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Paul Ekman: Breaking Ground in New Guinea

Experiences of filming other cultures abroad 

Compiled from excerpts of Dr. Paul Ekman’s New Guinea Journal and Nonverbal Messages Autobiography

Paul Ekman New Guinea

Paul Ekman in New Guinea


In my travels and studies, I found the people of New Guinea to be friendly. I also realized early on that I was an enormously interesting curiosity, from my clothing to my gadgets. The Fore people didn’t understand what a camera did, soon getting accustomed to my walking around the center of the village with this odd object held up to my face most of the time.

While abroad, I filmed and photographed all kinds of daily activities. I saw boys playing, throwing grass spears at each other in mock battle. Often I got films of people meeting those they knew, accompanied by broad smiles, arms stretched out, and hands grasping each other’s shoulders. 

My presence and filming was met with a wide range of responses from curiosity and excitement to surprise, fear and even occasionally disgust. One day I walked to a neighboring village, filming the terror on a child’s face when she first saw an outsider. I got a nice picture of disgust on the face of an old man witnessing me eating a can of food I’d gotten from a missionary. One of the days a colleague visited, we asked the elder to give us a concert on one of their instruments that resembled a harp. Children gathered to listen to the music. My motion picture camera was running when we played back from an audio tape recorder the music he had just made. They never before heard anything coming out of a recorder, not knowing that could be done. I got a wonderful example of surprise, followed by excitement and enjoyment.

On my second trip to New Guinea, I brought portable television equipment and videotaped the Fore people as part of my research. When my work was finished, I was confronted with a difficult choice. Should I show these people some of the videotapes I had taken of their lives in the hamlet? Since they had not seen photographs or films of themselves, I thought it was likely they would be quite entertained by seeing themselves on television, but to do so would make them self-conscious about cameras, and that would make it more difficult for other scientists in the future. However, did I have the right to deprive them of the enjoyment they might have seeing the television? I could not ask them, because they did not know what it was. I decided to show them the television. As the photograph shows, they were fascinated. Many of the faces show interest, some show puzzlement, surprise, or amusement.


Learn More about Dr. Ekman’s Experiences in New Guinea





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