Crocodile Scarification – Shooting for National Geographic – Crocodile Tears

“……About that crocodile man thing,”  I said. “I wanted to explain that if I’d known you better, I would have done exactly the same thing. The only difference would have been that if you had known me better you would have realised that I didn’t do it to be mean, I just wanted a different energy to the one it would have attracted if we had both been there shooting at the same time.”

And so it was that I tried to justify to a veteran National Geographic photographer, why I locked her out of a photo shoot I’d pre-arranged with two initiates of a crocodile scarification ceremony on the Sepik River.
Alison Wright and I had been traveling together for three days as part of an organised tour of the Sepik River when we arrived at Karawari Lodge where we had a day to shoot before returning to Port Moresby. Ali – as I’d discovered over the course of the journey – had shot all over the world as a documentary photographer for a plethora of top-shelf magazines and newspapers including National Geographic and The New York Times. She’d done a cover shot – probably several – for “the yellow book” and, more recently, photographed the devastation in Haiti. A lap-top presentation she gave to our group clearly established her credentials.
I quite liked her. We were about the same age and I suspect we may have enjoyed each other’s company as we shared similar lifestyles but time didn’t allow for it and, well, we had work to do.
Clearly, Ali was out of her element working within the  confines of a packaged tour as it’s a world away from rummaging through war-torn landscapes on your own in search of emotive images. With two cameras dangling from her neck and several lenses around her waist, she’d travelled half way around the world with the expectation of shooting those iconic PNG portraits, only to find herself trapped on a boat shooting lesser cultural shots in bad light with a handful of tourists. As she muttered jokingly, she was locked into “a shopping trip of the Sepik River.” And what made it worse, I suspect, was this other photographer sitting on the boat who had just shot the places in PNG she had wanted to go to and was creating better photo opportunities only because he was familiar with the country and spoke the native pidgin. “Bastard!” she must have been thinking as she scrutinized the shadows that raced to keep up with us beneath the harsh midday light.
It was within this context, that I had mixed feelings about working close to another professional photographer. On one hand, I empathized with her predicament and I wanted to help her out but, on the other, I was eager to get the better photograph (this was, after all, my turf – National Geographic or not). Still, guided by my better angles, I invited Ali to join me on a boat to capture some more appealing angles of a spirit house and I shared information that I thought might be helpful.
Beyond  that, however, I  determined to create an opportunity for myself and made a clandestine arrangement for two initiates of the crocodile scarification ceremony to meet me for a private shooting session a day away on the Karawari River. John Fairfull- the manager of the vessel we were traveling the Sepik on (and one of only three white men to be initiated into the crocodile cult) was helpful as I’d taken his picture (follows) and given him copies for a book he was writing of his experience – as were several nationals I befriended.
So, there we are, 24 hours later, all squeezed onto the back of a four wheel drive with no rear doors, slowly making our way from Karawari Lodge down to the river and yet another cultural performance when the two young men, no shirts, chests amazingly scarred to resemble the head of a crocodile, jumped onto the rear bumper of the truck. “David”, says the tour leader excitedly, “here are the boys you wanted.” Excellent, I thought (No doubt, so did Ali). At this stage, the two young men appeared to join the group as we transferred to the boat and made our way across the river to the sago making performance but, as the boat berthed and the tourist alighted, I touched Ali’s arm and said I’d see her later as the boys and I were going somewhere else.
Clearly she was flustered, trying to think of a way to come with us and photograph the young men. “What about when you’re finished?” she proffered.
“Actually, no,” I replied – politely but assertively, “I have organised this shoot to be private. I’m sure you’d do the same if the roles were reversed.” I added
“I don’t think so,” she said as she stepped, reluctantly, off the boat.
I spent two hours photographing the initiates (following Blog entry). We paddled up river and walked to a pool of water for the shoot that produced the following pictures which I shot in a documentary style, returning on darkness as Ali was pulling in from a sunset cruise.
“Are you still talking to me?” I asked.
I missed her reply.
As I wrote in the beginning of this entry, there would definitely have been a different “energy” if Ali had accompanied me. I wouldn’t have had as much time as I would have tried to accommodate her needs, and the mood for the sensuality I was seeking to capture would simply not have been there. Also, her shooting a similar picture would have undervalued my work as we both sought to sell our images on the open market  (beyond that, I reasoned,  how am I ever going to become a photographer of National Geographic status if I go giving my opportunities away to photographers who have already reached such lofty heights!).
In closing, I enjoy sharing my profession with other photographers – amateurs and professionals – and I like to push myself and compete for better photographs with photographers whose work I admire. But there’s a thin line between courtesy and competition and sometimes awkward choices need to be made.
In the meantime, have a look at Ali’s site ( You’ll see some exquisite images (…….which I’m sure she didn’t get by inviting other photographers to join her).

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