By Jenny Neyman
Herb Schaan’s physical view has changed considerably over the last 40 years — from one end of the Pacific Rim to the other, trading vistas of the lush green mountainsides of the Enga Province of Papua New Guinea for the flat blue expanse of Cook Inlet and snowy Alaska Mountains beyond.
He’s incorporated much of the former into his life in the latter. His home atop the bluff in North Kenai is decorated with treasures from his time in Papua New Guinea — intricately woven brightly colored bags made by New Guinea women and sold at open-air market stands; shiny, crescent-shaped Kina shells, which served as money in the traditional, trade-based economy; and, of course, the photos. Stacks and boxes of prints and slides of images, shot on still-bright Kodachrome film, documenting his time doing missionary work in the country.
When he was shooting during the mid-1960s to 1980s, it was in the vein of anthropological endeavor to document the culture and society of the Enga Province residents, who lived a traditional lifestyle in an area of the country that had previously been closed to outsiders. Forty years later, those photos have become more than just supplements to Schaan’s memory of that chapter of his life. With the Enga region on the verge of massive, near-instantaneous change, Schaan’s photos have become a vital link to the region’s history and traditional ways, and are being incorporated into a new museum and cultural center designed to help Enga residents remember where they’ve come from as they rocket along an uncharted path toward a future of greater integration with the modern world.
Schaan arrived in Papua New Guinea — the independent, eastern half of the world’s second-largest island, off the coast of Australia — in the mid-1960s as a missionary with the Lutheran Church. Previously, outsiders were only allowed along the coastal areas of the country. After World War II, inland regions, including the mountainous Enga Province, were opened to outside access, including to the Catholics and Lutherans, which had already established a presence in the coastal areas.
“People wanted medicine and education and the goodies that the outside world had,” Schaan said. “… We were sent to help set up hospitals and schools and do it in a Christian framework that was liberal to the culture, that did not damage the culture. We were under orders to respect the local ways.”
Schaan and his fellow Lutheran missionaries were tasked with studying the language and culture, and Schaan picked it up better than most. He served as an evangelism director, which had him traveling throughout the province and brought him in contact with many of the residents.
“I knew the language, I have to say, probably better than anybody else, and I had the grassroots connections in a lot of the areas,” he said.
Wherever he went, he brought his Pentax camera with him, enabling him to capture images of life and culture still operating in traditional ways.
“I went through a wide area and met a lot of people, so I had photography a lot of people didn’t have,” he said.
That photography was relegated to storage after he left Papua New Guinea in the 1980s and settled in Kenai. But when a project began to create a cultural museum in Wabang, Enga Province, one of the coordinators of the project got in contact with Schaan and asked if he could contribute photos from his time in the region to the museum. He was happy to oblige in an effort to preserve the fabric of a culture that is rapidly twisting into new patterns. Continue reading