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Polaroids from Papua New Guinea's Weed-Growing Highlands

Australian photographer Joel Bouchier spent a month in the hills with youths growing weed to escape poverty.

​When Australian photographer ​Joel Bouchier travelled to Papua New Guinea this year he ended up living in a highland village whose economy was largely built around growing weed. A dispute a decade earlier had left many of the local kids orphaned, and they were brought up by young adults in the village who taught them to smoke, grow, and sell weed. The practice has provided an income to a community that would be considerably worse off without it. But it also feeds into the country's larger problem of young kids abusing drugs. While staying with them Joel shot a polaroid series that he's now showing Melbourne as part of the 2014 Independent Photography Festival.

VICE: So why Papua New Guinea?
Joel Bouchier: It's always been on my radar, it's in close proximity to Australia but I hadn't seen much published on it. I just really wanted to get up into the highlands, I didn't know what I was going to find. I went up with my camera and went for it. I didn't have any ideas what that story would be.

How did you meet the young men and boys cultivating weed?
Initially man, I'd been traveling for about a week, had no photos, and was getting nothing. I was stranded, broke, I literally couldn't afford accommodation and I had two weeks to stay there. I was waiting for dusk and this guy sort of stumbled over and started talking to me. I asked him where he lived and he told me and said I could  come see. I picked up my bags and went for a trek through a few rivers, up mountains, through the jungle, and then got to this village.

This guy had just brought a white guy into the village and everyone was really stoked. I was gonna stay for an hour and they sort of made me stay a night, so I was like: I'll just stay here for a month. I didn't start photographing straight away; I took my time and paid respect. Once I took a shot everyone saw the image and then wanted one. It was really quite easy in a way.

​Zack Arias talks about how Polaroid is such a social tool because you can just give a photo instantly.
I always just wanted to shoot Polaroid. I gave them that hard copy and they'd never seen themselves in a photo like that. It just unlocked doors.

Was it complicated to frame a story like that—about drugs and kids but not totally negative?
You gotta put that area into context: Even though it's under government control, it's been untouched for hundreds of thousands of years. It's only in the past 50 years that it's been sort of governed by law.

The story I found was that a lot of these kids didn't have parents. There was a fight in that village over a coffee plantation eight or nine years ago so all those young kids who've grown up now were six or seven when they lost their parents.

There were a few older boys who were 20 or 30, and they brought these kids up and they all smoked marijuana. They're a product of their environment—they grew up like that. 

Is marijuana used differently there than it is in Australia?
It's more on the side of addiction. They've done it for so long, to them they think it's just like tobacco, it's something that's been done for hundreds of years. I just think some of us misinterpret it. It actually is a drug that can be harmful to them, especially with the amount they're smoking. There were kids who were eight or nine smoking from when they woke up to when they go to sleep. They just smoke marijuana all day long. It's pretty frightening in that aspect. 

I grew up in rural New Zealand, and there're similarities there, there were stoner six-year-old kids.
I think it's definitely a way to pass the day. In half these areas alcohol is expensive and hard to get—especially for communities that don't have a monetary system. Weed is their first choice just because of ease of access. And I guess family history.

Did you ever feel unsafe?
I'd say Port Moresby is... there's definitely something there. I did see a car get jacked by people who ran out of a bush, holding up a goods truck. I saw people chase a woman and her family out of town because they thought they were sorcerers or witches. Some of their practices were just very medieval. It could be dangerous in the city, but I sort of took it as it was. IYou'd meet the odd white person and they'd just tell you to watch out and all these horrific stories. I tried not to listen to that because I was already there.

Joel's series ​Kuka Boys will be showing at ​Loose Leaf from November 11 to 16 as part of the ​2014 Independent Photography Festival.

Follow Ben Thomson on ​Instagram.