Letting photographs document women atrocity in Papua New Guinea

Svetlana Bachevanova – WNN Features

Woman victim of domestic violence walks with a missing leg
Thirty-eight-year-old Papuan native Hellen Alphons walks with a rudimentary crutch outside her home after losing her leg in a fight with her drunk husband in 2005. During the violence Hellen’s husband chopped her right leg off with a bushknife in front of their young children, who later called for help. Kawa was arrested by police, but Hellen had great fear that her husband might be released. She finally came back to her home only in 2010 when she found out that her husband had died in prison. Image: Vlad Sokhin

(WNN) New York, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES: In the Oceania region, north of Cape York, Australia, the country of Papua New Guinea suffers under a hood of violence against women that still runs unabated, especially for those who live at the very bottom of society with little legal recourse or protection.

A new alarming trend in some assaults in the Papua capital city of Port Morseby have been documented carefully by award winning photojournalist Vlad Sokhin as he exposes an ancient, yet modern, form of violence against women in the region.

“Women told me their stories; many of which just shocked me,” outlined Sokhin in a one-on-one interview with WNN freelance photojournalist Svetlana Bachevanova who talked with Sokhin as the founder/publisher of Fotoevidence, an acclaimed ongoing online photodocumentary archive that also hosts The Fotoevidence Book Award. Through the award Fotoevidence recognizes each year, “a documentary photographer whose project demonstrates courage and commitment in addressing a violation of human rights, a significant injustice or an assault on human dignity.”

Fotoevidence also brings stories to light through its online campaign: Report Injustice Now which gathers the most talented photographers who are working today to depict places worldwide where injustice continues; such as ‘The JuJu Project‘ by Japanese Tokyo-based photographer Ahn Se-hong, that outlines the struggles for today’s aging Comfort Women who were trapped working in forced brothels by the Japanese Army during World War II.

Growing up as a Russian/Portuguese photographer Sokhin currently lives in Sydney, Australia. In March 2012 he was recognized as the chosen finalist for the 2012 FotoEvidence Book Award.

In his in-depth documentation of social injustice against women, Sokhin has not been afraid. He has not shied away from showing an honest and at times hard look at violent acts that have often ripped away the very core of women who have been trapped under injustice in Papua New Guinea. These women have been on the receiving end where 80 percent of all violence against women reports currently still go unpunished.

“If you dig deep beneath the pain of Sokhin’s images you can find compassion and a rising sense of outrage in the desperate needs for protection of all women,” says WNN – Women News Network founder and editor-at-large Lys Anzia.

Sokhin’s project “Crying Meri” was selected for a screening at Visa Pour L’Image 2012 in Perpignan, France. His photos have also been displayed by a United Nations educational campaign in Papua New Guinea, addressing the issue of violence against women.

Photographer Vlad is clearly talented and humble. His work has been published in many international newspapers and magazines including National Geographic Traveler (Poland), Vi Menn (Norway),  GEO Voyage (France), Stern Gesund Leben (Germany), The Age (Australia), Publica (Portugal), Le Monde des Religions (France), Ogoniok (Russia), GEO (Germany), Vokrug Sveta (Russia), NPR (USA), Correio de Manha (Portugal), Independent Newspaper (Russia),  AOL News (USA), Ca m’interesse (France), Sacvoyage (Russia), and VIVA Magazine (Poland), among others.

This fascinating interview by Svetlana Bachevanova with Vlad Sokhin shows how image and photography is key to exposing the needs today for improvement and change to help both women and men in our global society:


Svetlana Bachevanova: Your project Crying Meri documents widespread sexual abuse of woman in Papua New Guinea, where over 60% of women report being assaulted. How did you become interested in this project?

Vlad Sokhin: I have been interested in Papua New Guinea for a very long time. When I moved to Australia, in September of last year, I decided that Papua New Guinea would be the first country to visit and work on a project. I started doing a research on possible ideas for projects and stumbled on a large report on the violence against women, made by the Constitutional and Law Reform Commission in 1992. I was shocked by the facts and figures and began to look for some photographic evidence of this horror. Among the photo-stories about the country’s culture, tribes, masks and festivals I did not find anything about violence against women. At this point, I decided that this theme interested me a lot and I needed to just go and start working on it.

SB. What were your goals for the project when you started?

VS. My first idea was to do just a small photo-essay. During the first week of shooting, I was not even sure that I got anything of value. Almost blindly, I found the characters for the story. Papua New Guinea is a very bureaucratic country with a very slow pace of life. If somebody tells you that it will take a day to receive permission to photograph in a hospital, it may take few days before you receive it. But then everything seemed straightforward and I knew that I had everything I needed to start working on the project about violence against women. By the middle of shooting, I realized that it would be something bigger than just a photo-essay.

I witnessed so much grief that I felt that, I simply did not have the right to just leave and not come back to try to do something to help these women. I certainly do not believe that nowadays a picture can change the world, but at least it helps to inform and raise awareness about the problem. So I hope that there are people who will see my work and they will be willing and able to change at least something in the country. I just believe that there are people in the country with the opportunity to help. They just need to want to, so I hope my work inspires them.

SB. How did you gain access to pursue the project?

VS. Before I left for Papua New Guinea, I contacted the Russian Honorary Consul Maria Lavrentieva in the country and asked if she could help me with permission to shoot. As a result, a few days after my arrival, I was able to shoot without any problems: at the main hospital in the country and at the Family Support Centre. Also I went and knocked on the doors of various organizations that help women, police stations and prisons. Almost everywhere I was given the green light without any problems. In general, Papua New Guinea is quite an interesting country. There is constant chaos and violence on the streets, but no one cares if someone photographing all of this. I think that in Russia or Australia it would be much harder to obtain permission for such recording.

SB. You photographed and talked to women who were victims of a rape and violence. What did they tell you? How did they react to being photographed?

VS. Women told me their stories; many of which just shocked me. For example the story of Helena Michael, 40, who on December 27, 2011 was attacked by a ‘cannibal’ near the Boroko police station, in the central part of Port Moresby. The attacker bit off Helena’s lower lip and wanted to sink his teeth into her throat. The woman managed to escape by kicking her assailant in his testicles and biting three of his fingers, forcing him to release her. Police arrested the man and found out that it was his third attempt to eat human flesh. Having spent three days in the hospital, Helena went to the police station to initiate criminal proceedings against the cannibal but discovered that he had been released due to the lack of complaints.

The first time I heard about this story from a local journalist, I thought that it would help my project if I could find this woman. I called some journalists, asked about her in all social centers and hospitals and went to the Boroko police station, where that case was reported. Everyone heard about this terrible story, but no one could help me find Helena. Even the police didn’t have her contact details. Then one day I was passing a square in the center of Port Moresby and saw a woman, walking in my direction.

Attacked Papuan woman with missing lip
After asking 40-year-old Helena Michael if it would be alright to take her picture, photographer Vlad Sokhin took this shocking, but honest, image of injury. Helen was attacked by a Papuan man who considers himself to be a ‘cannibal’. During the attack the attacker bit off Helena’s lower lip. Managing to escape her attacker by kicking and biting him, he released Helena, which probably saved her life. By late 2012 Helena Michael was still waiting for the hospital’s approval to start surgery with a skin graft for her missing lip. Image: Vlad Sokhin

On her lower lip I saw a bandage. When she approached me, I suddenly thought that she might be that victim of the cannibal. When she came closer to me I looked at her face and noticed that the bandage was attached in a way that her lower lip could be seen. But instead of the lip I saw a hole with teeth. I stopped her and carefully asked if she might be that woman from newspapers. “Yes, it’s me,” she said, “I saw you yesterday in the hospital taking pictures. I thought that you are a foreign journalist and wanted to tell you my story but was too shy to approach you.” I could not believe my luck. Helena agreed to be photographed and told me in detail about that horrible attack. She is still waiting for the hospital’s approval to start surgery for skin graft on her missing lip.

Or, during my second trip to the country in the highlands region, I met victims of sorcery-related violence. Locals often accuse women of witchcraft and violently attack them, chopping off their limbs with bush knives and axes or burning the body with hot iron. Few can survive such tortures.

The ones who are lucky and survive are completely ignored by society. No one, except perhaps relatives, pays for their treatment at the hospital. But the problem is that many of the relatives themselves often leave such women in distress. The government does nothing for them. Abandoned by their husbands, the women cannot return to their villages, where they will be killed if they try to come back. No one knows what to do with them and nobody seems to care. There are no special shelters or centers for protection of women. They are left on their own and live in fear of what horrible torture can happen again. After all, no one punishes the torturers. They live quietly in their homes and commit their crimes again and again.

A few times women refused to be photographed. Many were simply glad that they were able to tell the community about what happened to them. Sometimes I decided for myself not to show some of the photographs I took. They were too brutal and I do not want to shock or scare the audience.

SB. You also met and photographed men who had assaulted women. What did they tell you? How did they explain their actions?

VS. After few days in Port Moresby, listening all these horror stories about gangs known as ‘raskols’, I decided to include in my project the other side of the story or to show those who created this problem. After several unsuccessful attempts to communicate with some of the gang members, I finally met with a former gang leader “Dirty Dons 585”. He led me to a place that gang members use to rape girls. There were several young men, many of them holding knives and homemade guns and pistols. They showed me a table, which the gang uses to rape. They described how they used taxi drivers to bring their passengers to the slums. Many boasted that they had raped several women. I did not see even a trace of sorrow for what they did.

In the prison cells of the police station, the prisoners I interviewed were amused to tell about their crimes against women. Later, after visiting the provincial part of the country, I realized that this attitude toward women is widespread. It does not matter whether the rapist is a bandit or a farmer.

For most men in Papua New Guinea, women are a commodity. They pay a fee to the bride’s parents and they believe that this gives them the freedom to do with them whatever they want. And the saddest part of this problem is the fact that many cases of abuse against women occur in wealthy families of lawyers, police officers, pastors, and even politicians. Around 80% of the cases remain unpunished.

SB. How has the government of Papua New Guinea addressed this issue?

VS. I think that this is not what interests the government now. Before last elections the country was in the major political crisis. The Police split into two groups and sometimes there were shootouts between these groups. There is no funding for the police from the government. What kind of assistance from the police can the victim of a crime expect if they have to give the police money for gas so their can travel to the crime scene.

Women receive help from a variety of international organizations but this is just a drop in the ocean compared to the number of victims. There is a big advertising campaign now in Papua New Guinea against the abuse of women but, as far as I know, this campaign is not financed by the government.

SB. “Crying Meri” was selected as a finalist for the 2012 FotoEvidence Book Award. Has receiving this award helped you in pursuing your goals for this project?

VS. Of course it helped! A couple days after the results from the 2012 FotoEvidence Book Award were announced, I started receiving emails and phone calls from a variety of media and organizations, offering their assistance in promoting the project. The UN expressed interest in my project and invited me to organize an exhibit in Papua New Guinea. Just now I am negotiating the possibility of cooperation with Papua New Guinea’s National Broadcasting Corporation. Pictures from my project will be used in the documentary film “Why Me?” by Papua New Guinea’s director Raka Gamini about crimes committed against women in the country.

When I submitted my project to the 2012 Fotoevidence Book Award, I was planning to finish it in April 2012. Now, I see what lies ahead is still a lot of work and I plan to visit Papua New Guinea multiple times this year. I want not only to complete the work but also to help the victims of the daily violence in the country. This is my hope.


Tapora and Sarah, two women from Papua New Guinea, visit New York to report to the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Violence against women in Papua New Guinea is widespread, and the PNG Government has failed to take adequate action. The visit was paid for by the donations of Amnesty International supporters. This July 28, 2010 video release is a production by Amnesty International Australia.


Family violence has reached epidemic levels in Papua New Guinea, the South Pacific’s largest nation.Two out of three women experience domestic violence and 50 per cent of women have experienced forced sex or gang rape in the South Pacific’s biggest country.In PNG’s Western Highlands Provinces, 97 per cent of women surveyed by an NGO said they had been attacked by male family members. From middle-class households in the capital Port Moresby to villages where tribal law rules an estimated one million children live in volatile family environments. This July 13, 2012 video release is the twenty-seventh television production of the Al Jazeera English show ‘101 East’ with correspondent Drew Ambrose.


For more information on this topic:


Born in 1981 Vlad Sokhin studied photography through the IADE Creative University (Lisbon, Portugal). He also studied photojournalism and documentary photography in the TCI Emerging Photographer Program. Participant of photojournalism workshops by photographer Sergey Maximishin in Portugal and Kenya. He is represented by ‘Agentur Focus’.

Interviewer Svetlana Bachevanova studied photography at the University of Sofia, Bulgaria. She began her career as a medical photographer but was soon able to join her love and skill in photography with her political passion by becoming the chief photographer and photo editor for “Democracy,” the first anti-communist newspaper in Bulgaria. In this role she reported, photographed and edited for the primary media outlet of the democratic movement that transformed the country between 1987 and 1991. Her book, “The Street,” documents the conflict that played out in demonstrations and encampments as the democratic opposition ousted the Communist regime nonviolently. Serving as the official photographer for the first democratically elected Prime Minister Filip Dimitrov of Bulgaria, Bachevanova went on to be the first female Director of Photography for the Bulgarian National News Agency. She covered the revolution in Romania, the war in Kosovo, photographing mass graves that provided some of the first evidence of Serbian war crimes against the Muslim population in the country. She camped inside the Parliament building in Vilnius, Lithuania during a week-long siege by Soviet forces. She covered the 1991 Soviet coup d’état attempt. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, the NY Times, Paris Match, W, Marie Claire and many other publications. She has exhibited in USA, The Moth of Photography in France, Italy, Greece, Germany, Brazil, Japan among others.

“FotoEvidence is proud to have contributed to the wide dissemination of this important documentation of violent, social injustice directed at women,” says Svetlana Bachevanova.

(editing for the introduction to this interview has been created by the editors at WNN – Women News Network)


2013 WNN – Women News Network
No part of this article release may be reproduced without prior permissions from WNN, Fotoevidence or the interviewer photojournalist Svetlana Bachevanova.