Violence, Almost Unspeakable, Made Visible
His photos were adopted by pressure groups fighting abuses against women. Papua New Guinea’s laws changed. Vlad Sokhin’s work contributed to measurable change
Panos photographer Vlad Sokhin describes himself as a human rights documentary photographer. A recent recipient of the Humanity Photo Award by UNESCO CFPA for a series of cultural stories from Papua New Guinea, Sokhin is determined to bring change through his photography. Blink’s Laurence Cornet speaks with Sokhin about his reporting on abuses against women, how he funds the difficult work and what advice he has for freelancers.
Laurence: Can you describe the situation you witnessed in Papua New Guinea in terms of violence against women?
Vlad Sokhin: I started to investigate the issue in 2011. While the statistics were horrible, the issue was not talked about outside of Papua Guinea at the time. I read reports saying that in some areas of Papua New Guinea up to 99% of women were subjected to violence — physical, psychological and sexual.
Sadly, from what I saw, it was close to true.
In Port Moresby, the capital, there were a lot of gangs of young men known as Raskol gangs. They were not only attacking women in private, but publicly as well. Women were attacked in public transport, where even taxi-drivers were involved and sometimes raped, or killed them.
When I started to go to the family support centers, emergency rooms and police stations, I saw women with black eyes, and all kinds of bloody wounds caused by knives or axes. I heard horrible stories.
Laurence: What is the situation in other parts of Papua New Guinea?
Vlad: There are some communities that are very peaceful — I met a lot of men that protect women but they are in the minority. Most of the violence happens in the highland regions, where some people still live with the mentality of tribal wars and in an era where women were worth less than a pig.
In these areas, witch hunts are still happening. When someone dies in the community from a heart-attack or anything they can not really explain because of a lack of education, they blame someone, usually women who are vulnerable. They torture them or even burn them alive. I have seen some photographs of horrible witch trials and I met many victims that barely survived. They cut their hand, or put a hot iron bar in their vagina — things you can’t imagine.
There is sexual violence that they don’t hesitate to inflict on their own children. I met a mother who escaped from her husband after he raped their six-month-old daughter.
Laurence: How was it covered or talked about at that time?
Vlad: There was no photographer working on this issue. I had seen single images from photographers working for NGOs, but no one was talking about the real scale of the problem.
“ I have seen some photographs of horrible witch trials and I met many victims that barely survived.”
When I started, I wasn’t commissioned by anyone. I pitched the story to several magazines but there was no interest. After my first trip to Papua New Guinea, I submitted my work to the FotoEvidence Book awards. I was a finalist and my photos were published on the FotoEvidence website along with my interview.
People from the Papua New Guinean office of the United Nations Human Rights agency saw it and contacted me. One thing led to another and they offered me to work for them and do some stories. Then, Amnesty International and other charities began to commission me to continue my work. Publications came after.
Laurence: Can you talk about your work with NGOs? Is it different in the way you document stories for magazines and yourself?
Vlad: When you work for an NGO, you have an agenda. They give you access, they organize everything for you to work on their campaigns. But some NGOs trusted me and let me work on my own.
The outcome of working with an NGO is different. For example, I took a picture of a woman that was attacked by a man who bit off her lip. I showed this photo to several NGOs and one of them, Childfund Australia, wanted to help her.
After two years, we found this woman and they partnered with Interplast, an NGO that gives free plastic surgery to people in developing countries and they performed a free operation for her. So, it is not changing the world but it is helping some people and these are things of which I am proud.
Laurence: On that note can you talk about the law against domestic violence that was passed in Papua New Guinea and inspired by your project?
Vlad: People waited for this law for many years but it didn’t happen until 2013. Women started to protest in Papua New Guinea, but also in the US, Australia, Fiji and New Zealand. In these protests they were carrying the images from my series Crying Meri and showing them to the government.
In 2013, after these protests and uprising, the government of Papua New Guinea decided to change the law. The prime minister, Peter O’Neill, apologized to all the women of Papua New Guinea and, for the first time in history, criminalized domestic violence. They also repealed the Sorcery Act.
Laurence: How did you manage to make this impact?
Vlad: In Brisbane, Australia, there was a protest organized by the Amnesty International and other local NGOs and they were using my photos because they knew I was working on the subject. National Haus Krai Movement in Papua New Guinea used some of my pictures, too. When I go there and photograph, I approach these people. The organisers work in family support centers and women’s shelters. They are known to me and they know my work, so when they needed help I was always giving them pictures. I’m proud that my images were part of this process of changing local laws and somehow helped to make the real impact.
Laurence: It is an achievement for a photographer to see the impact of his besides photos, you also do video and work on multimedia projects. Is it because it touches different people or because it spreads a different message?
Vlad: Nowadays, you need to try and use all available media if your work is about advocacy and human rights. For example, together with Duckrabbit, a UK based multimedia company, we produced a BBC Radio documentary about the same issue of domestic violence. I was a presenter and they followed me while I was working. In Papua New Guinea, there is Internet everywhere, but most people are connected to the world through radio which is why I decided to participate in it. I also produced short documentaries and multimedia projects because it is a different way to show the situation.
Laurence: You self-censored several photos. Can you talk in that context about the limit of photography as evidence?
Vlad: I want to show the truth but I am always careful. I went to the hospital once and there was a young woman who had been raped. She was shivering and shocked. She gave me the consent to take her picture, but I understood that she was not thinking clearly. So, I decided to come the following day when she had calmed down. When you take a photo of someone, he or she needs to understand where this photo goes.
Laurence: I am curious about the series Last of the Dani in relation to the role and use of photography. In this case, it has historical value because you document a disappearing tribe, but at the same time it questions the visual representation spread by the media because these tribes are actually making money out of tourism. And, why? Because tourists come to look for this stereotypical image.
Vlad: When I went to document this tribe in West Papua, Indonesia and saw these people, I was a bit disappointed. When they see tourists, they run to their houses, take off their clothes and pretend that they are a genuine tribe. My approach was to show them from a different side. West Papua and Papua New Guinea’s economies are booming. Why do most photographers not document that?
Vlad: For me, it was a brilliant way to show this situation because the transition between the past — the so-called stone-age — and the present time is happening so fast, and it is fascinating to me to photograph how the society changes. In tribal wars, no one uses bow and arrows anymore. People use Kalashnikovs and kill each other using hand-made guns.
These sort of things, for me, are very interesting; not how other media try to present this. I never try to please the editors. When I am working on my own I really try to show what the situation really looks like, and most of the editors understand.
Laurence: Talking about editors, how do you balance your work, financially?
Vlad Sokhin: Thirty percent of my work are magazine assignments. The rest are assignments for the UN and NGO’s. I also trying to approach the local governments, major cities, museums and universities. This is a very big market that many photographers don’t know about, but it is where I am getting a majority of my work from.
“When you take a photo of someone, he or she needs to understand where this photo goes.”
Unfortunately, work in mainstream media is scarce. It is easier to sell my existing work many times over than to receive a call from a major media company. And when you get an assignment, what can you really show in three days? So I prefer to find different sources of funding to be able to stay in places where I work longer and be able to comeback there several times.
Laurence: What are your suggestions for young freelancers who’d like to pursue similar projects?
Vlad Sokhin: Language is another necessary skill. It is easier to work on the ground because more people trust you and give you access. And, the more languages you know, the more jobs you get. I learned this from my experience in Papua New Guinea, where I got some assignments because I speak the local language.
Vlad Sokhin is a documentary photographer, videographer and multimedia producer who has worked for various international media organizations including the International Herald Tribune, BBC World Service, The Guardian, National Geographic Traveler, GEO, ABC, NPR, The Atlantic, Stern, Le Monde among others. He is represented internationally by Panos Pictures.
Laurence Cornet is a writer, a photography critic and a curator based in Brooklyn. Her clients include L’Oeil de la Photographie, The Magnum Foundation, Images magazine, Vice, MSNBC, Vogue and Camera.