‘The Black Islands’ from Bohane’s lens
Almost two decades of photo journalism capturing thousands of pictures in hot spots and wars in Melanesia and Asia by well-respected Australian photo journalist, Ben Bohane, has culminated in the first glossy-page book of its kind for the Region, ‘The Black Islands’.
Now on sale at Fair Trades Store next to Top Shots and The Pandanus Shop next to ANZ Bank for Vt9, 000 per book, the publication is going to make a place of its own on the shelves of both private as well as public libraries as the brilliant as well as haunting pictures tell their own stories to persuade the viewer to turn the next page.
Bohane, 43, started out as a photo journalist in Australia. His first foreign assignment was five years in Asia; learning the craft by covering the war in Burma, Cambodia and Afghanistan.
“That was my university if you like, learning on the job in pretty tough places,” he said.
“That was why on my first assignment in the Pacific, I was running the naval blockade coming through from the back door (from the Solomons) to Bougainville on a speed boat in the middle of the night, landing on an occupied beach with gun shots going off and that was my welcome to the Pacific,” he remembered with a smile.
How did he negotiate his way through the blockade? Bohane made contact with the BRA representative in Australia and after some meetings and coded messages to let the BRA know that he was going through, followed by interesting meetings at night in the Western Solomon Islands with various contacts to help arrange the trip for him to run the blockade, he recalled, “I thought it was important that here was a conflict going on at Australia’s doorstep that nobody was really covering”.
Asked how he was able to convince the rebels to help him when there was a feeling that Australia was in a way funding the war against the BRA, he said, “Look I was completely dependent on them for my security and everything. All I could say was that my job as a photo journalist was to come and document the situation and show a Bouganvillean perspective to this crisis because up until that point most of the coverage of the problem was from the PNG side.
“Nobody was really getting the Bouganivillean perspective. So sure, I was a little nervous especially after I had a hot landing in Bougainville. We had the PNG Defence Force there shooting at us so I realised that sure this is serious. I spent a month with the BRA and got through to meet Francis Ona.”
One of the reasons he stayed in the Region was to see the extent of that struggle with people using custom with a real desire for self-determination.
“Their level of self-sufficiency really impressed me. The BRA, despite the blockade of the island, made themselves really self-sufficient planting their own food, using bush medicine and going back to custom and running their generators on pure coconut oil. It was in 1994 and the first time I saw that, I realised that war creates the mother of necessity,” he said.
Quizzed to dig deep to explain the motive for his book, he replied, “Part of my motivation was that ever since I was young, I was always interested in issues of social justice and I think to become a photo journalist to spend your life by documenting conflict, by documenting suffering wherever it exists is not an easy thing to do. But if you stand for justice and if you think it is important that a wider community understands the sufferings going on of other people when there is not much media coverage, then I felt a responsibility to cover those conflicts, to be there to be witness so that one day it appears in the newspapers and can influence policy makers.
“Governments can say this didn’t happen and I can say this is the proof. This was a massacre, these people are suffering and here is the evidence especially in places like East Timor and I was there in the first month of the liberation of East Timor and it was horrific, there were bodies everywhere, decapitated, the whole province was on fire. Everything was destroyed. You know the UN and the Indonesians were trying to play it down by saying maybe a couple of people have been killed in the post ballot period.
“In fact there were thousands of people who were killed by pro-Jakarta militias. So for those of us who were there during the first week, we went out and documented the massacres and the destructions that happened. I was working for Asia Week Magazine and others at the time but many of our photos wound up with the UN Serious Crimes Unit as evidence of what has happened.”
Until now Bohane has always seen his role as being there to be witness to the great issues confronting us in this Region and the great struggle moments and to cover the conflict and suffering going on when most people don’t want to acknowledge it or pretend it is not happening.
But Bohane was not thinking about a book or an exhibition while covering those hot spots. As a photo journalist at the time, his motivation was to get the stories into the media and main stream media hoping that it would influence people’s perceptions and policy makers so that they could understand the reality of what was going on in a conflict like Bougainville or currently in West Papua which does not get much media coverage.
Before doing the book he had to ask himself if he had something to offer the wider public and if he had enough material to give to the public because a book lasts forever.
“The question came to me three or four years ago when I had my first big photographic retrospective at the Australian Centre of Photography in Sydney.
“At that time, I really had to start thinking about editing fifteen years of work involving thousands and thousands of pictures into a small number of 100 to 120 photos. So after the exhibition, so many people said, ‘Where’s the book?’ you know. I replied that I have not thought about it but now that I have done this edit and photo exhibition, I am going to work towards putting that edit together into a book,” he said.
But all along he said he was always interested in the Pacific as an Australian photo journalist and he could not understand why he should be covering the Middle East and all those far away hot spots which were already well covered when no one was covering the Pacific Islands on Australia’s own door step.
After five years in Asia he returned to Australia and heard about Bougainville. Bohane said at the time people were saying, “This is Australia’s secret war”. Even though Australia was neutral, it was helping Papua New Guinea on one level.
But no one had documented the BRA’s side of the conflict.