A Look Inside International Photographer of the Year Sandro Miller's New Exhibit
By Kala Herh
13,582 kilometers, 28 hours, and 400 portraits. In this enormous series, spanning the southwestern Pacific Ocean, American photographer Sandro Miller captures the people of Papua New Guinea. Through headdresses, face paintings, and tribal dresses Miller’s I Am Papua New Guinea captures the community’s perseverance, fearlessness and most of all their vivacity.
The people of Papua New Guinea speak volumes in front of his camera. Previously, Miller notes the voyeuristic quality about the work dealing with Papua New Guinea’s indigenous population — most commonly observed from a great distance away and armed with long lenses. With this revelation, he challenges this precedent. The intimate black and white portraits translate into a bare encapsulation of the culture and the vast richness it employs. With Miller’s choice to separate the subject from the environment, he fosters an open invitation to engage in a two-directional conversation based on mutual respect. For the viewers, it is our first accurate insight into this distinct culture removed from its industrialized neighbors. For most of them, it was the first time they had ever seen a photograph of how the world perceived them. There is a disquieting power that diffuses from Miller’s portraits. One of profoundness that resonates at a subconscious level.
Inspired by Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, and August Sander, Miller holds to their method of building the photograph around the sitter and yet establishes his creative aesthetic in the progress. Miller’s work emerges from a cloistered studio environment that allows him to nurture a profound connection with his subject. Great portraits have something in common — a sense, a memory, a message — that is physicalized in the process. For Miller, it’s a “the little secret.” These types of portraiture define Miller’s career; he thrives in capturing the personal. In his 2016 “Mistica Wonuk of the Sasap Wigum Tribe” image, Miller employs digital tinting and color enhancement to accentuate the subject. The heightened sense of clarity evident in the photograph translates to the artist’s intimate interaction with the community. Surrounded by laughter, giggles, joy, and hugs all around, Miller is at his best. “I feel joy from the thought that these portraits may actually become an important part of archaeological and anthropological history, evidence of time, place, and identity.” With this unique blend, he moves portraiture away from the singular and personal and into this two-dimensional realm that is conscious of a larger, universal truth.
The exhibition is poignant, emotive, yet effuses an innate sense of humanism. Miller’s portraits do more than shine light into this society previously shrouded in mysticism; they are a way of sending a clear message: I see you, I acknowledge you, you are important.
I Am Papua New Guinea is on display at the Catherine Edelman Gallery until November 9th.