Photographs capture the worst of violence against women in PNG | Pacific Beat

Photographs capture the worst of violence against women in PNG

Photographs capture the worst of violence against women in PNG

Updated 5 March 2013, 15:28 AEDT

The issue of violence against women in Papua New Guinea has been high on the agenda in recent weeks.

The case of the woman who was tortured and burnt alive as a suspected witch has provoked outrage around the world.

It was an extreme example of the abuse of women, which statistics suggest is all too common.

It's a situation that appalled an Eastern European photographer, Vlad Sokhin, so much so that he took it upon himself to expose the realities of what's happening in PNG through his pictures, and the impact has been quite remarkable.

Presenter: Richard Ewart

Speaker: Vlad Sokhin, photographer


SOKHIN: I'm Russian and Papua New Guinea for Russians it's really end of the world so I really wanted to go there and two years ago I moved to Australia and then I thought that will be probably the first country to visit and maybe work in. And I did the research and just by chance I found the report, violence against women made by the Constitutional and Law Reform Commission. And I was shocked by the fact that almost half of the female population of Port Moresby are abused by men. There's a high rate of domestic and street violence. And in the Highlands the numbers go up to 98 per cent. So I decided to find some visual evidence of it, and I couldn't find anything. So I thought well maybe I'll be the guy who will do it. So I just went there and started the project.
EWART: How did you go about doing that because plainly you were dealing with a subject which is extremely sensitive for all sorts of reasons, and in order to capture that photographically and to make your point, I imagine would be fraught with all sorts of difficulties and not a little danger?
SOKHIN: It was a bit, I've been attacked a couple of times by guys, they call themselves Raskols, but I just felt that I had to do it. In my childhood I've experienced this sort of violence, I had problems in my family and I saw how my stepfather was beating my mother. And I felt somehow that I want to do it. While I didn't have any help the first two times I went to PNG and by myself, no one commissioned my work, I paid out of my pocket, all expenses. But I'm not saying that people in PNG all of them are very dangerous and all men beat women. It's not like that. There are a lot of friendly people who helped me, I got some permission from hospitals, from family support centres, and the people were very nice to talk with me. And I interviewed more than 50 women I believe, mostly all of them wanted me to take their pictures and share their stories with the world, only I think a couple of a women didn't want to do that.
EWART: Did you get therefore a fairly strong sense that there are a lot of people who want you to get this message out beyond the shores of PNG in an effort to try and reverse this appalling trend?
SOKHIN: Yeah, yeah I had this feeling a lot of people wanted to do that. Not maybe like officials, personally I haven't spoken with anyone from the government, but I read a lot of comments made on the internet that it's not my business, I'm not from PNG, I don't know this country. But people on the ground they really wanted to talk with me, to share their grief.
EWART: I imagine that some of the images that you were able to capture were to say the least confronting, and I believe for example that you witnessed some of the sorcery attacks which have been gaining so much publicity in recent days?
SOKHIN: I met a lot of survivors and I talked with some of them and you still can see scars or wounds. And you hear their stories and I was ashamed actually that I'm a man for some time, I didn't know what to say, these women were crying telling me how they've been tortured by a crowd. But I didn't witness myself and I think I wouldn't be able to take the pictures, I wouldn't do that, I would try to save the woman, I don't know, something like that. But I managed to find some photographs of the sorcery attack in one place in the Highlands. Those photographs they were taken by someone from the mob and they show how it actually happened, and it was a woman tied up to the tree, naked and fire in front of her and people torturing her with hot iron bars, and it's horrible. 
EWART: So in order to deal with that situation and the wider issue of violence against women, your photographs are now out there, the photographs that you've been able to collect from other sources that you talked about there. What sort of feedback are you getting from people and what sort of impact do you think you're having in terms of trying to change the culture if you like?
SOKHIN: I had a big exhibition in Port Moresby during the Human Rights Film Festival, organised by the United Nations Human Rights. And a lot of people came to see my photographs, and that time I could hear people's opinions. And a lot of people they were shocked to see all these photographs, they told me we read every day in newspapers about what's happening in our country and we see sometimes some photographs, but it's always with someone else, and now we see in one room all this visual evidence, all these photos of the women and we understand that horrible things are happening in our country. And it was very positive feedback. And later on the internet I read a lot of comments and I'm happy that my pictures provoked some talks. And I know that people in the government they know about my work and probably they'll try to do something to stop it, so I'm happy with that.
EWART: That brings me to my next point really, I mean you say you're happy that something is happening. Have you seen or heard any evidence that there are positive changes being made?
SOKHIN: I know that there is a new program in PNG, it's like a website, things are changing not very fast, but I know that there are a lot of talk about changing the Sorcery Act, that archaic and barbaric law and actually recognises sorcery as a crime. I know that my photos have been used in educational programs by the United Nations and also by British High Commissioner, they've been published in local newspapers on the violence against women there. I worked together with a journalist from Melbourne Jo Chandler, and she also writes articles about problems in Papua New Guinea about gender based violence. And these articles with my photos, at least people start to talk about it, they're not hiding it anymore.
EWART: Going back to your starting point and the reason why you went to Papua New Guinea in the first place to begin taking these photographs, you plainly set out on a mission. Do you feel that you've completed that mission?
SOKHIN: I don't feel like I've completed, my mission is I'm just a photographer, I'm not changing anything. I just want to show what's happening in the country and then people do something with it. And I'm still working on this project. I'm very glad that of a big international organisations like the UN, Amnesty International are interested in my work and they're using my work to change something in the country. So it's their work, I'm just a photographer. But yes I'm happy with what's already happened. My work was exhibited in the United States, it was actually awarded a couple of times, and people start to know about this problem outside of Australia, outside of the Pacific region, and that's also good.

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