I followed my wife to Papua New Guinea and arrived in the capital city of Port Moresby in early June 2012, expecting to spend my days as a househusband.
But later that month, we were invited to a live art show held in a Second World War era bunker in the Paga Hill slum. It was magical. Painters performed live while community leaders spoke about the imminent danger facing their neighborhood at the hands of a development company.
Indeed, on 12 May 2012, a hundred police officers armed with assault rifles and machetes had descended on the neighborhood of some 3,000 residents. At the request of the development company, police forces escorted bulldozers into the neighborhood with one mission: Demolish the Paga Hill slum and forcefully evict its residents to make room for Paga Hill Estates, an “exclusive” condominium project.
This forced eviction, which constituted a gross violation of basic human rights, was halted only thanks to the intervention of parliament member Dame Carol Kidu; but not before police forces has already succeeded in demolishing 21 homes.
During that magical art performance, I suddenly realized my own mission in Paga Hill. For 14 years, I had worked in the humanitarian aid field, assisting refugees and internally displaced persons in Darfur, Timor, Tunisia, Libya, and across the Middle East. I sought to join with them in their fight to save Paga Hill hoping that whatever skills and life experiences would assist in this effort.
In the following weeks, I visited the community and talked with its leaders on a daily basis. I also photographed and conducted interviews on behalf of the International State Crime Initiative. Together with local artist Jeffry Feeger and in collaboration with other local residents, we developed an initiative that would raise public awareness to the dire threat facing Paga Hill. The Paga Hill Art Resistance project – a contemporary art exhibition and theatrical performance inspired by the forced eviction attempt – was born. Together with the people of Paga Hill, we wove a story of resilience, resistance and social justice advocacy using contemporary theatre, live music, dance, dramatic performance, painting, and photography. After our first play at the Port Moresby Art Theater the UN High Commission of Human Rights office asked us to perform during the film festival of Human Rights.
Because of the interest in photography shown by some of the youth I trained some of them to the basic of photography. Of course the challenge remain in getting camera for them.
I subsequently remained in the community and expanded my photographic body of work, seeking to challenge the predominant cultural perceptions of slum life and slum residents.
A Master of Visual Arts student since 2010, I used this opportunity to focus my academic research on the people of Paga Hill. I researched the history of urban slum and I was astonished to realize how many people where living in such precarious condition across the world. I also examined how forced evictions and displacement of slum dwellers are often not been reported.
I spent my evenings in Paga Hill photographing the residents and their environment using the painting-with-light method. By using torches in low-light nighttime conditions, I tried to create images that challenge the social stigmas usually associated with slum dwellers
The project’s night imagery attempts to creates a visual disconnect between Paga Hill’s residents and criminals, juvenile delinquents, places where squatters wander aimlessly amongst ramshackle that society generally associates with slums. I hope that the technique chosen allow me to represent the Paga Hill community with the dignity and respect that they deserve.