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Rhiannon Adam’s revealing portrait of Pitcairn Island

Aute Valley, Pitcairn Island. When most think of the South Pacific, images of swaying palm trees and white strips of soft sand come to mind. Pitcairn is nothing of the sort. It is rocky, and volcanic, emerging abruptly from the blue Pacific, as if by accident. It was here that the Bounty’s mutineers made their home, finding in this most austere of islands, the perfect hiding place. Pitcairn’s rocky coast is ridden with names of places laden with tragedy: Oh Dear, Dan Fall, Nellie Fall, Lin Fall, McCoy’s drop – these are just a few. While on island, and particularly in my early days when hostility was felt at every corner, I couldn’t help but wonder if I too may end up with a drop named after me. Usually, proximity to the sea is calming, as though the continuum between land and sea provides a sense of freedom; a means to escape. While on Pitcairn, however, the height of the island, the lack of beaches, the towering cliffs, created a sense of claustrophobia; of entrapment. I remembered the story of the mutineers and empathised with the Tahitian women who tried to build a boat to escape their rugged confines. Like then, the ocean is still an insurmountable wall. From Big Fence / Pitcairn Island © Rhiannon Adam

"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.”

Dennis Christian. This image is of Dennis Christian, Postmaster. Dennis has a distinctive look – slightly darker skin than the rest, with black sprouting hair and Polynesian features – a rounded short torso, with slim legs protruding from his cotton shorts…On the island his nickname is “Sambo”. The first time I heard him called that, I gasped. Clearly British political correctness has bypassed Pitcairn Island.
Dennis ‘celebrated’ his 60th birthday when I was there and I saw him sitting alone, pondering his life and what was left of it. He has never married, nor had a girlfriend. The closest he ever came was to a visiting American graphic designer who painted the dolphin mural on the wall at Steve Christian’s house, Big Fence. But, he said, sadly – “she was a artist, like you, what was she going to do on Pitcairn Island?” He speaks openly about his loneliness, one of the few islanders willing to do so, and is also relatively happy to discuss the trials. He was the first man to plead guilty. As a result, he had a lenient sentence – of community service.
But something seems different about Dennis, a sense of remorse, a sadness that pervades his being despite his seemingly effervescent cheerfulness.
From Big Fence / Pitcairn Island © Rhiannon Adam

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.”

Bathroom, Big Fence. Pitcairn is an expensive destination to visit, with nightly prices costing up to $120 USD per night. For a long stay, this can be crippling. For that price, one might expect a tidy and ordered living space, but often this is not the case.
This is the downstairs bathroom in Steve and Olive’s home, Big Fence. It feels as though you might leave it dirtier than you went in and looks like it may not have been cleaned in years. At every corner it feels as though Pitcairn is a place that has given up on pretence, as though the hidden warts and dirty underbelly will be noticed and that there is no point in fighting it. Or, perhaps, more chillingly, islanders realise that the abstraction of distance and the power of wishful thinking will erase the reality – preserving the idyllic image in spite of all else.
From Big Fence / Pitcairn Island © Rhiannon Adam

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

Channel 16 and Black Pearls, Sue and Pawl’s Window. From almost every home, the view of Christian’s Cave can be seen. This is the window of Sue O’Keefe and Pirate Pawl. It sits between their computer desks, cluttered and dusty.
The VHF radio sits at the centre of the haphazard arrangement, a device used as the islanders’ mobile phone. If you run into problems on Pitcairn, the VHF is your only lifeline. Everyone is on island tuned to Channel 16 and is called by their first name only – “Pawl, pawl” – the radio will crackle. In homes across the island, hands reach for their own radios to switch channel as the conversation moves over, eager to eavesdrop on proceedings. The grapevine on island is very short, understandable when news is in such short supply.
From Big Fence / Pitcairn Island © Rhiannon Adam

Waiting For Paradise, Down Flatcher. Down Flatcher is the home of Betty Christian. At one time, Betty ran a café from her home. This plastic tablecloth sits on the decked area, where her customers would sit. I couldn’t help but be struck between that image of paradise, and the version that we were apparently living in. Pitcairn is the epitome of Paradise for so many, and yet the reality is starkly different. Even on Pitcairn Island, the grass is greener elsewhere.
From Big Fence / Pitcairn Island © Rhiannon Adam

Bounty Anchor Adamstown Square, ANZAC Day. The Bounty anchor, raised from the ocean in 1957, sits in pride of place in front of the Public Hall in Adamstown. It formed the centrepiece of much of the news footage to leave Pitcairn from the trials, as men would come in and out of the Hall, which doubled as a courtroom, set behind. It served as a constant reminder of the Bounty story, and the infamy treachery of the ancestors of those on trial.
This image was taken on ANZAC Day, the Remembrance Day for Australia and New Zealand for those who died in wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations. ANZAC Day is celebrated on Pitcairn Island to commemorate their contribution, and includes singing, a church service, speeches and wreath laying ceremony. It is an unusual display of community spirit.
This image is slightly tainted for me, however, as it was during the decoration of the square for which I volunteered that I experienced one of my most unpleasant public showdowns, when several islanders ganged up on me to stand in the way of my photography. I explained that the project I was trying to make was not negative, and that is the sole purpose of visiting the island, and that the island had been informed of my intentions before my visa application had been approved. Sadly, it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as it would be dishonest to try to tell a positive story after the experiences that I had.
From Big Fence / Pitcairn Island © Rhiannon Adam

This found photo features one of the girls who testified in the sexual abuse trials of 2004. As a result the girl in the photo has been scrubbed out of Pitcairn history. This was the only image or physical trace of her that I found anywhere on the island.
This had been stashed in the back of an album destroyed by water in the last remaining traditional dunnage house on Pitcairn, a house owned by a former culture teacher at the island school, from where this school photo originated. 
Her face has been obscured and distorted, as though the physical environment of Pitcairn itself has slowly destroyed her, or erased her. In a sense this may be the most powerful image of my trip, drawing the parallel between Pitcairn’s particular geography and some of the lasting effects on its people. When I left Pitcairn, I too felt emotionally destroyed – to leave the intensity behind was the greatest sense of freedom I have ever experienced. 
From Big Fence / Pitcairn Island © Rhiannon Adam

Mayor Shawn Christian, direct patrilineal descendent of Fletcher Christian, leader of the Bounty mutineers. Convicted of two rapes and one count of aiding and abetting a rape. Shawn, like his father, evaded my attempts to be photographed wherever possible.
Only in my last week did we finally align, and only after I had sat with him (in his mayoral role) to dissect a complaint I had made against his cousin. Shawn’s portrait haunts me, I can see it sometimes when I close my eyes – real island memories have been replaced by my pictures, or the obsessions of making them.
When I look back at this image, I am reminded of the island as a prison – all on it are trapped in a kind of purgatory. If Pitcairn’s days are numbered, where will they go? To Britain, more than 14,000 miles away – the only country obliged to settle them?
Due to a legal loophole, Shawn is able to take on Pitcairn’s highest office despite his record. It is now up to Shawn to steer the island into its future and it is he who is ultimately responsible for its public image. With repopulation necessary to ensure the nation’s survival, it is perhaps counterproductive that the mayor himself is a convicted felon, a man reticent about being revealed in public.
From Big Fence / Pitcairn Island © Rhiannon Adam

Fissure, Tedside. The rifts and cracks in Pitcairn’s volcanic rock appear like scar tissue. The island’s treacherous terrain seemed emblematic of the island itself – its landscape ripped and torn by volcanic intrusions, resembling the fractured relationships of all those within. A wounded island both literally and metaphorically.
From Big Fence / Pitcairn Island © Rhiannon Adam

Olive Christian, public works. Olive cannot believe that the trial outcomes were true. Denial it may be,
but that is understandable. After all, her brother, two sons, father and husband were all convicted. Today, Olive has multiple government jobs (the island’s only employer) and scurries between them. It seems that being busy provides a necessary distraction from her troubles. Here she maintains the roads, strimming seemingly invisible weeds from the dirt roads, resembling a kind of Storm Trooper.
From Big Fence / Pitcairn Island © Rhiannon Adam

Jesus, Big Fence. Pitcairn island used to be a staunch Seventh Day Adventist island. As Adventists, the Sabbath is on a Saturday, and there is to be no drinking or gambling. At one time, all alcohol was banned, and later, when restrictions were eased, it was necessary to purchase a license to consume it.
Religion is a key part of the Pitcairn story, with John Adams allegedly having taught literacy using the Bounty Bible itself, a book held under lock and key in the church itself. When visited by Adventist missionaries, Pitcairn seemed the perfect pious community, and ripe for the plucking.
It became the SDA church’s crowning glory – a paradise of morality. The church funded various projects and passage off island to attend SDA conferences. It also provided teachers for the school. In recent years, the role of pastor, usually a role held by an off islander, has been increasingly difficult to fill. Pitcairn is no longer good press for the church.
A tatty and aged picture of Jesus sits curled up in an empty bedroom, as though he too has been forgotten.
From Big Fence / Pitcairn Island © Rhiannon Adam

The Cracks are Tangible. The island’s rock fascinated me. The marks and cracks became increasingly familiar. I too was soon able to navigate the island based on its formations.
The expired Polaroid film on which this was shot cracked and marked too. A split between the two halves, as though the film on island was attempting to metaphorically replicate the environs in which it found itself. I would say it was a ‘happy accident’ but the word happy is perhaps misleading.
From Big Fence / Pitcairn Island © Rhiannon Adam

Pawl Warren takes aim. ‘Pirate’ Pawl Warren is a gentle giant. He calls his home “Switzerland” as only there are you are free to speak openly. It was a friend of his daughter who first reported a sexual assault by an off islander (Ricky Quinn) to visiting Kent police officer, PC Gail Cox, after a party at Pawl’s house. This single action brought Pitcairn’s sexual abuse problems to the surface. Pawl has been steadfast in his support of the island women, and I’m lucky to call him my friend.
He is one of the few islanders able to hold a gun licence. Licences were revoked for all convicted men when the trials took place, largely for fear of suicide. Pawl uses his gun to shoot down breadfruit, a large green starchy fruit, a staple dietary item in Polynesia, and the cause of the Bounty’s original mission. Though Pawl, by his own admission, said that there are a few other places that he would rather point his gun than at the Mutiny fruit alone.
From Big Fence / Pitcairn Island © Rhiannon Adam

Royal Warren, nee Brown. Royal Warren was one of the most agreeable islanders that I met. She 
lived with her two children, warring siblings Melva and Mike – a family of devout Seventh Day Adventists. While I was there, Mike was on trial for child pornography, and was naturally suspicious of me. I battled through,
and forged, I suppose, what one could call a friendship with Mike, or at least
by Pitcairn standards.
I reserved judgement while his trial was taking place, playing dominoes at their home while Royal looked on. This came as a surprise to me, for the crimes for which he was convicted in 2016 (after my departure) were abhorrent to me, but perhaps this was my truest Pitcairn experience – the ability to take a person at face value, to judge only by my own experiences of them. On Pitcairn you take friendship wherever you can and in whatever form it appears.
From Big Fence / Pitcairn Island © Rhiannon Adam

Longboat “Moss”. There is no safe harbour on Pitcairn. Bounty Bay is a tiny inlet, and a trained longboat coxswain must aim the aluminium longboat at the rocks and wait for the swell, turning at the last second to enter the bay. Passing cruise ships rarely land, instead, islanders sell their wares aboard by heading out on the longboat and climbing onto the ship by rope ladder. Here, more than 3/4 of the islanders sit aboard the longboat, Moss, heading out to a cruise ship. If this longboat were to sink, Pitcairn would have been decimated.
The longboats are also used to ferry cargo and passengers to and from the Claymore II. In desperate times, the longboats have also been used for medical evacuations to Mangareva, where navigation is conducted solely by compass, and islanders must cross hundreds of miles of open-ocean before landfall.
On Pitcairn, the longboats are the island’s lifeline. Without them, the island would be completely cut off. When the men stood trial on Pitcairn, they ferried their own prosecutors to shore in these boats. When the trials first took place, many islanders were worried that prison sentences would kill the island due to the lack of longboat crew. However, once convictions were handed out, they were allowed out of HMP Pitcairn to man the longboat.
From Big Fence / Pitcairn Island © Rhiannon Adam

Big Fence / Pitcairn Island, an exhibition by Rhiannon Adam of work and objects from the remote island of Pitcairn, home to the descendants of the Bounty Mutiny.

Big Fence / Pitcairn Island, an exhibition by Rhiannon Adam of work and objects from the remote island of Pitcairn, home to the descendants of the Bounty Mutiny.

Big Fence / Pitcairn Island, an exhibition by Rhiannon Adam of work and objects from the remote island of Pitcairn, home to the descendants of the Bounty Mutiny.