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Change of plans
At the end of July, as I was preparing a trip to meet the Aborigines of northern Australia, I learned that a large gathering of various tribes was to take place in New Guinea. In this dense inaccessible jungle covering 462,840 km², more than 800 languages are spoken. The island, split down the middle, feels so remote that you wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to come face to face there with a dinosaur.
I get right on it. How can I attend this gathering only two weeks away? Such last-minute trip seems impossible to organize. I have to rely entirely on my good faith to turn this dream into reality. Furthermore there’s the question of how to finance the trip. I don’t have any sponsors yet and I’ll have to foot the entire expenses myself. I call around to a few travel agencies. They tell me that this sort of expedition takes nine months of preparation. This wasn’t really the answer that I was hoping for.
How will I overcome so many obstacles? Hefty airfares to pay, how to get the required visas in record-breaking time, how to find a guide, how to convince my cameraman to adapt his entire schedule. I have to ask my wife, a videographer and photographer, to fly back immediately from Brazil. We have to find colored backdrops and get considerable amounts of high-tech equipment ready to go… Not to mention all my ongoing commercial projects and convincing my banker.
I realize I’m up against lots of problems. Yet deep down inside I believe everything will turn out right.
Paperwork and equipment
On 11 August 2008, my wife arrives from Brazil. The next day my cameraman Olivier goes, passports in hand, to the Papua New Guinea embassy in Belgium to get our visas. I take care of the airplane tickets — the travel agent getting nervous about all these requirements!
Unable to focus on my work in Paris, I ask for help from my graphic designer friends; I manage to convince my banker to finance the purchase of a second camera – just to play it safe. We pack, leaving the heaviest things for our carry-on luggage to avoid paying extra fees. To my relief, ultimately Valeo agrees to cover a third of the travel expenses. This does little to lower the stress levels of my banker, though.
I phone a UNESCO contact in Port Moresby and we talk late into the night, sorting out the various permits and authorizations. We end up not needing all these because we set off for the region simply as tourists – despite all the equipment.
Departure and ordeals
We leave Thursday, 14 August 2008. We are supposed to be on site, in the mountains of Papua New Guinea, over 300 miles from the capital Port Moresby, on the 16th. The gathering takes place from Saturday to Sunday afternoon and if all goes well, we’ll arrive at 1:00 Saturday afternoon, after two days in the air. Just enough time to take our photos.
At the airport in Paris, we run into a first obstacle: we can only take one piece of luggage each. Our smiles manage to bend the rules and we get through without paying the extra fees. Slyly we manage to hide our heavy camera equipment in our backpacks, careful not to attract the attention of the crew; eight kilos is the limit for cabin luggage in these airports that spit “winged serpents”, as the Mursi people of Ethiopia call airplanes.
We relax and laugh about it once on board the airplane, not realizing that another, much more serious problem would soon to turn up. During the flight, we organize our work, delegating responsibilities to make the best use of our time and resources. Microphones, cameras, lighting; our assistants waiting for us on-site already have their schedules worked out. They don’t know what they’ve signed up for.
Changing planes in London, we’re shocked to learn that we can’t continue our trip. Despite what our travel agent told us, my wife needs a transit visa for Australia. We didn’t have the time to obtain this “open sesame” pass that can open and shut borders. I try to explain to the airline employee that we’ll only be spending one hour there, in transit. But he won’t budge: we can’t proceed without a visa. Unmoved by the desperate look on my wife’s face, he orders our luggage to be taken off the plane. I refuse to accept this turn of events. It’s three in the morning Down Under and I insist that the Australian embassy confirm this ludicrous claim, handing him my cell phone. I memorize the number. The embassy confirms that Lia cannot go on without a visa. I try again, mustering every ounce of tact and diplomacy. I explain patiently to the woman on the other end the motivation behind my project.
Silence. Then, “One moment please.”
“How did you get this number?” she asks.
“My guardian angel gave it to me.”
After three minutes that felt more like an eternity, she asks me to put the airline official back on the line. We do this. They let us through, making us promise never do anything like this again. I ask the airline official make sure our luggage is reloaded onto the plane. Olivier is the only one in our group not used to these kind of miracles.
Back on the plane, a flight attendant informs me that two pieces of luggage didn’t make it back on board. We have our cameras with us and three of our six suitcases. That will have to do.
Boarding the Sydney to Port Moresby flight, the pilot announces that we can’t take off: there’s a mechanical problem in one of the plane’s engines. If, as he assures us, the problem can be fixed in two hours, we can still make our connection from Port Moresby to Mount Hagen while telling use that we are lucky the break-down happened on the ground rather than during the flight…
Eight hours later, here we are still stuck in the airport, frustrated and exhausted, starting to lose hope. There is, however, one last chance: the first morning flight out. The airline, accepting its responsibility, offers to put us up in the best hotel in town. The only vacant room is the presidential suite, far bigger than my apartment back in Paris. Olivier is beginning to understand that miracles really do happen.
We board early the next morning, late once again in true New Guinea style. I’m dejected: after all these adventures, will we still miss the gathering? We have a group of Japanese tourists to thank for our four-hour delay. They enter the cabin cheerfully, clad in surgical face masks and hats with built-in mosquito nets.
Papua New Guinea
We have only two hours left to take pictures and we are still missing one suitcase. I waste another hour trying to find it.
Finally, here we are in the midst of the gathering where tribes are chanting farewell songs. I explain some of what’s going on to my unseasoned assistants. Tribes file past us almost like a mirage. Feathers in all the colors of the rainbow, taken from exotic birds, frame the most striking faces. Slowly they pass before me and I capture them against different backgrounds. I feel as though they are showing me their best side, aware of the many problems I’ve had. I hold my breath for a full hour. My mouth is parched. From time to time I glimpse Lia filming the scene from another angle. Olivier attempts to steady the video camera amid the pushing and shoving of the crowd. These people no doubt faced their own obstacles in the jungle in order to participate in this event. My photographs will be a witness to this proud display of their endangered culture.
People who came before me may have had the opportunity to meet these peoples not yet touched by the West. But they didn’t have the sophisticated equipment that allowed me, just a few years later, to perfectly capture a look in someone’s eyes, the hues of colors or the texture of skin.
After 72 hours in the air, six flights, countless smiles for officials and customs officers, I return home having fulfilled my dream within a single hour. Among the photos I took is the cover for my future book.
Once again, I have proof that faith can move mountains.