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The Camera and the House: The Semiotics of New Guinea “Treehouses” in Global Visual Culture

  • Rupert Stasch (a1)

One of the most frequently encountered representations of West Papuan people internationally today is a photographic or video image of a Korowai or Kombai treehouse (Figure 1). Circulation of these images first exploded in the mid-1990s. In 1994, an Arts & Entertainment Channel film about Korowai was broadcast in the United States under the title Treehouse People: Cannibal Justice, and in 1996 National Geographic published a photo essay titled “Irian Jaya's People of the Trees.” Korowai and Kombai treehouses have since been depicted in dozens of magazine and newspaper articles and twenty television productions, made by media professionals from the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Finland, Japan, Australia, Switzerland, Italy, Croatia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Vietnam, and recently West Papua itself. Some representations have had mass global distribution through programming partnerships and satellite transmission agreements, and international editions of major magazines. Recently, several reality television programs have been produced about white travelers' stays in treehouses with Korowai or Kombai hosts. These include an episode of Tribe broadcast on BBC and Discovery in 2005, the six episodes of Living with the Kombai Tribe shown on Travel Channel and Discovery International in 2007, and an episode of Rendez-Vous En Terre Inconnue televised to much acclaim on France 2 in 2009. Treehouses were widely seen by Australian audiences in 2006 in the Sixty Minutes segment “The Last Cannibals,” and during a subsequent media firestorm that surrounded a rival show's unsuccessful effort to film their anchor accompanying a supposedly endangered Korowai orphan boy to a safer life in town. In 2009, a BBC film crew filmed Korowai house construction for the forthcoming blockbuster series Human Planet, and in 2010 National Geographic began researching a possible second story on Korowai treehouses. In late June and early July 2010, photos of Korowai treehouses were published by newspapers in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Paraguay, Spain, Romania, Hungary, Turkey, Finland, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and other countries, to illustrate stories reporting the Indonesian census bureau's announcement that it had counted Korowai thoroughly for the first time (e.g., Andrade 2010; most stories drew their content from Agence France-Presse). In August 2010, production began for a feature-length Indonesian film about physical and romantic travails of Javanese protagonists who sojourn with Korowai in their jungle home; no filming is being carried out in the Korowai area or with Korowai actors, but treehouses figure prominently in the film's early written and visual publicity.

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