The Bougainville Photoplay Project


As Paul Dwyer explores his own experiences and those of his family in Bougainville from the 1960s onward in The Bougainville Photography Project, the colonial and post-colonial history of the island is elucidated by autobiographical confessions, a Berlitz-style crash course in Pidgin English, ethnographic fieldnotes turned into travel adventure stories, recreations of complex surgical procedures, readings from old diaries and letters, and archival film footage. The images collected by Dwyer and his narrative reanimate the forgotten history of Australia as a colonial power and our role in the development of the Panguna mine and the Bougainville civil war.

Here are some excerpts from the Bougainville Photoplay Project, playing at Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre till 28 November.

Tearouki, 1962. Photo courtesy of Paul Dwyer.

That’s my father, Dr Allan Dwyer, the tall man on the right, standing behind the Marist nun with the crucifix on her chest — Sr Therese-Anne, also a skilled anaesthetist. The other nun is Sr Mary Leo, by all accounts an outstanding general surgeon. The four boys standing between them are my eldest siblings (from left to right, Damien, Garrett, Denis and Terry).

It’s 1962. Dad is on the cusp of a radical breakthrough in the treatment of scoliosis (severe and, if untreated, fatal twisting of the spine), a discovery that will earn him a worldwide reputation as one of the outstanding orthopaedic surgeons of his generation.

This photo shows his arrival at Tearouki, on the north-east coast of the main island of Bougainville, having accepted an invitation from the Marists to work pro bono during a two month tour of the many small mission hospitals. The boys are travelling with him at the suggestion of my mother who is looking after four younger children back in Sydney.

These other children will accompany my father on subsequent trips to Bougainville in 1966 and 1969. For all of my siblings, their recollections are of a proverbial tropical island paradise, an ostensibly calm and peaceful Bougainville governed, along with the rest of Papua New Guinea, by an Australian colonial administration operating under a mandate from the United Nations. Like many Australians of my generation (I was born in 1963), and certainly those younger than me, I had largely forgotten this history of Australia as a colonial power. I had even forgotten that my father ever visited Bougainville.

The Rorovana Incident, 1969. Photo courtesy of Paul Dwyer.

Australian colonial authorities deal with an act of civil disobedience by sending police in to clear the area with a series of baton charges and tear gas grenades. It’s 5 August 1969, barely six months after my father’s third and final visit to Bougainville but, as I now realise, events had been moving swiftly towards this point of crisis throughout all the years he had been travelling there.

In 1964, Australian authorities gave CRA, the Australian subsidiary of Rio Tinto, permission to prospect in the mountains around Panguna, Central Bougainville. In 1966, we pushed legislation through the PNG House of Assembly making land on Bougainville private property which the colonial administration could forcibly resume and lease to the mining company for a peppercorn rent. A small number of male leaders-so-called "big men" — were identified by the authorities as the best conduit through which to provide monetary compensation (risible amounts if compared to what Australian citizens would have demanded) to the communities who were going to be displaced by the mine. However, nearly all Bougainvillean societies are matrilineal: the woman being assaulted in the photo above is a traditional landowner unwilling to give up her ground for the construction of port facilities and a port-mine access road.

When it opened in 1972, Panguna was one of the largest open cut mining operations in the world. Over the next 17 years, it produced half of PNG’s exports. While vast profits flowed to the central PNG government, as well as to shareholders in Britain and Australia, Bougainvillean people watched as tailings from the mine were simply flushed down the Jaba River, destroying wildlife and making once fertile valleys uninhabitable.

These environmental concerns helped rekindle a long-standing secessionist movement and, in 1989, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) was formed: they closed the mine and declared independence for Bougainville. The PNG government responded by sending in riot police and, soon after, the PNG Defence Force (PNGDF). Before the end of hostilities in 1997, this dirty, brutal post-colonial war had cost the lives of somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 people, either as a direct result of the fighting or through treatable conditions for which there was no medical help available. This is a figure roughly equivalent to one in every 10 inhabitants of Bougainville.

Throughout the conflict, in an effort to protect PNG and Australian interests in the mine, the Australian government supplied the PNGDF with almost everything they needed. We posted military advisors to Bougainville; we organised combat training in Australia for 2000 PNGDF personnel; we supplied guns, ammunition, mortars, bombs, patrol boats, search planes and-most notoriously-four Iroquois helicopters: we paid $1 million a year so that these helicopters could be serviced and flown by Australian pilots. While the Australian government strenuously maintained that the helicopters were used for nothing more than troop transportation, even PNGDF officers admitted on Australian national television that they were being used as offensive "gunships".

Pateaveave Village, 1962. Photo courtesy of Paul Dwyer.

My father’s caption for this photo reads simply: "Fr. McConville and Denis at Pateaveave". He left out Damien, the other small white boy, just to the right of centre. I looked at this photo four or five times before I realised what else Dad (and I) had missed: the black man in the foreground, his head turned, his gaze directed straight down the lens of the camera. I have often wondered: What exactly did this man see? How might my father’s presence in his village have made sense for him? And the more I looked at my father’s photos, the more I noticed what should have been self-evident: their main purpose being to document my siblings’ holidays in Bougainville, it is my brothers and sisters who appear in the centre of almost every frame, with Bougainvilleans left occupying the margins.


Tarlena Girls Choir, 1966. Photo courtesy of Paul Dwyer.

On the few occasions when my father’s photos show Bougainvillean people in the centre of the frame, it’s always a group shot, like this one. This photo was taken in 1966 and it documents a rehearsal by the Tarlena Girls High School Choir in the run up to the famous Hanahan Choral Festival. When I showed this photo to people whom I met in Bougainville in 2004, they would always laugh and say something like "Yeah, right, colonial style!" I was also lucky enough to meet some a group of nuns who actually recognised and could name some of the girls from this choir, some of whom are still alive and well. In fact, one of them, a woman called Catherine Mona, recognised herself! She’s there in the third row, second from the right.

Even better, I found out that in 1969, three years after this photo was taken, Catherine and her friends were working as nurses at the Tearouki hospital. They worked alongside my Dad and were thus able to describe in detail the kind of surgery he did, including numerous operations to fuse the ankle joints of young people who’d been crippled by polio. Indeed, they introduced me to a man of my age who’d been operated on by my father in 1969: I noticed a scar above the ankle that my father had repaired and Jack told me it was a wound made by an Australian-supplied bullet, fired by a PNGDF soldier. Jack and I agreed it was a good thing the ankle operation had given him the ability to run fast.

Torokina, 1962. Photo courtesy of Paul Dwyer.

On the frame of the slide above, my father has written (rather gruesomely!), "Me and Short Foot Leper". The photograph must have been taken during a clinic at Torokina, on the west coast of Bougainville’s main island, where a hospice for lepers had been established. I can’t see that Dad is doing anything more complex here than changing the dressing on this patient’s foot (from which the toes are missing). While I understand that the relationship depicted here between my father and this Torokina man was obviously heavily mediated by the particular institutional histories and ideological investments of the Catholic Church and the Australian colonial administration, there is a suggestion of closeness and intimacy — the placement of the leper’s foot, the shared focus of the two men, the sense of their touching one another — which strikes, pricks or wounds me. At the very least, this photograph raises the question: what kind of relationship can an Australian and a Bougainvillean man have now, following the decade of violent conflict and human rights abuses in which Australia played a leading role?

The Bougainville Photoplay Project by Paul Dwyer runs at the Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney till 29 November. We’ve got a double pass to the show for the next five Sydneysiders to sign up as New Matilda supporters. Email your name and confirmation of your donation to with BOUGAINVILLE in the subject line.

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.