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A Closer Look -- Raskols

Raskols by Stephen Dupont
In 2004, The Economist ranked 139 capital cities all over the world in order of "livability;" Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea ranked last. That same year Stephen Dupont traveled to Papua New Guinea to make the photographs included in his new monograph, Raskols: The Gangs of Papua New Guinea. Besides being one of the largest islands in the world, the rich and varietal landscape of Papua New Guinea remains largely unexplored. In 1975, Papua New Guinea won its independence from Australia. In the late 90s, they entered into agreements with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, privatizing their rich natural resource economy. The problem in Papua New Guinea is a common one in the third world. An exponentially growing population, lack of education, high unemployment rate and corruption at all levels of government breed a sense of mistrust in the system while economic opportunities are limited at best -- leaving people struggling to feed their growing families, with no access to healthcare and little hope for a better life. Calling themselves raskols, the gang members photographed by Dupont have not reverted to a life of crime by choice, but by necessity. Their communities rely on the protection they provide while the authorities, education system and global economic policies have failed them.

from Raskols by Stephen Dupont

These are photographs of a people who feel vulnerable, misunderstood, and have lost faith in the infrastructures that are supposed to protect their communities. But make no mistake -- Dupont, nor these raskol gangs, are asking for your sympathies. It is clear that they want to live in a just world and will find that justice through any means necessary -- even violent retribution. In a quotation from the book a raskol gang member sheds light on this eye-for-an-eye dichotomy: "We're the little raskols. The police, they're the big raskols."

from Raskols by Stephen Dupont

The book's design is minimal and accessible. The black & white photographs depict the raskols against decaying walls or receding into shadows. They are almost always shown with their handmade handguns or carrying machetes -- sometimes one in each hand. It is as though the raskols' weapons have become a part of their identity. Their postures emanate a kind of menace or danger, while their eyes express their common humanity in an almost painfully evident vulnerability. The photographs are interspersed with quotes from the Bible, the Port Moresby Acting Police Commissioner, and from the raskols themselves. They contentiously opine on the lives of the raskol gang members, creating an air of tension felt throughout the book, likely similar to the tension felt by walking the streets of Port Moresby.

from Raskols by Stephen Dupont

The photographs of the raskols' handmade weapons provide an engaging critique of the problems faced by marginalized societies. The weapons are a testament to the innate human desire to feel protected and safe. They show our innovative spirit -- to make the best out of what we are given in order to survive. It is this innovative spirit that is on the cutting edge of human advancement -- but here, the raskols show us the other side of this double-edged sword. When the citizens of a country have lost hope and their cries fall on deaf ears, when their hunger is nearly too great to satisfy and their villages are under threat by local gangs, when authorities turn a blind eye to corruption and fail to protect them -- they must do what they can in order to satisfy their basic human needs. I can't imagine anyone would do any different in a similar circumstance -- making Raskols a compelling and complicated narrative about the nature of the human spirit and its desire to thrive. -- Erin Azouz

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