Written by Marigold Warner
"My own isolation and my own experiences on the island helped me to understand so much more about the mindset of the Pitcairners," says the photographer of her in-depth look at a sometimes troubled community
Pitcairn Island is a tiny lump of rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, stretching only two miles long and a single mile wide. It is the last British overseas territory in the South Pacific, and home to just 42 adults and one child, who are descended from the Bounty mutineers who marooned themselves on Pitcairn with its Tahitian population in 1790.
Big Fence / Pitcairn Island by London-based photographer Rhiannon Adam is the first in-depth project on the remote island, and includes photographs, audio, and memorabilia gathered during her three-month stay there. Adam grew up on a boat being told stories of the sea by her father – a shipwright – to ease the pain of leaving her friends and home behind. She and her family sailed for around the world for seven years, intermittently living in Trinidad and returning to the UK when Adam was nearly 14. Back on land, Adam found she had no proof of the adventures she’d had at sea.
“That was sort of in the end what inspired me to become a photographer – this kind of listlessness, and lack of photographic evidence,” she says. She adds that, because they never made it to the Pacific islands, “Pitcairn and the Mutiny on the Bounty story was, in an abstract way, connected to the whole idea of why I agreed to go.”
Pitcairn is often portrayed as an island idyll, romanticised as a paradise in adaptations of the Bounty story, but that image is far from the reality. In 2004 the island was rocked by a string of sexual abuse charges which lead to eight men – a third of the island’s male population and including the then-mayor – to be convicted for 51 sex attacks against girls as young as 10. All the men were jailed in the island’s specially-built prison, but released after only a couple years’ of jail time. As recently as 2016, a ninth man was convicted of possessing indecent images of children.
Adam presents Pitcairn’s peculiar history through photographs of the island and its inhabitants, including convicted paedophiles, but also through family trees, film posters of the Bounty story, and court documents from the case. “It isn’t just a random speck on the map,” she explains, “it has a cult following.”
It’s not an easy story, and Pitcairn’s remote location made making it even harder. It took Adam three flights, a water taxi, and a 38 hour boat to reach the island, which is located almost exactly between Chile and New Zealand – just under three days’ travel with four large suitcases holding her belongings and over 300 rolls of film. “It was a very difficult project,” she says. “It was difficult to arrange, and it was difficult to get access to.”
The final boat from Mangareva, the transit point between Tahiti and Pitcairn, leaves once every three months with only nine seats, mostly taken up by ageing islanders who need medical attention. It took Adam over a year to be given a place on the boat, and once there she had no choice but to stay for the full 96 days until it returned – making her the only solo female “journalist”, as the islanders called her, to visit in over a decade.
Once there, she found many of the islanders had no interest in her “apart from in a negative way”. She was met with hostility from the moment she arrived, she says, and frequently told to leave or put her camera away. “Because they knew I was going to stay for such a long time, they realised there was no point in performing for me,” she says. “They decided quite early on to start treating me badly, and it never really improved.”
Portraits of the inhabitants make up the focal point of the exhibition, but getting those photographs was tough. In one case it took Adam six weeks of delivering daily, freshly-caught fish – gutted and scaled herself – to an elderly woman’s door, before she reluctantly exchanged words with the photographer. When people did agree to be shot, there were restrictions. In many cases the islanders are photographed alone and indoors, because they didn’t want to be publicly involved with Adam. “It was all very secretive. I wanted to convey that in the pictures,” she says.
The photographs Adam is exhibiting reflect a mood of confinement and deprivation; each image is accompanied by a caption introducing the subject and their involvement in the trials, or explaining the island’s history. The overarching feeling is of isolation and abandonment. “In the end the project became one about loneliness,” Adam says, “my own isolation and my own experiences on the island helped me to understand so much more about the mindset of the Pitcairners.”
Some of that mindset was hard to accept, however, in particular what Adam saw as the prevalent attitudes towards women and sex. While stating that “unwanted male attention” is always one of the most trying things about travelling solo as a woman, Adam says what she encountered on Pitcairn was extreme. As the only woman of “breeding age”, as the islanders called it, she became the object of attention of a young man, who himself was put under pressure to reproduce given the island’s ageing population.
After weeks of being egged on by the others, his advances became extreme. One night, after the power had shut off, Adam came home to find him naked in her bedroom, for example, another night, she woke to him sliding open a window above her head and trying to climb in. He even wanted to drive her to a desolate part of the island with the aim of cajoling her into having sex; he gave her the choice of making the trip in a rock-crusher, a bulldozer, or a tractor. With no means of asking for help off the island, and no one to turn to on it, Adam had to “pretend like it was fine, because otherwise the project wouldn’t happen”.
Adam believes that her experience “shows that the community doesn’t really think of that kind of behaviour as wrong”, and says it gives an insight into why so many victims in the abuse cases had felt unable to speak up. And, she says, that means there’s an irony in the fact that she made the project – focussing special attention on Pitcairn and its inhabitants, and feeding into what she sees as an endemic sense of arrogance that helped keep the allegations buried. “They don’t listen to anyone that comes from the outside,” she says, “it’s their rock and they’ll do what they like with it.”
Big Fence / Pitcairn Island by Rhiannon Adam is on show until 09 June at Francesca Maffeo Gallery, 284 Leigh Road, Leigh on Sea, Essex SS9 1BW www.francescamaffeogallery.com https://rhiannonsetsoff.wordpress.com/