Birthdays and beyond…

As promised, here is one of the blog posts that you are owed! Long overdue – this should have been posted in April….I haven’t put many photos on this post to save bandwidth, but I’ll add some extras when I can….

So it was my birthday last week, and like most of my birthdays it made me feel slightly melancholy. I’ve never been one for birthday parties, and bar a couple of small birthday dinners, one surprise dinner thrown by an ex, and a 10th birthday spent at a water park in Trinidad with a Super Mario cake, I’ve mostly managed to avoid having parties where I have to be the centre of attention. Though many of you might not think it, I don’t really like being the centre of attention. I like being detached enough to slink away, and I prefer doing something low key.

On this one, more than most, I spent most of the actual day reflecting on life and what has happened so far, and also the situation I have found myself in. I suppose my Pitcairn trip was planned as much as a documentation of Pitcairn as it was a cathartic experience for me. It has brought many things to the surface for me, and being so cut off from everything familiar for such a prolonged period has made me realise what is important and what isn’t. It has made me look at my relationships, with friends, with family, my romantic attachments, my decision making processes. I have disassembled much of my life block by block, and I can see it all with more clarity than I thought possible. Though at times being here has been incredibly stressful, sometimes you need to take yourself so far away from your own life to see it clearly. I know that when I get home and back to civilisation, many things need to change and evolve.

me pawl

The day before my birthday, Sue and Pawl held a quiz for the April birthday roll call. It was Sue’s birthday in early April, and Pawl’s a couple of days before mine, so they organised one of their quiz afternoons. Quizzes at Sue and Pawls are always a guaranteed headache for those who aren’t sure of the answers – you can swap a correct answer for a whale’s tooth shot (almost a Pitcairn rite of passage). Pawl has a collection of carved out whale’s teeth which are the same size as a shot glass, and somehow the fanfare of drinking out of one supersedes the reality of drinking shots at 3pm and logic goes out of the window. As a result I wasn’t quite sure if we had won or not, or whether the quiz master just took pity on our team as we had more birthday boys and girls on our team than anyone else’s [edit 17/05/2015: we did win, as I just discovered from the latest issue of Pitcairn’s miscellany newsletter. Vaine tells me that in the 20 years he has lives here he has never made it into the newsletter and that me making it in is an achievement of sorts]. At one point I was presented with a birthday cupcake board, decorated with snakes and ladders sweets as vines, and sliced marshmallows as petals on the cupcake ‘flowers’.

It was an impressive effort, though it was partially (actually, forget ‘partially’) made to tease a certain male (also in attendance) who had been coming into my room and leaving flowers in my bedroom almost daily for a time. Once news gets out on this island you can never live it down. For instance I once enthusiastically declared how much I “love roast chicken” and then the whole island was in on the roast chicken joke – teasing the same aforementioned male about when he would invite me home for roast chicken. Every time he and I were within the same space, chicken recipes would be exchanged by anyone within earshot or spying distance. I’m probably going to go off roast chicken for a while!

I do remember leaving the birthday quiz feeling rather despondent (despite an ensemble Macarena dance for additional points) after a very matter of fact telling from one guest that I was now “past it” and that my “eggs were drying up” so I had better get my figuratively ‘get my skates on’. I don’t particularly dwell on any of these things myself, preferring just to live life and take it as it comes, but having everything put quite so bluntly on a day of so-called celebration did feel a little unnecessary. Naturally I went home feeling a tad melancholy which carried over into the next day and my actual birthday.

fire

On the Monday morning following my birthday I received a welcome phone call from Daphne, Pawl’s mum “How are you?” she asks enthusiastically. She lives upstairs from Pawl and Sue in a quite separate home with her husband Keane. Though they share one driveway, the two floors really are worlds apart. Daphne has been one of the few islanders who has always welcomed me with open arms. I’ve enjoyed my time with her chatting about her family, going through old pictures, or talking about Elvis and her visit to Graceland. She always has the time for me, there is always a cup of hot coffee waiting, and usually some homemade breadsticks or some other baked delicacy. She was one of the first people to agree to have her photograph taken by me, which really helped in more ways than one.

I have spent many hours watching her weave her baskets with fingers dancing between the strands with quick precision. Weaving is one of the few traditional crafts that still exist on Pitcairn, with many of the older generation producing baskets for sale on the cruise ships and for their own use. It’s a laborious process, of gathering palm fronds from both a pandanus and the common palm tree, followed by preparation – stripping spines, washing, dyeing, drying, and cutting into strips.

On the phone Daphne mentioned that she had something for me, and to “pop up” when I was passing. Later that morning I stopped by and Daphne presented me with a homemade basket, with ‘RHIANNON’ woven around the lid in navy blue and natural coloured strands. After the time I had been having, it was such a genuinely thoughtful gesture that it almost brought me to tears. I gave Daphne a big squeeze which she seemed to receive happily enough.

It’s something that I have noticed about Pitcairn…. That there is very little physical affection shown anywhere. Not between brothers and sisters, parents and their children, husbands and their wives, or between friends. In London, life is not so matter of fact, people greet each other with a hug or a kiss on the cheek. People hold hands or will casually squeeze their partner around the waist when passing. Small shows of affection, nothing ground breaking, but present all the same.

Pitcairn has to be one of the least outwardly loving places that I have ever experienced and I think it’s one of the things I have struggled with in being here. People are happy to tease, or joke, but shows of real affection are rare. The people often move with a kind of bluster and purpose that almost seems to paint affection as time wasting. It feels very loveless and that practicality and necessity have taken precedence over the small encouragements that make life seem bearable. It’s almost as if everyone has to stay busy all of the time just so that they don’t stop and think and dwell on the relationships that they have and how they operate. Perhaps behind closed doors, things are different. I hope that they are different, and that at home when I am not there, love thrives. But I have a sneaking suspicion that things are not that different in private, and that life has now become about toil and the hard graft, a constant wheel turning relentlessly that everyone can rely on in a place where relationships can be fractured and fragile.

sundown

While here I have often wondered about community and what it means. Whether community is always good, or whether community can sometimes stifle goodness. I now know that ‘small’ and ‘close knit’ do not necessarily mean “strong” when talking of community – that a community’s small size can stop the individual from flourishing and in turn create barriers, reluctance and anger. There is no outlet. Even the roast chicken joke could be included in this – an island wide joke that spread via Chinese whispers. It was mostly harmless, but I did feel that instead of giving gentle encouragement or advice, the ribbing can lead to isolation of a kind. I never thought that feeling isolated would be possible in a place of only 40 people, all of whom are around you continuously, and I’m sure I’m not the only person that feels this way. I often feel I need space here, but by that I mean mental space away from the cacophony of gossip and negativity towards me. Pitcairn can be an exceedingly lonely place despite being the most claustrophobic place I have ever experienced. It’s not so much the physical position of this island that causes loneliness, but the dynamic of the people together.

The legal turmoil of the last decade has taken its toll, with divisions arising between families and even within families. No one has been untouched by that past, and here I still feel that tension all around me. It may have abated somewhat but the rifts are visible everywhere and it is going to take mammoth efforts to reunify and change attitudes.

As I mentioned in my last blog, I have felt this more than most – I am travelling with a camera and a recorder and I have been placed into a box by many islanders. No one has independently asked me what I am here to do, though a small handful of the community – the council members – had read my application in order to approve it. However all islanders have made assumptions and drawn conclusions that have embedded themselves and spread throughout this island like a kind of deadly poison. I have never been to any small place with strangers, where people have been so disinterested in me, even personally. They don’t really want to be friends with me and hold me at arms length – as I say, it’s lonely.

I am trying desperately to make this project work, to fight against the tides, to talk to people, to show my work, to show who I am, but it seems all too often that once a decision has been made it is unshakeable, and then the negative media released from Pitcairn is itself a self fulfilling prophecy. The positivity is drowned out by the past, yet again. A quick Google search will reveal pages and pages of bad press mostly to do with the trials, but when the community doesn’t seize opportunities to divert that image towards the positive angles, then how can Pitcairn really hope to survive?

I feel perfectly comfortable about saying this here because I have had this same conversation with many islanders. If you don’t dilute the negativity with some new content all that will ever be remembered is the recent history. How can anyone move on without presenting and being proud of a different side? Despite the recent history, there are good people here, there are good stories to be told, there are things to be proud of. But the world is unlikely to ever see them, and instead the overwhelming impression is that Pitcairn seems intent on wallowing under a shroud of darkness. I feel often as if I am watching the end – an island on lockdown. Nothing in, nothing out.

It makes you wonder about repopulation plans – it begs the question of if the island is ready for newcomers. Whether change from within can happen fast enough to save this small lump of rock for the ‘community’ that lives here. I may be generalising here, and I know that not everyone feels this way, but there seems to be an end point that certain islanders are striding towards rapidly by their own reluctance to engage and take ownership of their image. In a sense they are reconciled to the fate that awaits and as a result they have become complacent to an extent, and are defensive of that position, preferring not to draw attention to themselves and vanish quietly.

I have heard it mentioned by a couple of people that they almost look forward to being the last person to turn the lights out. It seems to me that this foregone conclusion acts as a barrier itself, as though by admitting failure one eschews ‘defeat’. This in turn comes back to their reluctance to engage with my project – I don’t know what I will leave here with. If the islanders don’t believe in preserving their present because the future is uncertain – it’s the “I’m not going to be here so what does it matter?” sort of attitude – then my efforts are almost thwarted before I begin. What most don’t seem to realise is that by letting me in, they might have a better chance of starting to change that image, but being open, openness spreads.

As someone who is fascinated with stories and by people, I find this all very puzzling. Especially in a place which superficially trades on its history to the extent that Pitcairn does…. That famous Bounty history that is seen everywhere – on hats and t-shirts worn by the islanders as an unofficial uniform, to the replica Bounty models in homes, to the paintings of the Bounty, and bookshelves overflowing with Bounty stories and Pitcairn related titles.

There is, outwardly, an obsession with the legend, but yet history in the real sense seems to slip through my fingers at every turn. As an artist, or a photographer, you are, effectively a historian. A record keeper, an observer, looking at the present as though every moment is an opportunity to capture an underlying essence or truth about the time we live in. But when so much seems to be smoke and mirrors, when people are closed, that kernel of truth – the truth that can sing out from an honest portrait or a simple detail is hard to find.

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Looming in the distance

I apologise now for my infrequency in blogging. I’ve been having a little bit of a hard time of it recently and trying to remain upbeat and positive has been using up most of my energy! This post should have gone up a few weeks ago but limited internet has meant restrictions on the blog. There are another two posts in the publishing queue, but patience is a virtue, so they say.

Marina

The Marina came and went on the 12th. It was an American vessel carrying around 1200 passengers. As usual on the Marina, they didn’t come ashore, and virtually the whole island once more decamped to the cruise ship for the day. The radio communication started early, some time around 5:30am, and Big Fence was buzzing with the sounds of radio static, rapid footsteps, and the chatter of organisation.

On Deck of Marina

Quad bikes could be heard zooming through Adamstown’s main road and up through the valleys with purpose, as fresh produce was gathered for the ship after a last minute request. Curios were packed, boxes were labelled and loaded onto trailers and into the back of a small pickup truck and ferried to the landing. Our backpacks were packed, and shoelaces tied. The Pitcairners donned their freshest attire and fixed broad smiles on their faces. The Marina carries a profitable passenger base, and the islanders know how to turn on the charm and ham up the mutineer connections when necessary.

Around 7am Brenda was heard ringing the bell five times to indicate the cruise ship’s arrival and to give warning to the locals to start heading down to the landing. Apparently this doesn’t happen too often anymore, so I was pleased she agreed to do it again for me so I could record it! It seems to be one of the many old traditions that are gradually fading away as technology such as handheld radios have taken over.

After the activity at home had waned and the loaded bikes dispersed, I clambered onto the back of Kevin’s quad and hurtled down towards the boat shed in a convoy of vehicles. We all watched as a floating tower block seemed to grow on the horizon, sprouting from the sea, trundling forwards in menacing silence.

It’s a strange feeling, watching a lump of metal appear that carries around 30 times the number of people than on the whole of Pitcairn. All of a sudden, here they are, stopping off and revelling in the experience of brushing shoulders with the famed mutineers descendants.

Rainbow

By around 8am, all of us were loaded into a single longboat headed out to the towering hulk lurking just outside of Bounty Bay. The Marina was quite different from the Amadea for me, because by now I have lived on Pitcairn for over a month, so I too became at attraction and the focus of questioning. “How do they have power?”, “What happens in a medical emergency?”, “What are the people like?”, “Do they have fridges?”, “How do they communicate with the outside world?”. The usual stuff, for the most part.

Longboat

The most common question however, is… “how do you get there?” People are interested in Pitcairn, and want to land. Many I spoke to had read about it, and a few had chosen that particular cruise precisely because Pitcairn was on the itinerary. Few knew that cruise ships rarely land, and that the only guaranteed way to read the island is with the Claymore II. When I explained the logistical challenges of landing people on Pitcairn, they saw why it is problematic. A ship of 1200 people on an island of 40 is clearly overwhelming – even in terms of transport for the less able bodied up from the landing via the Hill of Difficulty to Adamstown. Ferrying that number of passengers in the ships tenders is also hard, with a small and limited landing area.

The long boats require crew, which visibly depletes the stock of able bodied islanders on shore. The island is treacherous in parts, there is nowhere to buy snacks or food, and that number of people would require a greater number of public toilets and other facilities. It’s almost too great a risk, for little gain. Though the islanders love having visitors land, the bigger ships are a little problematic and it’s very easy to see why.

So, my advice – if you want to visit Pitcairn and definitely land, then the best way is to travel on the Claymore. My second choice would be to find a private yacht – possibly on Gambier, and third, travel on a smaller cruise ship or research/expedition vessel. Do your research – check their past history of landing passengers. Some ships almost have a policy not to land, so make enquiries. Don’t assume that because it’s listing on the itinerary that you can get off.

Yachties

Ok, moving on back to the cruise ship… at one point in the morning we spied a yacht approaching from the lounge area where the Pitcairn ‘marketplace’ was set up on the Marina and Brenda (who deals with the yachts, entry clearances, and landing fees as part of her island police role) had to radio the boat and say that no one was home and that they could only be dealt with after the Marina had left. It brought up some bizarre visions of what you could write on a sign at the landing… “Gone fishing” perhaps, or simply “closed”. I’ve never been anywhere where its possible for an entire country to temporarily evacuate for the day and exit via a single boat.

Cruise ship days bring home, perhaps more than at any other time, the extent to which Pitcairn is maze of contradictions. It is off the beaten track, but famous the world over. The locals live a basic life, and many have had limited access to education, but each has had opportunities few outside would ever experience. Adamstown is effectively a rural village, but its people walk with a swagger and have a rock star mentality confounded from their mutineer heritage. They even have the photographer shrug off down pat: the donning of sunglasses often followed by a quick hand shielding face from lens gesture. It’s an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand locals don their Pitcairn t-shirts almost daily, visually advertising their collective belonging, and on the other hand they shrug off the attention that identity brings.

Computer room, big fence

The Pitcairner’s day to day lives working in the gardens, or on government projects are completely at odds with the mysticism that surrounds the people. Though much of their image is a Hollywood construct, many of the locals tap into it, and it has become their currency and identity. It has led me to wonder on more than one occasion whether Pitcairn will be able to move on from its history fast enough to sustain new growth and immigration. It seems a protectionist society, suspicious of outsiders and of “meddling”, but the island sits on the apex of thriving or failing – without new younger blood, the island has no future. But with new blood comes a dilution of the old, a departure from history, an evaporation of identity. What would it mean to come from Pitcairn if the mutineer ancestry became the minority? Would the allure still exist, would the interest from the cruise ships still sustain the island? There are many more questions than answers.

Before I arrived here I had a very different picture of the island, some parts have proven entirely false, and I have faced daily challenges trying to overcome both my own expectations and the views of others. Past wounds have not yet healed over, and it’s incredibly easy to accidentally pick a scab without knowing it. Not only is this island’s infrastructure fragile, and it’s future uncertain, but the people are fragile too. The trails ripped this place apart – even those who were not named on any documents had their lives turned over with a fine toothcomb. Everyone here is connected so every action has a ripple effect and some actions in the past have amplified beyond control.

Monopoly

Anyone visiting with a camera, and particularly those who are here for a long time are likely to feel the brunt of the past weighing heavy on their shoulders at some point. These last couple of weeks have been my turn – I know it’s not personal, though it often feels it. I am just another in a long line of outsiders. Others have told them how to live their lives, or have passed judgement. They are understandably suspicious. It was partly my reason for wanting to come here – because I felt that I could do a better job of getting to the essence of Pitcairn, that I was perhaps a little softer, a lot more open, and more respectful, that I could identify with much of the life here.

But in a place so embedded with history, Pitcairners are like elephants: they never forget. I’m slowly learning what not to touch, that some stones are best left covered in moss, undisturbed.

It has not been an easy road, and I’ve learnt a lot in the process. Though this may well be the most difficult thing that I have ever done, it’s an experience that won’t be forgotten in a hurry!

Feeding Frigates

And now for something completely different….

Some of you may know me, and some of you may not, but thank you all for visiting regardless of how you found yourself here. I hope you’ll continue to visit and follow me on the journey I’m about to embark on.

As this is my first post, I should perhaps direct you to the background page, as that goes into an amount of detail I shan’t go enter into here, but in a nutshell, my name is Rhiannon, I’m a photographer, and with the help of a grant from the BBC and Royal Geographical Society I’m about to set off to Pitcairn, a tiny volcanic island in the Pacific. I have been lucky enough to win this year’s Journey of a Lifetime Award, and will be recording a Radio 4 documentary of my experiences to be aired later in the year.

Pitcairn has no landing strip, and is only reachable by sea. It is more than 300 miles of open ocean away from the nearest inhabited island. The boat (Claymore II, pictured left) is only scheduled to visit on three month rotations, so I will be spending a full three months in the world’s least populated and most remote jurisdiction, taking only my cameras for comfort. Pitcairn is Britain’s last remaining overseas territory in the Pacific, and though home to fewer than 50 permanent residents, the islanders enjoy a rich heritage and can claim an almost uninterrupted bloodline back to the original Mutiny on the Bounty. Though the Mutiny may be famous, very few people have ever heard of their descendants’ home, let alone visited it.

Screen Shot 2015-01-21 at 13.18.19

Pitcairn is roughly halfway between South America and New Zealand

 

It is difficult and costly to reach, and hard to get the necessary permissions to film and photograph. I have now got past the first hurdles, and now I am on to stage two, seeking out in-kind supporters as well as additional financial backers, to help get the most out of this unique opportunity. Because of the timeframe as dictated by the boat, I will be leaving in March. Once on Pitcairn I won’t be able to receive mail, or buy additional film and supplies, or fix equipment, so everything has to be ready by the last week of February.

This doesn’t leave me very long to gather funds, so for this reason, I am seeking extra support (both financial and in-kind) to conduct the first ever photographic project to explore the island, the islanders and their unique culture. I see this as an opportunity to create an anthropological record of the island, and to take my work in new direction. I’ll be launching a crowd funding campaign in the next week, but until then I’m using GoFundMe, so please visit this page if you’d like to donate. 

This blog will be updated regularly, and will chart (no pun) the whole journey, from my leaving preparations to my return, and all of the months on Pitcairn in between.

I hope you’ll stay with me for the ride.