Tristan da Cunha is a society that philosophers have always dreamt about. There is no hate, envy nor malice among them. They all fraternally help each other out. They lack the vices of civilisation. There is no class distinction, no rich, no poor. I had never heard of the South Atlantic island until I read this from French explorer Raymond Rallier du Baty, who made a stopover in 1907. That sure got my attention and I did some digging. Equality, mutual aid, refusal of private property...the more I learnt about it's history, the more I knew I had to do a work out of this community far from the world. I did in 2016, two hundred years after its birth.
The volcanic island forms a perfect triangle placed on the horizon. This 80-square mile piece of confetti is the most isolated inhabited land in the world, 2800km from Cape Town and a stone’s throw from the roaring forties. The 266 inhabitants who share nine surnames are all descendants of exiled and castaways who followed in the footsteps of corporal William Glass. In 1817, when his british garrison left the island, he decided to stay on with his wife and children. A couple of men followed suit. An agreement with the Crown and the firm, as they call themselves, was drawn up and states that “in order to ensure the harmony no member shall assume any superiority whatever”, “all are to be considered as equal in every respect” and “whatever profit may arise shall be equally divided”. They are soon joined by others and the new born community founded on the principles of equality and freedom steadily grows over the years. This utopian experience remained largely unknown until 1961 when the volcano started rumbling. Fearing the complete destruction of the island, the entire population was evacuated and flung into 20th century industrial Britain. But the Tristanians were not impressed and all preferred to return home two years later.
Getting to Tristan Da Cunha is a bit of a hassle. One first has to get permission from the island council. Then there is the issue of finding a berth on one of the few boats making the seven-day journey from Cape Town. The whole process took me a year and I eventually spent two months on the island in late 2016. Although some of the founding principals have faded (money has eventually replaced potatoes as a currency), most have remained. Private property still doesn't exist, land is communally owned and livestock is allocated proportionately to the size of each home. Since it is an island I imagined that fishing was the main thing out there. Far from it. Weather conditions restrict drastically access to the sea. Hence it is more a farming than a fishing community.
That is why I chose to give the series The Firm a pastoral outlook. Far from our hyper-connected, internet is more of a myth than a reality and mobile phones don't exist, and globalised world, Tristan Da Cunha is as much a travel in space as in time. Nature is the rule and men have to adapt rather than shape it. In Les bienheureux de la désolation, Hervé Bazin wrote Tristan is a safe heaven where the hostility of the elements allows them to escape the hostility of men. I witnessed first hand that “hostility of the elements” when I was stranded for two weeks on the island waiting for the sea to allow me to leave. Since it is such a close knit community everyone is related to one another in some degree. This is what the B/W portraits put the emphasis on, splitting and mixing the families with one another as to represent their shared genetic patrimony.
On the eve of the bicentenary (2017) of this forgotten community, it was evident that my artistic practice would land on this volcanic cone. As much to capture it as a motif for landscape, as to question what became of William Glass’ dream. It is important for me to show that a society shaped on the fundamental ideas of equality and sharing does exist in this day and age. Even forgotten in a place that is almost inaccessible.