Papua New Guinea’s street gangs, the Raskols, make the gangster claims of US rappers look ridiculous. A Raskols idea of gang banging doesn’t involve bouncing on hydraulics in vintage Lincolns or wearing designer threads. These guys tote their own homemade weapons—from knives to guns. We had a quick chat about the Raskols with photographer Stephen Dupont, who spent time in PNG’s capital, Port Moresby, documenting them.
VICE: First, what's your connection to Papua New Guinea?
Stephen Dupont: Growing up in Australia, I'd often meet people who either lived in Papua New Guinea or visited. The place always fascinated me—the stories, the wild, and the "heart of darkness" image it had. In the late 90s, I would regularly hang out with close friends in the "Jayapura Room,” a kind of war correspondents’ club, with photographers, filmmakers, journalists, professors, and an array of interesting people who all had a connection with Papua New Guinea.
What sort of thing would happen in the Jayapura Room?
Our host was a fine man called Mark Worth, sadly not with us any more, who would hold dinners and all-night drinking parties where we would tell stories, debrief, and have the company of people we'd all connect with. Everyone in the group was either coming from or going to a breaking news story in some war zone.
When was it that you first went over?
My closest friend, Ben Bohane, had already spent time in Papua New Guinea and we decided to go there together in 2004 to work on a project around "Raskols" in Port Moresby. Not knowing what we'd find, we ended up spending a lot of time in a notorious settlement called Kaugere, where we found our "Kips Kaboni" gang.
For those who don't know, could you sum up the situation in Papua New Guinea since independence from Australia in the 70s?
Papua New Guinea got independence from Australia in 1975 and has had various governments and leaders, most notably the recently deposed Michael Somare. Even though it's had a few military coups, constant tribal warfare, and a recently ended bloody civil war in Bougainville, it's always managed to remain relatively stable. That possibly has something to do with having over 800 tribes scattered around many islands and remote territories.
Port Moresby was ranked by the Economist—as you mention in the book's foreward—as the most "unlivable" city in the world. How does that come across on a day-to-day basis?
Port Moresby is always ranked in the bottom five of the world's most unlivable cities, just this year coming second to last behind Dhaka in Bangladesh. I'm not sure how they come up with those statistics, but it feels overrated to me. Yes, Moresby is a harsh and dangerous place, where security is the biggest business and unemployment is extremely high, but I can tell you that I've been in many more unlivable and dangerous places. I mean, Moresby is not Lagos, Mogadishu, or even Kabul. Like any big city, if you know the lay of the land, take precautions, and hang out with the right people, you can generally find yourself having good experiences there, like making friends with Raskols so you can roam safely and freely in some of the city's worst neighborhoods.
"Raskol" is, as I understand it, a local word for a gang member? Or, is it more specific than that?
It is simply Tok Pisin for criminal.
So, which gangs do the people in the book belong to? Conflicting ones? Or, are they all from one group?
The portraits in the book are all members of one gang called "Kips Kaboni."
What sort of crimes are gangs in Papua New Guinea generally involved in? Are they involved in any high-level organized crime? Or is it generally more street-level?
Most of the crimes are petty, street-level stuff: hold ups, break-ins, car jackings, and other opportunistic things. However, the gangs do organize themselves at times to take part in much more organized activities, like armed robberies or rival gang warfare.
How did you manage to gain access to these gang members?
Ben and I were in Port Moresby, researching the gangs, and we had heard about Kaugere and Kips Kaboni. While traveling with a local MP, Lady Kidu—whose constituency happened to be South Moresby, which consisted of Kaugere—we stumbled onto a tribal war. Ben and I, and the courageous Lady Kidu, walked straight into a tense standoff between the traditional Motu landowners and their rivals, the Tari Highlanders. A Motu lady had been speared to death by a drunken highlander the night before, which sparked a revenge attack on the highlander and burning and looting of all the highlander shops and properties inside the settlement.
So a pretty tense situation, then.
Well, during the meeting Lady Kidu had with Kaugere elders, we were fortunate enough to meet Alan Omara, who was the Kips Kaboni leader. Alan and his boys were out in full force protecting the Motuans and their properties, waiting for a counter-attack from Highlander gangs. Alan was a very approachable man, and both Ben and I sympathized with his people's cause and began what would be a building up of relations with him and his boys, which led to us covering the story and making the portraits. Alan told us that no white men, journalists, or anyone else had come in uninvited to his settlement before. He told us we were crazy, but he liked that.
Let's talk about the weapons. A number of the guns look homemade, or at least crudely modified. What's the deal with that?
Yes, the weapons, guns, and knives are often made by hand inside the settlement. Guns are very expensive and hard to come by in Papua New Guinea, so the locals have started to make their own—I think some are works of art.
Were there ever moments of tension or danger for you while you were documenting the gangs? And have you kept in touch with them since shooting the project?
I never felt any real danger with the gang or anyone in Kaugere, no. And yes, I've become quite close with the community and have visited regularly over the years, even sponsoring their local rugby league club, the Kaugere Bulldogs. I help out where I can and I am currently shooting a documentary film about rugby league inside Kaugere.
Sounds great. Thanks for chatting, Stephen.
You can get Stephen's new book, Raskols: The Gangs of Papua New Guinea, published by powerHouse Books, here.