Even in the 21st century, travel around the Pacific Island of Papua New Guinea is challenging. Rugged mountains protect isolated valleys and the island’s topography helped create many culturally distinct – and (historically) mutually hostile – cultures and communities. It’s said that even today, there are significant pockets of uncharted territory in Papua New Guinea. Photographer Sean Caffrey arrived in Papua New Guinea in time to photograph the Goroka Sing-Sing, established in 1957 by the island’s Australian administration to foster peaceful interaction between the fearsome Highland tribes of Papua New Guinea. Since then, the Goroka Show has become a world famous event, but with many more local spectators than foreign tourists, the Show remains true to its foundations. Sing-Sing participants from the Kunai tribe invited Caffrey to see their preparations for the Show.
More than 100 different tribes congregate to celebrate their differences in rhythmic song and dance and the show becomes a vivid kaleidoscope of face paint, fantastic headdresses and traditional costume, adorned with all manner of leaves, bone, shells, skins, and feathers from the island’s unique Birds of Paradise. Considering the intricacy of the headdresses, it’s a wonder that there are any Birds of Paradise left in Papua New Guinea.
Apart from the spectacular Goroka Show, Sean Caffrey spent time with the Huli People, also called the Wigmen for their painstakingly created headdresses of real human hair and the people of the Karawari River. In both these remote communities, he learned plenty about the islanders’ apparently idyllic close-to-nature lifestyle, yet was regaled by tales of vendetta, of bloody ritual, headhunting and cannibalism, all of which (he was told) have now been eradicated in Papua New Guinea. Never once did he fear for his head amongst these friendly welcoming people.