen war zone with light and humanity

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Creation Rebels

On Christmas Eve last year, photographer Vlad Sokhin posted a Christmas message on his blog site to a young girl from Lae on Papua New Guinea's north coast. The message was accompanied by a photograph of the girl he had taken on one of his visits.

'I want to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! I know that Santa Claus is not coming to visit you in your slum house and is not going to give you any present this time, as he didn’t give anything to you in past years. I know that if you had the opportunity to ask him for a gift, you would have asked that what happened to you could never have happened.'

The girl is six-years-old and a victim of kidnapping and gang rape. Her unspeakable ordeal and injuries would normally condemn her to shame and obscurity. But her appearance in Sokhin's lens, her face mostly shrouded by a curtain, empowers the viewer. Instead of shielding her from the shame, his camera honours her survival.

'Please be a strong girl and I promise that I will come to visit you soon!', the post ends.

 

It's not uncommon for this Sydney-based Russian photographer to make friends with his subjects. In fact, it was familiarity with several highland women which allowed him to realise his 'Crying Meri' project about violence against women in Papua New Guinea - violence in the home, the street, up-country and down in the capital Port Moresby. The exhibition has been shown in Sydney, New York, Thailand and Port Moresby itself, the video version screened in France and Turkey.

Sokhin skipped the colourful cultural shows and headed wherever he could get closer to the 'shocking statistics' and show 'all the angles of their problem'.

'I not only approached victims or survivors, I also covered the perpetrators,' he told Telinga Media. 'I wanted to understand myself what makes these men do these things, and I also wanted to visually show the people who do these kinds of things.' 

He knew the UN had 'reports of brutal torture and killings of women and girls, especially old women, accused of witchcraft' and noted that 'the number of female victims is increasing'. His research also told him the problem was more severe in the highlands. On his trips to Chimbu province, he found two willing heroines in Monica Paulus and Mary Kini, who helped organise access to some of the other survivors who had been brutalised after being branded as 'witches'.

Sokhin soon realised that telling their stories meant returning to find out what had happened since; and it wasn't just about capturing images.

'I didn't really need their pictures. It was kind of personal thing, I was just caring about these women. So, some of them, we became really good friends. I took more photos of them because there were more changes in their lives.'

Documentation of one Chimbu woman he befriended started in 2011 and is continuing: 'Her [Dini] story was that her son died…and his friends accused Dini, his mother, of sorcery and they tortured and almost killed her and she spent 10 months in the local hospital. And then she had nowhere to come back to but her house. So she came back and spent some months in the house without locals knowing she was there. She was hiding and her husband was providing food for her and that was the first time that I met her.'

Knowing that the stigma of sorcery accusations generally means permanent expulsion, Sokhin was surprised on his return to find Dini freely walking about in her community. He thought he had come upon a happy story of re-integration and acceptance; but he recently learnt that after another death in the village, the witchcraft allegations against her had re-surfaced. She has been forced to leave her family behind and move to another province.

'I want to find her and document what happened to her, the after-effects of the sorcery attack.' he says already planning his next trip.

While the highlands will always beckon, Sokhin has a growing portfolio of work from around Melanesia. 'Last of the Dani' is a series of portraits from his trip to Indonesian West Papua where he photographed Dani tribespeople from the Baliem Valley. He was intrigued to find some of the older Dani men 'almost naked' walking about wearing their penis gourds and yet in other ways were connected to the modern economy.

'I've seen several photographic projects about these Dani people and the photographer made it look like they still live in traditional way of life, they still cook food over fire, they still sleep in their huts.' he explains. 'But basically, they do it for the tourists and they charge money for that.'

'So, what I wanted to show is some of them still keep traditional way of life but not because they want to live like that. It's just because they are making money from that.'

Unlike some of his earlier projects in Africa, the Crying Meri images are distinctly non-ethnographic, which may account for some of their international appeal. He knows that the same kind of project could be done in India or the Congo, so his arresting photographs from PNG match the universal nature of the problem.

Overwhelmingly, Papua New Guineans thanked him for bringing the exhibition to Port Moresby: 'They say "we know a lot of people who've been affected by this violence and even in our families, our relatives, but we never understood the scope of this problem".'

He received some negative reaction online which had a nationalistic tinge but never met anyone in PNG who thought what he was doing was bad for the country.

Some of the images evoke the starkness of crime-scene snapshots, a kind of photographic evidence file, although this was never Sokhin's intention. Ruthlessly unsentimental, the images from Crying Meri are mostly portraits that contain messages of personal defiance, whose clarity grows with time.

Despite their international exposure, Sokhin seems impatient that they have not attracted a wider audience. This impatience reflects his own sense of urgency and energy, as he plans his next series of documentary projects: gay communities across the Pacific, Islam in Melanesia and more on cargo cults following his work in Vanuatu.

This same urgency can be seen in his photographs. His Christmas message to the 6-year-old rape survivor tries to say in words what he captures in her picture. While her face will never be flooded with light, it must never be completely in shadow.

 

© Telinga Media. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited

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