The Black Islands – Spririt and War in Melanesia.

  • Papuan boy with pearl-lugger head dress used in kastom dances, Papua New Guinea, 2006
  • Dusk over Kiriwina island in the Trobriands group, PNG 2004
  • Moment of grace during the Rom dance, Ambrym island, Vanuatu 2005
  • Sanguma man (sorcerer) welcomes me to his Nduga area, highlands of West Papua / Indonesia 1995
  • A girl in kastom dress during the annual Hiri Moale festival, Port Moresby, PNG 2003
  • A man in traditional costume prepares himself for ritual during a kastom dance on the Sepik river, PNG, 2003
Papuan boy with pearl-lugger head dress used in kastom dances, Papua New Guinea, 2006


Lying to the north of Australia and east of Indonesia, the archipelago of Melanesian island nations have long been remote, tribal, sometimes violent but always beautiful. This book will be the first ever photographic journey across these islands, a culmination of the past 18 years documenting conflict and kastom here for a variety of international media and NGOs.

I have focused on the reality of island life, not the picture-postcard version, by documenting cultural events, conflict over land and resources as well as their wars of independence.

Hidden wars in places like Maluku, West Papua, Bougainville and the Solomon Islands have claimed thousands of lives but have been largely ignored by the world press. Conflict continues around the biggest goldmines on earth (such as around Freeport in West Papua), and the exploitation of vast rainforests and fishing grounds continues unabated. Pacific islanders are also on the frontline of climate change.

Since 1994 I have journeyed through the island states of Melanesia, from East Timor and New Guinea across to the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia, traveling with various rebel groups and witnessing a rich variety of kastom, cult, cargo-cult and new religious movements that operate in this region. Melanesia is known for its religious dynamism and experimentation; it is not a “fixed” area of faith, but constantly moving between traditional ancestral and kastom beliefs, to evangelical and Christian syncretism.

Now we are witnessing the rise of Islam, beginning to take root: although still pervasive, Christianity has reached its high-tide mark in the Pacific and is now receding. This is a region of incredible kastoms like the land-diving rituals of Vanuatu (the origin of bungy-jumping) to the famous “mud men” of the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Some have described Melanesia as “the most complex religious panorama on earth”.

There are also images from northern Australia highlighting the black communities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders, thus making a long ignored connection between black Australia and Melanesia.

The photo book I am working on, titled The Black Islands – Spirit and War in Melanesia, is an attempt to highlight the forgotten struggles and belief systems of this remote region. The relationship between cult movements and guerilla armies is strong here and many of the images have a historical resonance, often the only record of conflict in some places and demonstrating how these spiritual movements are often the seed for conflict, as well as the source of reconciliation afterwards. If we want a deeper understanding of island life we have to step into their 24/7 spirit world, full of ancestral spirits and charismatic prophets.

We are now in the so-called Pacific Century and these islands have become hugely strategic again for the first time since World War Two, as a growing competition between the US and China for control of these islands is now well underway.

With your support, I want to produce a book that reflects the soul of island life in the South Pacific, so their kastoms and way of life are better acknowledged in a new era of superpower contest.

Once this project is fully funded and the timeline to raise funds has expired, to making-of zone will be activated exclusively for the photojurnalist and the backers of this project.

Until then, you can follow updates here
Ben Bohane is an Australian photojournalist who has covered Asia and the Pacific islands for more than 20 years. Much of that time has been spent documenting religion and conflict for global media. He is based in Vanuatu, working with, and

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