My interview on FotoEvidence about documenting violence against women in Papua New Guinea:
FotoWitness: Vlad Sokhin
Interview by Svetlana Bachevanova
Vlad Sokhin was recognized as a finalist for the 2012 FotoEvidence Book Award in March of 2012. Since publication on FotoEvidence, Sokhin’s project “Crying Meri” was selected for a screening at Visa Pour L’Image 2012 in Perpignan September 7th and adopted by the United Nations for an educational campaign in Papua New Guinea to address the issue of violence against women. FotoEvidence is proud to have contributed to the wide dissemination of this important documentation of violent, social injustice directed at women.
Vlad is a Russian/Portuguese photographer, residing in Sydney, Australia. Born in 1981. Studied photography in IADE Creative University (Lisbon, Portugal); photojournalism and documentary photography in TCI Emerging Photographer Program. Participant of photojournalism workshops by photographer Sergey Maximishin in Portugal and Kenya. He is represented by “Agentur Focus”.
Vlad’s work is published in many international newspapers and magazines, such as GEO Voyage (France), GEO (Germany), National Geographic Traveler (Poland), Stern Gesund Leben (Germany), The Age (Australia), Publica (Portugal), Correio de Manha (Portugal), Ogoniok (Russia), Vokrug Sveta (Russia), Sacvoyage (Russia), Independent Newspaper (Russia), Vi Menn (Norway), NPR (USA), AOL News (USA), Ca m’interesse (France),Le Monde des Religions (France), VIVA Magazine (Poland) and others.
SB. Your project Crying Meri documents widespread sexual abuse of woman in Papua New Guinea, where over 60% of women report being assaulted. How did you become interested in this project?
VS. I have been interested in Papua New Guinea for a very long time. When I moved to Australia, in September of last year, I decided that Papua New Guinea would be the first country to visit and work on a project. I started doing a research on possible ideas for projects and stumbled on a large report on the violence against women, made by the Constitutional and Law Reform Commission in 1992. I was shocked by the facts and figures and began to look for some photographic evidence of this horror. Among the photo-stories about the country’s culture, tribes, masks and festivals I did not find anything about violence against women. At this point, I decided that this theme interested me a lot and I needed to just go and start working on it.
SB. What were your goals for the project when you started?
VS. My first idea was to do just a small photo-essay. During the first week of shooting, I was not even sure that I got anything of value. Almost blindly, I found the characters for the story. Papua New Guinea is a very bureaucratic country with a very slow pace of life. If somebody tells you that it will take a day to receive permission to photograph in a hospital, it may take few days before you receive it. But then everything seemed straightforward and I knew that I had everything I needed to start working on the project about violence against women. By the middle of shooting, I realized that it would be something bigger than just a photo-essay. I witnessed so much grief that I felt that, I simply did not have the right to just leave and not come back to try to do something to help these women. I certainly do not believe that nowadays a picture can change the world, but at least it helps to inform and raise awareness about the problem. So I hope that there are people who will see my work and they will be willing and able to change at least something in the country. I just believe that there are people in the country with the opportunity to help. They just need to want to, so I hope my work inspires them.
SB. How did you gain access to pursue the project?
VS. Before I left for Papua New Guinea, I contacted the Russian Honorary Consul Maria Lavrentieva in the country and asked if she could help me with permission to shoot. As a result, a few days after my arrival, I was able to shoot without any problems: at the main hospital in the country and at the Family Support Centre. Also I went and knocked on the doors of various organizations that help women, police stations and prisons. Almost everywhere I was given the green light without any problems. In general, Papua New Guinea is quite an interesting country. There is constant chaos and violence on the streets, but no one cares if someone photographing all of this. I think that in Russia or Australia it would be much harder to obtain permission for such recording.
SB. You photographed and talked to women who were victims of a rape and violence. What did they tell you? How did they react to being photographed?
VS. Women told me their stories; many of which just shocked me. For example the story of Helena Michael, 40, who on December 27, 2011 was attacked by a “cannibal” near the Boroko police station, in the central part of Port Moresby. The attacker bit off Helena’s lower lip and wanted to sink his teeth into her throat. The woman managed to escape by kicking her assailant in his testicles and biting three of his fingers, forcing him to release her. Police arrested the man and found out that it was his third attempt to eat human flesh. Having spent three days in the hospital, Helena went to the police station to initiate criminal proceedings against the cannibal but discovered that he had been released due to the lack of complaints.
The first time I heard about this story from a local journalist, I thought that it would help my project if I could find this woman. I called some journalists, asked about her in all social centers and hospitals and went to the Boroko police station, where that case was reported. Everyone heard about this terrible story, but no one could help me find Helena. Even the police didn’t have her contact details. Then one day I was passing a square in the center of Port Moresby and saw a woman, walking in my direction. On her lower lip I saw a bandage. When she approached me, I suddenly thought that she might be that victim of the cannibal. When she came closer to me I looked at her face and noticed that the bandage was attached in a way that her lower lip could be seen. But instead of the lip I saw a hole with teeth. I stopped her and carefully asked if she might be that woman from newspapers. “Yes, it’s me,” she said, “I saw you yesterday in the hospital taking pictures. I thought that you are a foreign journalist and wanted to tell you my story but was too shy to approach you.” I could not believe my luck. Helena agreed to be photographed and told me in detail about that horrible attack. She is still waiting for the hospital’s approval to start surgery for skin graft on her missing lip.
Or, during my second trip to the country in the highlands region, I met victims of sorcery-related violence. Locals often accuse women of witchcraft and violently attack them, chopping off their limbs with bush knives and axes or burning the body with hot iron. Few can survive such tortures.
The ones who are lucky and survive are completely ignored by society. No one, except perhaps relatives, pays for their treatment at the hospital. But the problem is that many of the relatives themselves often leave such women in distress. The government does nothing for them. Abandoned by their husbands, the women cannot return to their villages, where they will be killed if they try to come back. No one knows what to do with them and nobody seems to care. There are no special shelters or centers for protection of women. They are left on their own and live in fear of what horrible torture can happen again. After all, no one punishes the torturers. They live quietly in their homes and commit their crimes again and again.
A few times women refused to be photographed. Many were simply glad that they were able to tell the community about what happened to them. Sometimes I decided for myself not to show some of the photographs I took. They were too brutal and I do not want to shock or scare the audience.
SB. You also met and photographed men who had assaulted women. What did they tell you? How did they explain their actions?
VS. After few days in Port Moresby, listening all these horror stories about gangs known as ‘raskols’, I decided to include in my project the other side of the story or to show those who created this problem. After several unsuccessful attempts to communicate with some of the gang members, I finally met with a former gang leader “Dirty Dons 585”. He led me to a place that gang members use to rape girls. There were several young men, many of them holding knives and homemade guns and pistols. They showed me a table, which the gang uses to rape. They described how they used taxi drivers to bring their passengers to the slums. Many boasted that they had raped several women. I did not see even a trace of sorrow for what they did.
In the prison cells of the police station, the prisoners I interviewed were amused to tell about their crimes against women. Later, after visiting the provincial part of the country, I realized that this attitude toward women is widespread. It does not matter whether the rapist is a bandit or a farmer.
For most men in Papua New Guinea, women are a commodity. They pay a fee to the bride’s parents and they believe that this gives them the freedom to do with them whatever they want. And the saddest part of this problem is the fact that many cases of abuse against women occur in wealthy families of lawyers, police officers, pastors, and even politicians. Around 80% of the cases remain unpunished.
SB. How has the government of Papua New Guinea addressed this issue?
VS. I think that this is not what interests the government now. Before last elections the country was in the major political crisis. The Police split into two groups and sometimes there were shootouts between these groups. There is no funding for the police from the government. What kind of assistance from the police can the victim of a crime expect if they have to give the police money for gas so they can travel to the crime scene.
Women receive help from a variety of international organizations but this is just a drop in the ocean compared to the number of victims. There is a big advertising campaign now in Papua New Guinea against the abuse of women but, as far as I know, this campaign is not financed by the government.
SB. “Crying Meri” was selected as a finalist for the 2012 FotoEvidence Book Award. Has receiving this award helped you in pursuing your goals for this project?
VS. Of course it helped! A couple days after the results from the 2012 FotoEvidence Book Award were announced, I started receiving emails and phone calls from a variety of media and organizations, offering their assistance in promoting the project. The UN expressed interested in my project and invited me to organize an exhibit in Papua New Guinea. Just now I am negotiating the possibility of cooperation with Papua New Guinea’s National Broadcasting Corporation. Pictures from my project will be used in the documentary film “Why Me?” by Papua New Guinea’s director Raka Gamini about crimes committed against women in the country.
When I submitted my project to the 2012 FotoEvidence Book Award, I was planning to finish it in April 2012. Now, I see what lies ahead is still a lot of work and I plan to visit Papua New Guinea multiple times this year. I want not only to complete the work but also to help the victims of the daily violence in the country. This is my hope.