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A Meeting of Cultures Creates a New Vision of a Tribal Tradition

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Clay and Ash 3

“We clicked in a random museum, in the middle of a blackout, on a rainy day,” Roberto Falck says of meeting John Walters, a volunteer at the McCarthy Museum in Goroka, Papua New Guinea. Falck, a portrait photographer, was in the country to continue a decadelong visual exploration that had taken him to places like Ecuador, Morocco, and Kenya, making photographs that convey the aesthetic beauty of tribal traditions. That afternoon, he had ducked into the small ethnographic museum to take a break from his travels.

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Clay and Ash 15
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Clay and Ash 1

Ideas were churning in Falck’s head from having spent a couple of days in a nearby Chimbu village. The Chimbu have a tradition of painting themselves as skeletons as a mode of psychological intimidation, and they’re often photographed. Thanks to an introduction from a local tour guide, members of the tribe had offered to don their body paint and pose for Falck, and the shoot had gotten his creative juices flowing. But he wanted to take his ideas further. What if, instead of photographing a tradition that already existed, he took elements of it and created something new?

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Skeleton series

Falck was the only visitor in the museum, but Walters offered to show him around anyway. The two struck up a conversation. Falck shared what he had done with the skeleton series and talked through what he was thinking of next, even though at that point he wasn’t sure how to pull it off. “We had a play of energies when we put our heads together,” Falck says. Walters offered to help, effectively becoming Falck’s onsite producer.

Walters enlisted the help of his community on the outskirts of Goroka, where more members of the Chimbu tribe lived. His wife suggested they set up the shoot in their front yard, where there was a tree for an overhead vantage point. Neighbors brought bed sheets, which they hung from the branches to create soft light on the ground. A friend of Walters’s found the models, whom Falck hired. A crowd gathered to watch. “It became an event that we were doing in the middle of this little town,” Falck says.

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The models painted themselves using the materials the Chimbu use for their traditional skeleton designs—clay from the banks of the local river and ash from burned wood mixed with water. With Walters acting as a translator, Falck directed the models to arrange their bodies in different configurations, using the shapes of their bodies as a guide. “It was kind of a creative process on the go,” Falck says. “I’ve always been interested in shapes and how they come together. It was almost like a [human] puzzle.”

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While Falck has experience both producing fine art shoots at home in New York and making environmental portraits on his travels, this impromptu cultural exchange was inspiring—and unexpected. “Creating something new in this world is hard. It’s hardly ever a one-man thing. There are things you can do with different cultures—regardless of ethnicity, language, geography—to collaborate.”

Skeletons” and “Clay and Ash


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