The VII Academy’s first sem­i­nar under­way for indige­nous Pacific Islanders

Written on July 2, 2020, posted in News

Climate change: Chief of Piul island sits on the trunk of a coconut tree which he said used to be the shoreline when he was growing up. Carteret Atolls, Papua New Guinea, 2009. © Ben Bohane

The VII Academy has been plan­ning an in-person sem­i­nar for Pacific Islanders for some time, but logis­tics for trav­el across the Pacific region proved cost­ly in both mon­e­tary and eth­i­cal terms–how could we bring 14 stu­dents from across the Pacific togeth­er with­out burn­ing tonnes of jet fuel? As COVID-19 trav­el restric­tions forced the VII Academy to move online, it was an oppor­tune moment to launch our first sem­i­nar for indige­nous Pacific Islanders.

When the VII Academy approached Ben Bohane to gath­er togeth­er a cohort of indige­nous Pacific island pho­tog­ra­phers and stu­dents, he was enthu­si­as­tic to help train and net­work them so they could start telling their own sto­ries to a region­al and glob­al audi­ence. With the arrival of smart phones and Facebook, many Pacific islanders are engag­ing with pho­tog­ra­phy for the first time and adapt­ing it to their tra­di­tion­al ways of sto­ry­telling. This is a region ground­ed in oral cul­ture but pho­tog­ra­phy opens up new ways of shar­ing sto­ries.

It was not easy to estab­lish what might be the first ever pho­to work­shop of its kind in the Pacific. Logistics, poor inter­net, and dif­fer­ent time zones across a third of the world and fol­low­ing a trail of rec­om­men­da­tions to find best can­di­dates took a while. But now 14 stu­dents are gath­er­ing every Friday until September to take part in “Photojournalism and Documentary Photography: A VII Academy 12-week Seminar for Pacific Region Participants” run by Ben from his Vanuatu base. The class is a mix of young stu­dents and work­ing jour­nal­ists who are all keen to build their pho­to skills and con­nec­tions.

Ben was cho­sen because of his long expe­ri­ence in the region. Since 1994 he has been focused on report­ing the Pacific islands but the sit­u­a­tion has changed: cli­mate change and geopol­i­tics have thrust the Pacific back onto the glob­al stage. Historians talk of how the world’s “cen­tre of grav­i­ty” has shift­ed from the Atlantic ocean in the 20th cen­tu­ry to the Pacific ocean in the 21st.

Historically there have been very few Pacific islanders who have picked up a cam­era to tell the sto­ries of this region, despite local peo­ple work­ing as jour­nal­ists in print, tv and radio. There has been lit­tle cul­ture of indige­nous pho­tog­ra­phy when com­pared to oth­er regions, where sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions of local pho­tog­ra­phers have found work. For the past 100 years it has been most­ly foreigners–Brits, American, French, Australian and New Zealanders–who report­ed in the region and cre­at­ed the visu­al nar­ra­tives of the Pacific islands we know today.

With bor­ders closed due to COVID-19 there are more oppor­tu­ni­ties for local pho­tog­ra­phers to get com­mis­sions from estab­lished glob­al media and offer a local voice–and eye–to cov­er­age of the Pacific islands. It will help adjust the “Club Med” per­cep­tion of the Pacific as just a scat­ter­ing of great hol­i­day resorts to some­thing more com­plex and nuanced, exam­in­ing the real­i­ty of life in the islands beyond the picture-postcard ver­sion we have all imbibed.

In a rapid­ly shift­ing media land­scape, Pacific island pho­tog­ra­phers are embrac­ing new tech­nol­o­gy and oppor­tu­ni­ties to report local­ly and con­nect glob­al­ly. The VII Pacific pho­to work­shop is a chance for these island pho­tog­ra­phers to go to the next lev­el and doc­u­ment the his­to­ry and future of their own region.

Climate change: people from the Carteret Atolls are already moving to the mainland. They have been called the world’s first climate refugees. Carteret Atolls, Papua New Guinea, 2009. © Ben Bohane
Climate change: peo­ple from the Carteret Atolls are already mov­ing to the main­land. They have been called the world’s first cli­mate refugees. Carteret Atolls, Papua New Guinea, 2009. © Ben Bohane