50 Treasures: Laurie Bragge's Kiap Photo Albums

This treasure is being featured in 50 Treasures Revisited – Celebrating 50 Years of James Cook University, which is on display at the Cairns Museum from 24 June to 28 October 2023. The exhibition is a collaboration between Cairns Museum and JCU Library, featuring 17 of the 50 Treasures from JCU Library Special Collections which most resonate with Far North Queensland. 

Our thirtieth treasure celebrates both our newest collection and the International Day of the Tropics. From the Bragge Collection comes Laurie Bragge's Kiap period photo albums volume 1 and volume 2. 

Dr. Daniela Vávrová answers the question "why is this significant?" 

‘The Ice-cold early mornings were clear of cloud and I could see the snow-clad tops of the Star Mountains in West Irian. Back towards Telefomin mists cascaded like slow motion waterfalls from mountain ridges down into two valleys, which I now know to be the Aki and Tabu which in turn are the headwaters of the August River.’ Laurie Bragge 29-30 September 1964 (from diaries in Sepik IV Part I, p. 338)

Figure 1. Photo 289, Volume 2. Crossing the Aki River.
Bragge’s service as a kiap (Australian patrol officer) in PNG gave him unique opportunities to document the lives of the peoples among whom he lived and worked. He not only produced a series of official reports between 1961 and 1975 for the Australian government, but also kept rich field diaries, recorded and transcribed oral histories, collected artefacts, and created a significant photographic record. In 2018, Laurie Bragge donated his entire collection to James Cook University, including his research library and his own history of the Sepik region.

Figure 2. Photo 249, Volume 2. Patrol moving on Tabu River.
Bragge’s photographs are a powerful medium for understanding historical encounters during the period of Australian administration in PNG. Photographs arrest the viewer, prompt memories, compel reflections about people and places, and entice rediscoveries of past relationships. Photographs also reveal the lived experiences of the photographer. Each image in the Bragge albums tells a story of his life and work in PNG. Yet, the photographs also invite other memories, different interpretations, new perspectives. These stories remain to be told.

Figure 3. Photo 124, Volume 2. The Om River Hewa warriors holding the shield. The design represents a man's body - eyes, arms, legs and vital organs (at the centre of the shield). There are two interpretations of the zigzag lines - snakes, and representation of life and vigour.
 Laurie Bragge was only 18 years old when he arrived to take up his first patrol post in the Eastern Highlands of PNG. He was using a Pentax analogous photographic camera. Album 1 of his photographic collection shows his early career as a kiap and portrays various places in the Highlands, such as Goroka, Kainantu, Chuave, and Gumine, the Bismarck Range and Mt Wilhelm, the highest peak in PNG. The stories and the material culture Bragge captured with these photographs are catalogued in this special collection. From the first area of his post in the Eastern Highlands, Bragge collected and donated many pestles, mortars, and stones. He was interested in the artefacts as well as people’s stories around them. The mythical objects have their enigma well kept by the people to remember the origins of life and their place, and to respect their ancestors.

Figure 4. Photo 45, Volume 1. Laurie Bragge.
In 1964, Bragge was posted to Green River Station, in the West Sepik. It was known to be a hot and isolated place, but one of strategic importance, being on the border with Indonesia (former Dutch New Guinea). The final pages of Album 1 and the entire of Album 2 (years 1966-7) depict Bragge’s observations of life in the West Sepik. For Bragge, it was the ultimate adventure to be posted to this region and to have the chance to spend time in Telefomin, Oksapmin, Mianmin, and Atbalmin country.

Figure 5. Photo 286, Volume 1. Telefomin, Land of Min people.
The Bragge collection encompasses various artefacts from the West Sepik such as, for example, a Hewa war shield (Figure 3). Bragge surrounded himself with the many artefacts, including the above-mentioned war shield, at his home in Cairns. These objects became part of his home environment, a kind of embedded history which served as the inspiration, memory triggers, for many years while writing the Sepik Histories manuscript. Bragge’s interest was not only in the myths of origin, but also in different architecture and designs. What was originally collected as a testimony to resolve a murder case became a catalyst for the history to be preserved. Bragge’s histories give voice to Sepik people – to their explanations and testimonies – and provide insight into his administrative as well as personal relations with the people of that time.

Figure 6. Photo 132, Volume 2. Hewa bridgebuilders. Making bridges while patrolling was a specific way to forge the way forward. It was often a challenging thing to do. Other times, it was rather handy finding an already built bridge across a wild river.
The Bragge Collection offers rich research opportunities for scholars interested in the history and heritage of PNG. It stimulates dialogue about the historical transactions and transformations in which artefacts have been involved, and reflections upon the future relationships they might foster, especially through opportunities for research collaboration.

Figure 7. Bragge Collection item BC 0663, Volume 15 , 1961 - 1972 (3). Letters home (typed out by Laurie's mother).

 “25-11-66 A month to Christmas. – WOW.— Two hours and forty minutes walk over rough country, the Western end of the DONNER range, brought us out at the suspen[s]ion bridge over the FAK river. The crossing took one and half hours, as only two men can cross safely at a time. Upon reaching the Western bank of the FAK we were in r[e]stricted territory, so we started off on the right foot. To date Tony and I have been walking at the head of the line and keeping our own pace, then after two hours stopping and waiting for the patrol to catch up, then on again, as this is the quickest way to move. But when we started walking from the FAK at 1100, we changed procedure to the set procedure for restricted areas. I walked slowly at the head of the line while Tony kept the end moving so that the line was bunched up.” Laurie Bragge

Over the course of 2020, JCU Library's Special Collections unveiled 50 Treasures from the collections to celebrate 50 years of James Cook University.

JCU Library is fortunate to have collections of unique and rare resources — including artworks — of regional and national significance, describing life in the tropics. We hope you are inspired to explore further by visiting all of our digital treasures and their stories at NQHeritage@JCU.  

Author Biography

Dr. Daniela Vávrová is currently Adjunct Research Fellow and the director of The AV Lab and ALTAR at The Cairns Institute and College of Arts, Society and Education, James Cook University. In her academic and audiovisual research, she explores how people shape and are shaped by their social and cultural environment through their sensory experiences. Since 2005 her field site is situated in the Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea.