Ryan Schram Yawahigu ana amwahao

The visual language of race and the reproduction and reuse of images in Papuan Times

Papuan Times, a self-described “paper for Papuans” produced by graduates of the Kwato mission school in the 1950s, often traced published photographs for use as illustrations in its mimeographed issues. For example, it makes use of the cover image from the January 1952 of Pacific Islands Monthly, as well as copies the text of the caption:

Pacific Islands Monthly. 1952. “Cover Photo: ‘Recruit for Malaya.’” Pacific Islands Monthly, January 1952. http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-318491938.

Papuan Times. 1952. “Recruit for Malaya.” Papuan Times, February 22, p. 2. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/250495398.

The picture is a close up of a Fijian member of the Pacific Islands Regiment from below as he gazes outward with a broad smile and gleaming white teeth.

Scholars of visual representations of Pacific Islanders will recognize the trope of the “Bula smile” which this image employs, as well as a faint gesture to the idea of Fijian men as warriors. In copying and reusing this image, Papuan Times also reinforces the associated visual language of difference which circulated in settler and Australian media at the time (and arguably still does today).

Papuan Times editors were aware of the racial symbolism of images. For instance, when the South Pacific Post published an editorial cartoon featuring a racist caricature of a Papuan man, Papuan Times published an editorial denouncing it as an insult, although in relatively muted terms.

The South Pacific Post. 1954. “Educated in Australia, of course!” The South Pacific Post, January 13, p. 10.

Papuan Times. 1954. “Bad cartoon about us.” Papuan Times, January 21, p. 4. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/250496836.

Given that the editors were critical and sophisticated consumers of visual representations as well as faithful copyists, I am currently trying to figure out both the sources of other, more ambiguous images and the reasons why they were chosen in the ways that they were. This image, for instance, superficially appears to have been traced from another source, possibly a photograph.

Papuan Times. 1951. “A new look for Papua…” Papuan Times, June 8, p. 5. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/250494838.

Here it is stripped of visual cues and captions which would place it in a specific context. It is also recontextualized through the slogan-like caption surrounding the image. The figure, rather than being a specific individual, is made into a generic Papuan and model for readers as a new kind of Papuan. Where did the original picture come from, and more importantly why was it chosen for this purpose?