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Clicking with exotic cultures


Clicking with exotic cultures

ANGELA SAURINE meets the photographer who’s dedicated his life to documenting Indigenous customs of the South Pacific and beyond.

David Kirkland has always wanted to condense as much human experience into his life as possible.

It’s fair to say he’s achieved that goal. He’s lived with a tribe in the Amazon jungle, interviewed a zombie he saw being revived during a voodoo ceremony in Haiti and been beaten to the ground by a cultural guardian disguised as a giant bush to gain permission to photograph a secret ceremony in Papua New Guinea.

When not off on international adventures, the esteemed tourism photographer likes nothing more than to go for a morning swim at the beach and grab a coffee before retreating to the old Queenslander he calls home at Buderim.

“I enjoy coming home just as much as I do leaving,” the 65-year-old says.

Born in Perth, David was an ‘army brat’ whose dad worked as a military attaché in Indonesia.

After finishing his education at Canberra Grammar School, he spent a year hitchhiking around Australia before heading overseas, pulling beers in London and picking oranges in Spain and grapes in France.

After a stint in Morocco, he decided he wanted to be a journalist and returned home, where he completed a cadetship at The Western Mail newspaper in his home state. He worked for the ABC in TV and radio before setting off travelling again.

As well as living with the Amazon tribe, he captained a shrimp trawler to America and worked on luxury yachts in the Caribbean. He spent four weeks researching voodoo and zombies in Haiti and wrote a story for a newspaper in London, which was picked up by the current affairs program 60 Minutes.

Upon his return to Australia, David moved into public relations, then used the communication skills he’d acquired to run the Foundation for Law, Order and Justice in Papua New Guinea.

Fascinated by the country’s unique cultural traditions, it was there that he discovered his passion for photography and wrote his first book.

Back in Australia, he worked for various tourism boards in Western Australia and Queensland, including on the Sunshine Coast. At age 40, he decided to start his own publishing company, producing guide books, coffee table books and calendars, and began specialising in tourism photography.

“I’ve always been interested in traditional culture,” he says.

“It was incredible to me that I only had to take a three-hour flight from Queensland and I was in one of the most-vibrant, diverse cultures in the world. It was right on my doorstep.

“As a photographer with a background in tourism marketing, I never saw myself as a travel photographer who captured images opportunistically. My job has always been to capture photos that strengthen a marketing message which is aimed at a particular audience.

“What I do is 95 per cent planning, five per cent pressing the button.”

During one assignment recording land diving in Vanuatu, in which men jump from 30-metre high wooden platforms with vines tied around their feet, David was drinking kava with the local chiefs when he mentioned the importance of authenticity.

Instead of wearing T-shirts and shorts, they now dive wearing traditional penis sheaths. He’s also captured scarification ceremonies in Papua New Guinea, in which the male torso is cut to represent the head of a crocodile.

But of the countless photos he has taken, his favourite is of a man with a traditional Samoan pe’a tattoo that covers the lower half of his body. The framed image takes pride of place in the dining room of his home, which he bought in 2022 after 12 years living in Brisbane.

He knew it was meant to be when he noticed a sign with the house’s name above the front door. It is called Kegl Sugl, which is the name of a village in Papua New Guinea’s Chimbu Province that he has been to.

David’s home is filled with objects you would usually only see in a museum. They include a Tolai money ring from Papua New Guinea’s New Britain Province, artworks embedded with artefacts from around the world, and elaborate masks.

“I just love the culture in the South Pacific,” he says.

“Having been writing about it and photographing it for more than 20 years, I have been right on the coalface of watching how traditional culture is slowly but surely disappearing.

“In Papua New Guinea, the huli wigmen used to spend two hours getting ready for a sing-sing. Now they’re getting paid to do it and they’re preparing in a fraction of that time, wearing one layer of yellow paint on their face, not three.

“I can see at least the visual aspects of the culture diminishing rapidly.”

Now semi-retired, David plans to spend a year in Greece writing a book about philosophy. He’s also begun  taking photography tours with adventure travel company Crooked Compass, capturing such displays as the Holi Festival in India and mask festivals and Baining Fire Dance ceremonies in Papua New Guinea.

Reflecting on his life so far, David feels satisfied that his work will help future generations understand the past, and hopefully learn from it.

“I don’t think the value of my photos is going to be significant while I’m alive, but in 50 years’ time, young  people are going to say, ‘I can’t believe how incredible my culture was’,” he says.

“That’s when my photos will come into their own.”

 To see David’s photos, visit

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