Big Fence, a portrait of pitcairn island

Rhiannon Adam

2015 - Ongoing

Pitcairn

An enigmatic place – legendary and infamous. A volcanic blip in the vast blue of the Pacific, 2 miles long and one mile wide. About as far from anywhere as it is possible to be – access only by quarterly supply vessel. Once on Pitcairn, there would be no escape until the boat returned. Today just one child and 42 islanders remain on Pitcairn - its days are numbered.

Pitcairn the paradise – the Mutiny on the Bounty, the Anglo-Tahitian idyll, the Hollywood adaptations that followed – this would be the local currency.

To recap, HMS Bounty set sail from the UK the South Seas in 1787 on a naval mission to find breadfruit, but the crew, led by Fletcher Christian, mutinied outside of Tahiti. After failing to find a suitable settling place in Polynesia, the Bounty mutineers kidnapped 18 Tahitians and headed to sea. In 1970, they rediscovered Pitcairn island which had been marked incorrectly on naval charts. Once they had found their hiding place, they burnt the Bounty, ensuring that they could exist unnoticed.

225 years on, Pitcairn is still an enigmatic place, far off the beaten track. Amidst the dusty red earth and the swaying palms is an aristocracy disguised as a democracy. Status and livelihood depend on ancestral relationships to the original Bounty mutineers. Islanders walk with a swagger, shrouded by a sense of self-importance held fast by legend.

But there was another, darker, side to the island. Secrets that had ripped the community apart, convictions that had shocked the world. Wounds that would never heal. Spurred by testimony from one brave Pitcairn girl, a total of 8 living Pitcairn men had been convicted of sexual crimes against young girls in 2004, one of whom is the island’s current mayor, Shawn Christian. In 2016, another man, Mike Warren, was convicted of possessing indecent images of children. The men still apparently indignant, the abused girls now wives. Paradise Lost. The outside world, for the most part, engaging in a willing suspension of disbelief.

Hundreds of miles of open ocean, and an exotic tale obscure the truth, but on island, every problem is amplified, and there is no respite – honesty is eclipsed by need. Here women face their darkest moments daily, relying on their abusers. Every member of this minute community has a distinct role, all are necessary – to break ranks and speak out is to ensure the island’s downfall – or at least that is the prevailing view. Here, no experience is individual, there is no witness protection. In this most isolated of places, claustrophobia prevails.

A complex and tense environment where loneliness and secrecy thrive, where notions of right and wrong crumble in favour of survival. Relationships are fractured, locations bare scars. Every corner of this island is marred. Though the mutineers came for escape, Pitcairn provides no such comfort, its rocky shores and open ocean acting as a prison wall for all within.

The project changed as I was there, the absence of individuals willing to be photographed almost told a bigger story than those that agreed. Unwanted sexual advances and public showdowns peppered my stay. My project took place largely in secret - almost everyone was photographed in private, inside, away from judging eyes. It became a covert operation. With each person I had just one opportunity, and many took months of coercion. As a result the absences in the project perhaps tell a more potent story than those who are included.

Found photographs, objects, portraits and Pitcairn interiors intermingle to capture the spirit and struggle of this tiny island nation as it sits on the brink of implosion

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  • Most people assume Pitcairn to be idyllic. It is steep sided and volcanic. On the map the island is covered with place names like 'Where John Fall", and "Oh Dear". Often proximity to the sea inspires a sense of freedom. On Pitcairn the steep walls keep you in, the rip tides and changeable winds mean there is no shelter. Pitcairn's geography makes one feel even more isolated and trapped.

  • Brandon Young. He is a Pitcairn descendent, but lives in New Zealand. He says that he despises the island for its past but is attached to its physicality. Brandon's experience was the antithesis to mine - he was courted as the future of the island, while I was demonised.

  • The longboat. Without the longboat, Pitcairn would be inaccessible to the outside world. Only island men are trained as longboat skippers, able to deft move the aluminium hill between the jagged rocks at the Landing. Everyone on island relies on the longboat skippers - when the men were jailed, they had special dispensation to leave to operate the boat.

  • The view of the Pacific from an empty room at Big Fence, the childhood home of Shawn and Randy Christian.

  • Mattresses on Pitcairn, stacked in the childhood bedroom of a girl that has long since left.

  • Cushana - aged 6. Cushana comes from the Warren family, the innocent parties on the island. Cushana is ferried to and from the tiny school by the island police officer, Brenda Christian. She is under constant supervision to protect her from her own extended island family.

  • Cushana's room at Te Kiva Bounty. Everywhere you look there is dust and dirt and a no matter how hard you try not to see the visual clues, the shadow of the abuse story is palpable. Here Cushana's doll wears a dress resembling that of Cushana herself.

  • Famous poster - Man and Baby, found in Tania Christian's old bedroom. Tania is Steve and Olive Christian's daughter.

  • The sign that sits above the entranceway in Steve and Olive Christian's home.

  • Mayor Shawn Christian. Shawn, like his father, evaded my attempts wherever possible. 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. His eyes stare blankly into the abyss, pupils wide. He dressed for the occasion, a flowery shirt. But even this does not cheer the scene. His powerful island role mingles with his role in the trials, almost inextricable from one another.

  • Randy Christian. Randy was handed one of the heaviest sentences in the Pitcairn trials. He is now a father himself, though all children now live off-island, while Randy, due to visa restrictions, is banished to Pitcairn.

  • Crying Man, newspaper. Pitcairn General Store.

  • 'Pirate' Pawl Warren lives with his partner Sue on the ground floor of his parent's house. It was a rape that took place by an off islander at a party at Pawl's house that sparked the initial investigations into the Pitcairn abuses. Pawl, a quiet giant, stands firmly against the other islanders and is one of the few innocent men.

  • Sue O'Keefe. To monitor the prisoners, wardens were brought from New Zealand, one of whom, Sue, fell in love with ‘Pirate Pawl’ Warren. Sue and Pawl are possibly Pitcairn’s only happy couple. Their home was always open, an island within the island – they nicknamed it ‘Switzerland’ – one where the trials could be discussed openly, and derision could be public. Though they have each other, the ravages of isolation can be seen across Sue’s face, aided by chain smoking and cheap alcohol.

  • Kevin Young. This picture was taken in his bedroom on my last day. Kevin holds the ardent belief that the trials did not present the full truth.

  • Found photograph of a different branch of the Christian family depicting Tom Christian dressed in Bounty garb, while his daughters and wife are obscured by water damage. Tom’s wife Betty attested to Pitcairner's knowledge that the island was under British law - this, in part, enabled a privy council appeal to be thrown out.

  • Royal Warren, parent of warring siblings Melva and Mike, and devout Seventh Day Adventist. During my stay, her son, Mike, was on trial for child pornography (and later convicted). I often wondered what she was thinking of – her sharp and curious eyes flickering occasionally, before settling into a distant stare. Perhaps remembering a better time, when life was easier, and then she would remember where she was, and what her family was going through, and her eyes would glass over in reticence.

  • Len Brown. Len was convicted in the trials of multiple, routine, rapes but was allowed to serve his time on house arrest due to his age. He lives with close friend and island police officer (and deputy mayor), Brenda (Steve Christian's sister). He is the father of Olive Christian - wife of Steve Christian and grandfather to Shawn and Randy Christian.

  • Empty bedroom in former residence of Kari and Brian Young, another of the convicted Pitcairners, who due to medical reasons was able to relocate to New Zealand, while the others remain stuck on island.


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