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