You might expect that when a photographer visits Papua New Guinea he’d be among the many to photograph its vast landscapes, idyllic beaches or one of the hundreds of ethnic groups indigenous to the land. That certainly wasn’t the case during Australian photographer Lynton Crabb’s recent visit to the Oceanian country.
With close to 90 percent of the population living in rural areas with limited access to resources, Papua New Guinea—the largest of the Pacific nations with a population of nearly seven million—is host to an array of health problems. One of the sad statistics is the alarming rate of maternal and child death. According to The Burnet Institute of Medical Research about 5,000 babies die each year, and a woman in Papua New Guinea is 80 times more likely to die in childbirth than a woman in neighboring Australia.
Together with The Burnet Institute Of Medical Research, Lynton photographed some of the many mothers that are included in “Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies,” a five-year research program aimed at providing lifesaving health care for women and children through translational and community research. See some of his pictures and read more in the Q&A below.
How did you get involved with this?
My brother, a scientist, is the CEO of The Burnet Institute Of Medical Research here in Australia. Amongst the many research and humanitarian projects they have in progress around the world, the team from Burnet identified with the fact that, in Papua New Guinea, approximately 5,000 babies a year die in their first month of birth. Many mothers also die during this period. They have since implemented a carefully considered research program to find out why. It’s privately funded and realizing these funds relies on awareness in the philanthropic sector and just as importantly in the larger community. After discussions with the Burnet head office team, we decided that it would help to have some images to show the world, spread the word and ultimately help increase the funding. We also agreed on the importance of documenting these initiatives for Burnet’s history and heritage.
How does this project fit into your photographic style?
This project and I fit really well. Even in photography, the story has always interested me as much as the execution or treatment. It represented a very real issue on a large scale. It’s an amazing place with amazing people and also provided the opportunity for adventure…perfect for a pro bono project!
Were there any challenges involved with this project? If so, how did you overcome them?
Regarding culture and language, I already knew Papua New Guinea well. Although I am Australian, as a child I travelled to different countries with my family because of my fathers work. I lived in Papua New Guinea for the latter part of my junior and all of my senior school years. After finishing school I returned to Australia and studied photography in Melbourne. Periodically I have returned to Papua New Guinea over the past twenty years and have exhibited images from previous excursions. Around the year 2000 I produced a body of work called “The boy from PNG”. This was a series of images shot from the point of view and my memories growing up. On a practical level the tropics throw up all the usual issues of condensation, heat, malaria etc.
What was involved in planning/preproduction?
As part of the research project, Burnet is recruiting approximately 700 mothers and following their progress from the first trimester of their pregnancy until well after their baby is born. Keeping in touch with the mothers at designated times is not as easy as it seems as many of the mothers live in villages some distance from the medical centers and in places which are not readily on the communication grid. For the photography, we managed to gain permission from some of these mothers to be included in my photography series whilst in the field. I travelled to PNG twice this year, which made it much easier to cover off what we felt, was missing from the first trip.
Any future plans for this project?
Whilst there, I also shot motion and we are currently editing a short film which will also be used in various promotional ways.
Did you learn anything through the creation of this series?
I was reminded that we can’t take anything for granted or that other people will take care of things. Us, the general population, is lucky that there are people and organizations out there totally committed to other peoples welfare. They absolutely deserve our support.
This article was originally published Sep 16, 2015 on the Wonderful Machine Blog