Hagerstown photographer captures tribal images

November 16, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

The painted faces stare into the lens - fierce and solemn, contemplative and congenial. Some look weary, others welcoming. There are brown-skinned children adorned with beads and feathers, weathered natives peddling meat and vegetables at market, tribal families in celebration and at work making elaborate wigs. The natives stand, dance, work and play in vibrant color against a lush tropical background.

Photographer Ron Coss of Hagerstown has captured slices of life in New Guinea from the edge of the jungle to deep within it, shedding light on a diverse South Pacific island culture steeped in mystery, myth and tradition.

The collection of 35 color photos "not only depicts the people, but shows the flow of the journey," says Coss, 57, a freelance travel photographer and owner of Impact Group Advertising Design & Photography in Hagerstown.


His "Faces of New Guinea," digital photos taken during a monthlong trip to New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand last May, will be on display at the Mansion House Art Center in Hagerstown's City Park through Nov. 28. A reception will be held from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 18.

Led by renowned travel photographer Bill Bachmann, Coss, his wife, Christine, and about 10 other photographers spent weeks taking pictures of people and places during the Outback Jungle Tour. They photographed the soaring mountains of New Zealand and the Great Barrier Reef, outback and Aborigines of Australia - who did not like being photographed.

"When they die, they want nothing left of themselves on Earth," Coss says.

New Guinea - from Tari in the south to the Central Highlands to Mt. Hagen in the north - was by far the most exotic destination of the tour, he says. Coss, who has shot professional photos on four continents, calls the New Guinea expedition "one of the greatest adventures and best photo ops of my life."

And it took some courage to make it happen.

Just before leaving Sydney, Australia, Coss and his group learned that a tribe of natives on a remote New Guinea island had beheaded a missionary, he says. The photographers weighed the risks, deciding to make the trip after assurances of safety from their guides, Coss says. Travel in New Guinea was fearsome, too, with craters dotting roads devastated by sudden downpours. Coss compares his group's flight out of Ambua to the "Air America" operations used in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. The small plane took off on a short, dirt and gravel surface hacked out of the jungle on the windward side of a mountain, and landed uphill to slow down before running into the jungle, Coss says.

Then there were the ex-cannibals.

A few of Coss's photographs show natives covered in mud, wearing grotesque mud masks, and bearing spears and bows and arrows. These "Mudmen" of deep within New Guinea's jungle once practiced cannibalism.

"Seeing these ghostly apparitions suddenly emerging from the lush green jungle is truly intimidating. It's easy to understand why, as the story goes, the unfortunate opponents of the Mudmen years ago thought the dead had risen, and immediately abandoned their village," Coss says.

Cannibalism might be a thing of the Mudmen's past, "but I still wouldn't want to visit their village at night," he says.

For the most part, through, the people of New Guinea were remarkably friendly and willing to have their pictures taken, Coss says. His photographs show the diversity among tribes in a country where more than 700 different languages are spoken. The Highlanders, with their black beards and Semitic features, adorn themselves with earthen paints and the colorful feathers of Birds of Paradise. In a region known as the "area of the wigmen," women and children must donate their hair for use in elaborate wigs worn by tribesmen, Coss says. Other villagers sell fresh vegetables, fruit and meat - get it early, before the sun gets too hot - at the bustling market in Papau, he says.

Coss shot nearly 800 photos with a Canon D60 Digital Camera equipped with several lenses. The photographs were digitally processed in Adobe Photoshop 7 on a Mac G-4 computer. The wonders of technology enable Coss to offer prints of his work in a variety of media, he says.

Coss, who hopes to travel to China and South Africa next year, will be available to discuss his trip and its resulting photographs during Tuesday's reception. Bill Bachmann will appear as a special guest.

For more information about his work, go to or on the Web.

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