The photographer spent three months on the remote island, home to only 43 people, creating an in-depth look into a community with a troubled past
This article is adapted from a piece originally published on BJP-Online on 25 April 2018.
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, home to just 42 adults and one child, who are descended from the Bounty mutineers led by Fletcher Christian, who marooned themselves on Pitcairn with its Tahitian population in 1790.
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 that lead to the conviction of eight men — a third of the island’s male population that included the then-mayor — for 51 sex attacks against girls as young as 10. All of the men were jailed in the island’s specially-built prison, but released after only two years. In 2016, a ninth man was convicted of possessing indecent images of children.
Big Fence / Pitcairn Island by London-based photographer Rhiannon Adam is the first in-depth project made on the remote island, comprising photography, audio, and memorabilia gathered during her three-month stay. After exhibiting it as part of TPG New Talent at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, which closes on 06 October 2019, the project will go on show as part of Hull International Photography Festival, as well as at Photo Vogue Festival in November.
“In the end the project became one about loneliness. My own isolation and my own experiences on the island helped me to understand so much more about the mindset of the Pitcairners”
Adam grew up living on a boat; her father is a shipwright, and she and her family sailed around the world for seven years, intermittently living in Trinidad and returning to the UK when Adam was nearly 14. Her father would tell her stories about the sea to help ease the pain of leaving her friends and home behind, but returning back to land, Adam found that she had little to prove her adventures.
“That was partly what inspired me to become a photographer — this kind of listlessness, and lack of photographic evidence,” she says, adding 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.”
Adam presents the island’s peculiar and layered history through portraits and landscapes, often shot on expired polaroid film, but also through family trees, court documents from the case, and posters from film adaptations of the Bounty story. “Pitcairn isn’t just a random speck on the map,” she explains, “it has a cult following.”
It is not an easy story to document, and Pitcairn’s remote location made creating the work 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. The journey took almost three days and Adam brought four large suitcases packed with over 300 rolls of film.
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 traveller to visit in over a decade.
“Even the most innocuous sights on Pitcairn seem to allude to its dark past. The filth and squalor apparent at every corner, as though the islanders have given up”
Once there, Adam found that 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 and was frequently told to leave or to put her camera away. “They knew I was staying for a long time, so 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 freshly-caught fish every day — gutted and scaled herself — to an elderly woman’s door, before she reluctantly exchanged words with her. When people did agree to be shot, there were restrictions. Many islanders insisted on being photographed alone and indoors because they didn’t want to be publicly involved with Adam. “It was all very secretive, and 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,” says Adam, “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 these mindsets were difficult to accept, but the prevalent attitudes towards women and sex were particularly shocking. Adam says that “unwanted male attention” is always one of the most trying things about travelling solo as a woman, but what she encountered on Pitcairn was extreme. As the only woman of “breeding age”, as the islanders pointed out, Adam became the object of attention of a young Pitcainer, David, who was under pressure to reproduce given the island’s ageing population.
After weeks of being egged on by the older residents, David’s advances became extreme. One night, after the whole island’s power had been shut off, Adam came home to find him naked in her bedroom. Another night, she woke to a window sliding open above her head — David was attempting 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”.
The photographer 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 of sexual abuse had felt unable to speak up. And, she says, that means there is an irony in the fact that she made the project, by 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 at The Photographers’ Gallery in London until 06 October. It will be exhibited at Hull International Photography Festival from 04 to 27 October 2019, and Photo Vogue Festival, Milan, from 14 -to17 November 2019.