At Home in Vanuatu
About the Exhibit


The Photographer

David Becker has lived on a sailboat in the Western Pacific for more than 20 years. He is currently based in New Caledonia, just south of Vanuatu. He specializes in cultural photography, working with museums and other cultural institutions, primarily in Melanesia.

Sailing through Papua New Guinea for eight months in 1986, Becker saw how rapidly traditional cultures were being changed by contact with the outside world. With friends, he founded The Society for the Recording of Vanishing Cultures, and has since devoted his life to this work.

"It is important to record this precious heritage before it disappears. I hope that whatever I can do will help future generations realize the beauty,the richness, and the dignity of this way of life."

Meet My Friends!

"I have my own special way of looking at Melanesia. It comes from making friends here and living among them. I come neither as tourist nor as anthropologist, but as a friend."

"On my first visit to Tanna I asked High Chief Kowia, ‘What is the basis of your culture?’ He answered, ‘Peace and respect.’ He spoke the truth. Living in harmony and dignity is a reality here. Disputes arise, but are resolved in a way that satisfies both parties. No one is punished or disgraced.

"Blown by the trade winds, I could have landed anywhere. By chance, I sailed here and discovered an extraordinary world. Because it’s disappearing before my eyes, I am recording what I can, before it is too late."

A Place to Live,
a Land to Nurture

Nowadays, many people choose to build tall, square, European-type houses. They’re considered stylish and more comfortable– but they blow over easily during a cyclone!

Traditional Vanuatu architecture is dictated by the environment. A typical Tanna house is very strong, built low to the ground with a triangular front profile. Each part is made from a specific material that is prepared in a certain way, perhaps even harvested at a very precise time.

The yam garden is a metaphor for principles guiding daily life. Everything in it can be explained in spiritual or symbolic terms.

Gardening is an art for the people of Tanna, and part of their religion. There are rituals for planting and cultivation, and periods when land must lie fallow. Some produce is used in ceremonial exchanges.

Yams, kava, taro, manioc, corn, fruits, and a variety of greens are grown. Within a garden, each plant has complex spatial and temporal relationships with every other.



Father to Son, Mother to Daughter

Generosity is a value children learn by example.

Girls spend most of the day with their mothers; boys, with their fathers. Working together and sharing with others are foundations of island life. From their parents, children learn the values and skills they will need as adults.

Extended family and community assist parents in educating older children in the ways of traditional society. Many children attend French, English, or mission (Bislama-speaking) schools.

Within traditional "graded societies," men and women increase in rank through ceremonial gift-exchanges, feasts, and pig-killings. There are several forms of island currency, but true wealth is measured in friends and family.

The first time I saw one of these amazing trees, I could hardly believe it–a living house!

Generations ago, men trained the aerial roots of a banyan tree to form a living shelter. This is the community men’s house. Each evening, men gather here to talk about the day’s events and drink kava together before retiring for the night.

Chief Kasu asked me to photograph his people together at their nakamal. Quickly, easily, and quietly, this is how they arranged themselves for the group portrait.

The word nakamal refers to the men’s house but it can also describe the community: all the men who meet there and their families.

In the past, there were no villages on Tanna. Small family groups lived near a piece of land they were cultivating. Families residing close to each other belonged to the same nakamal–a basic social structure in Vanuatu.