The Story of the Alotau Festival of Canoes

Our first day in Papua New Guinea and we are lucky to witness a large local event, the Alotau festival of canoes. We stayed in port for the afternoon so we could visit the festival. A mixture of canoes competing at sea and lots of different dancers performing in the ‘arenas’. The dancers by far outnumbered the canoes and they were spectacular. Walking under the scorching PNG sun for hours capturing images this was one fun filled event, a true local festival with hundreds of gorgeous locals mixed with a boatful of slightly paler looking yet still gorgeous True North punters.


I really enjoy shooting at festivals and markets, they provide a great atmospheric insight into local life and local residents. It is tough to capture images at these events, the light is tricky and contrasty and everyone is either looking straight at you or away from you at the action. The sun was intense and most people hid in shadows or under umbrellas. I shoot from the hip in Billy the Kid style as this allows me to capture slices of life without anyone noticing. Now if only the infamous loud ka-klunk Canon mirror sound could be silenced. I captured the best shots this way including walking around on the shadow side of all the stalls, where the locals found refuge from the sun:

png-alotau-hanging out

I think in terms of stories when capturing events and markets. I keep thinking I am writing a National Geographic article and need story based images to complement the story. I do not want portraits, I do not want pretty images, I want slices of life and insights into the event. It is incredibly hard to do well, people like Steve McCurry are an inspiration for me. Incidentally, the backpackers I stayed at in Cairns had a stack of NG magazines I read every morning while having breakfast. Only after reading did I realise they were all from 1999. Nothing in the magazines, the layout nor quality of pictures gave the year away. It was just the usual National Geographic quality that I some day some way wish to achieve in my story based travel images. I am moving away from dramatic yet pretty and too perfect untouched landscapes to a storytelling style; I want my travel images to have stories, humans, conflict, drama, emotions. I have much to learn before NG calls; but it is good to have dreams. Come to think of it; perhaps I should call them.


png-alotou festival

The first image is an overview of the festival, seen through dancing smoke with a plethora of people under colourful umbrellas. The second image is people watching the dancers at the festival, yes the horizon is a bit off but it matters not for these type of images. The capture of one of the impressive dancers preparing for his performance is my favourite capture from the festival. I love his amazing face. I am Jedi enough to admit that Christian’s shot is better but I still love the look of this proud dancer and am very happy with my image.

A great festival, a great start to our adventure. What are your thoughts on the storytelling in these images?

Edited 27 November: I found an image I quite like that provides an overview of the festival, it is now the first image in this story and I updated the text slightly.

8 Comments on “The Story of the Alotau Festival of Canoes”

  1. National Geographic definitely knows how to maintain quality. It's always an enjoyable read I find. I used to always read my dads mags when I was little. Not those mags, as I was under 10 so really did not know about the other mags yet haha.

    Now for the story telling images. The first, I personally don't get sorry. From your words, i'm guessing it is of the people escaping the sun, but I can't be certain. Then I'm not sure who i'm meant to be looking at- the girl standing up, the lady with the cheeky grin or the others? So not sure sorry.

    The second works for me. It tells the story. It shows the excitement of the spectators (except the man looking at the camera haha, he doesn't look too excited :-P) but goes with the story.

    And the 3rd….. well man that's just a damn amazing portrait. I love it hey. That I could expect in a National Geographic magazine, and it would grab my attention for the story instantly 😀 And without starting a battle…. I like it more then Christians amazing portrait.

    1. Thank you so much for great feedback Stephen, it's just what I need but not often get. I reckon you're right on the first image, does not convey any story. It's just a slice of life, but needs to be much stronger. As for the dancer portrait, I really love that too and on second thought, I agree, mine is better than Christian's hehehe.

  2. I always like your stories FBJ and look forward to some video pieces (I hope). The dancer is definitely the standout here – definitely makes you wonder what he was thinking with that slightly Mona Lisa ?smile.

    1. Yes the other images are there for the story, the dancer is the hero shot. He has a great look and smile, I wonder who he spotted out the corner of this eye. I too hope I get some video put together 🙂 I have far too little video from PNG though, I was so busy shooting stills it was just impossible to do both at the same time.

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