Arts & Culture

Papua New Guinea unveiled: exclusive photos of the nation’s tribal culture

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“I knew that getting on a plane and leaving would have been a big failure or a big letdown,” she says. “I needed to stay.”

Chimbu chief face paint feather headdress
A Chimbu tribe chief’s face is painted with charcoal and crushed seashells. Bird of paradise feathers adorn his headdress and nose piercing. “What I am documenting and preserving is this incredible, intangible world heritage – a conglomeration of cultures,” Wylda Bayrón says. “It’s quickly fading, but the beautiful thing is that it’s also very much alive.” Photograph: Wylda Bayrón

Photographer Wylda Bayron spoke about her Papua New Guinea adventure in two Defining Moment podcasts. Here are some of the stunning photos she shot on the trip

Wylda Bayron went to Papua New Guinea to photograph its unique culture, but the first week of her trip wound up like a scene in an action movie. She was confronted with a nation hit by violence, the result of political unrest. Bayrón spoke about her experiences for the Defining Moment podcast series.

Bayron was faced with a tough decision: should she risk her life by attempting to complete her project or return home to New York City? “I knew that getting on a plane and leaving would have been a big failure or a big letdown,” she says. “I needed to stay.”

That decision became Bayron’s Defining Moment. Over the course of a year she gained the trust of several tribes who allowed her to photograph ceremonies that had previously been unseen by outsiders. Take a look at some of the scenes that Bayron captured, which will be included in her book, Alive.

Baining fire dancer mask
Baining fire dancers perform while drummers and singers build a rhythm. The mask symbolizes the spirit of a bird. “Back in the day, the red in the mask was obtained by scraping the tongue of the maskmaker and applying the blood,” Bayrón explains. “And all the red areas that you see, as well as the tail, used to be sewn into the body of the dancer.” Photograph: Wylda Bayron


man drum feather headdress
This chief of a western highlands tribe is drumming at a festival. His headdress is made up of several bird of paradise feathers as well as whole birds. “I understood how important it was that we preserve this culture properly,” Bayón says. “I made sure to tell them: ‘Take your time. Show me the best example of your traditional dress or the best example that describes you to the world’.” Photograph: Wylda Bayron


men face paint wig
Huli wigmen use modern paints to create dramatic facial decorations. The wigs are made from weaving their own hair into a thin wooden frame. “The common thread of my work is to show how individuals become a community,” Bayron says. Photograph: Wylda Bayron
woman face painted charcoal oil
A woman from the highlands of Papua New Guinea has her face painted with charcoal and oil. “In order for me to create this grassroots preservation project, I was taken care of by a lot of women – they were really decisive in their support for me,” Bayron says. “That was really important because it gave me safety, it gave me love and it gave me the local knowledge.” Photograph: Wylda Bayron


men painted white skeleton
Performers re-enact a traditional war tale by painting themselves with melted tire rubber, charcoal, ground up seashells and oil. Bayron gained locals’ trust by immersing herself in their culture, and even learned how to speak Pidgin. “Pidgin is a language that you can only learn from being there, because it’s transmitted orally,” she says. “The tribes knew that I had been there long enough to at least learn the language, gain a new soul and be adopted.” Photograph: Wylda Bayron
boy headdress feathers orchid stems
A young boy wears a headdress made from cassowary feathers and orchid stems as part of his traditional attire. Capturing moments such as these and bonding with the locals – some of whom she still keeps in touch with via WhatsApp – have shaped Bayron as person and as an artist. “I don’t want to imagine my life any other way than the way it happened,” Bayron says. “I’m very thankful for the experiences because they really made me so much more grateful for the life that I have and of the family that I have – including my new family.” Photograph: Wylda Bayron