What better way to describe hair than ‘grass’, sprouting out wherever it decides, never-endingly growing until it’s trimmed; Tok Pisin providing an alternative, simple and slightly cheeky way to refer to such a familiar noun.
Hair is one of the things that defines us as mammals with attitudes towards it varying widely across different cultures. In Papua New Guinea (PNG), it is undeniable the stark, beauty of a head full of white grass and I am transfixed whenever I see the extreme contrast. These shimmering strands atop wise faces are captivating. This photo series captures some of the men and women with pure white hair that I have encountered on my travels and some stories about where I have crossed their paths.
This beautiful lady, sat on the side of the road in the highlands town of Goroka was so happy for me to capture her photo. Sitting quietly selling small goods outside her house I couldn’t help being mesmerised by the warmth of her smile, her modern blue earrings and the reminder of my bubu mama back at home.
The original white grass
The original ‘white grass’, David lives on the coast road in Madang with his family. He is a retired teacher, rich with stories to share. When I travel down the coast road, David happily waves and shouts hello, unless he is sat calmly on the rocks looking out to the sea in contemplation. A true Madang man, proud of his Tok Ples (local language) and keen to share insights into how he has the power to heal using his hands.
Mobe is a tiny buai seller that sits at the top of the road where I work. I pass her nearly every day and she always sits, cross legged with a smile waiting to sell her bettlenut to passers by. Madang born and bred, Mobe sells these small goods to provide a little money for her family. She walks the short distance from her home, her slight stature weighed down with her bag of wares, slightly crooked with the beginnings of kyphosis.
On the celebration of PNG’s 50th year of independence I travelled to Kundiawa, a remote part of the highlands. In a small village on the way to Mount Wilhelm we joined a celebration where I spotted this beautiful, small lady. She was sat with her bilum and market bag smoking bruce, a local cigarette, proudly listening to speeches. Her fluffy white hair like a cloud on top of her head. Everyone was interested in what we were doing at the gathering but it was this lady that captured my attention.
It’s not just head hair that looks striking it’s also mouth grass too! A truely wise, Hagen man with his traditionally knitted Hagen hat who I met at the Goroka show.
And with white grass also comes other defining features of traditions that have become less common as time passes by. This Hagen lady stood in side profile shows her septum piercing, something that is much less common in younger Papua New Guineans. A face of many stories and tales of times quite different to how things are now.
Maria, with her stunning white hair and slightly freckled cheeks is from Alexishafen in Madang. I was instantly transfixed by her light eyes and her warmth as she sat in her long meri blaus listening carefully at the End Violence Against Women event at Modilon hospital. She is part of a Catholic Mama’s group and had travelled into town to show her support to eliminate violence in PNG.
Elizabeth is a strong, coastal woman and long term haus meri for the Jones’ family and others before that. This moment, while she glances away from the camera, captures the traditional markings on her face, so common in the older generations of Papua New Guinean women. Such a striking face with so many stories in her eyes.
Sat cross legged, under a huge rain tree was this market mama selling some of her handicrafts. With bilums that she had made by hand, hung behind her on the wire fence I couldn’t help being drawn to her shining eyes and snow white hair.
I have a suspicion that this isn’t the end of my captivation with white grass. Every day I see so many faces that I’d love to capture and stories I’d love to share but sometimes its not possible with the necessary precautions that you need to take to stay safe, my greatest sadness when it comes to life in PNG. This won’t deter me though and I hope to continue to capture these glitter topped portraits as my journey continues.