Big Fence / Pitcairn Island - PhMuseum

Big Fence / Pitcairn Island

Rhiannon Adam

2015 - Ongoing

Pitcairn

Pitcairn – an enigmatic place; legendary and infamous. A volcanic blip in the vast blue of the Pacific: just two miles long and one mile wide. Britain’s last Pacific Overseas Territory. As far from anywhere as it is possible to be, accessible only by the island's supply vessel every three months. By 2015, just one child and 42 islanders remained.

Pitcairn the paradise – famous as 'Mutiny on the Bounty island' - the Anglo-Tahitian

idyll, an image cemented by the Hollywood adaptations that followed. 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 eight living Pitcairn men were

convicted of sexual crimes against young girls in 2004 and 2007, one of whom was

the island’s mayor, Steve Christian, the closest living descendent of Fletcher

Christian, leader of the Bounty mutineers. The convicted men also included two of his sons, Randy Christian and Shawn Christian (mayor 2015-2019), who were convicted of gang rape. Paradise Lost.

On Pitcairn, every problem is amplified, and there is no respite – honesty is eclipsed

by need, women relying on their abusers. In this most isolated of places,

claustrophobia prevails. A complex and tense environment where loneliness and

secrecy thrive. Relationships are fractured, locations bare scars. Was it possible to

move on, and, more importantly, had it? Could Pitcairn survive the ageing population

and the shadow of its past?

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Unwanted sexual advances and public showdowns peppered my stay, my story

merging with theirs. I was granted a window into the psychology of the space, through the web of mistrust, and the trappings of my gender. Almost everyone would only agree to be photographed in private, inside, away from judging eyes - a covert

operation. With each subject I had just one opportunity - many taking months of

coercion. As a result, those absent in the project perhaps tell a more potent story than those who are included. In the full project edit, empty rooms, rock fissures, and

damaged found photographs of long departed islanders hint at a concealed darkness.

This project explores the idea of Utopia, an unattainable idea created from afar. It

explores the ways in which a romantic history can often overshadow the reality, and

how we are often willing to turn away from the truth in order to preserve a fantasy.

For many, Pitcairn epitomised the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; a myth protected by distance, one that so many need to believe truly exists. Despite the revelations of the trials, the island’s fans make excuses for the men’s behaviour in order to preserve their fiction. This project aims to show both the beauty and the tragedy, and the danger of living life in the shadow of the surreal.

In the full project, images of empty rooms, rock fissures, objects, maps, audio snippets, relics, and damaged found photographs of long departed islanders sit alongside formal portraits. These intermingle to capture the spirit and struggle of this tiny island nation as it sits on the brink of implosion. Expired Polaroid film is used to capture the fragility of the place - its instability echoing the scarred underbelly of the island, its dreamlike quality capturing the whimsy of the legend.

Archival elements reveal what is now hidden from view, and combine with the images to recreate the discombobulating experience of life on Pitcairn where the truth is slippery and so often remains buried – a space where fact and fiction blend.

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  • Bounty Day
    (Found photograph)


    This image is a found photograph showing a Pitcairn family during Bounty Day celebrations. The women are obscured, while the group’s lone male looks out, in discernable Bounty era dress. He proudly holds a large Union Jack flag – the flag flown by the Bounty – a nod to the mutineers’ historical ‘Britishness’.

    Like the image ‘Pitcairn Girl’ (22), it has been destroyed by the island’s own harsh environment. Humidity ravages anything left behind, as though the island is intent on obscuring its own memory. It is as if records are not meant to be kept, but destroyed – reality destined for distortion and interpretation.

    On Pitcairn, the past is slippery and subjective. It is all in the telling – who is telling it, what their motivations are, the relationship that they have to the protagonists in their story. Pitcairners are entranced by their own mythology - or at least, on the surface.

    There is a word often uttered on island – “hypocriting”. It is usually used in the context of “hypocriting the stranger”. As in, “we successfully led the visitor to believe our fiction through the strength of our convictions”.


    Pitcairners seem to be proud of their Bounty heritage, but below the surface, the motivations for their ‘pride’ are unmasked as commercial.

    Due to the Bounty story, however, Pitcairners have become “special” in the eyes of the world, which, in turn, grants them special allowances. They are adored and studied: examined like ants under a microscope. There are even online forums dedicated to the Bounty story and the island as it stands; within them real people are continuously discussed, with islanders becoming celebrities in their own right. I too am aware that my project is helping to reinforce the legend, to help perpetuate the myth, albeit accidentally. There is an inherent irony in this project’s creation, a fact that does not escape me, an example of the age-old mantra that there is ‘no such thing as bad publicity’.

    Even during the abuse trials, the Pitcairners were treated as a special case, with lenient sentencing to reflect the apparent necessity of each individual’s role within the community. In a sense then, the Pitcairners are right - they are important and unique. So important, in fact, that the world still seems intent on forgetting what happened in 2004.

    But beneath the facade of bravado lurks a deep sense of shame and loneliness. Pitcairners are a proud people and did not want to have their image tarnished, I was held at arm’s length for fear that I too would add to that tarnish, but of course, this became an inevitable element of this project.

    This picture somehow hints to that proud past, but also to the sadness and neglect that it masks. The islanders destroying themselves from within, a desire for protectionism influencing actions, preventing confrontation of past failures and preventing positive change in the future.

  • Aute Valley


    When most think of the South Pacific, images of swaying palm trees and glistening strips of soft white sand immediately spring to mind.

    Pitcairn bears little resemblance to that vision. It is rocky and volcanic, emerging abruptly from the vast blue horizon, 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. Its inaccessibility providing a veil of secrecy, resulting in both its protection and subsequent decline.

    When I arrived on Pitcairn, I was handed a crudely drawn map of the island. I was quick to notice that its craggy shores were littered with place names laden with tragedy: Oh Dear, Dan Fall, Nellie Fall, Lin Fall,McCoy’s drop, Six Feet – to name a few.

    While on island, and particularly in my early days, when hostility and daily showdowns had become a part of my everyday existence, I couldn’t help but wonder if I too may end up with a ‘drop’ named after me, should I make a proverbial (or literal)misstep. Perhaps the fate of those before me who had spoken out.

    A closed community like this one was likely to protect itself, to close ranks.
    Any visitor to Pitcairn is known as an ‘outsider’ – and outsiders were often maligned and almost always mistrusted. If there were ever a choice to be made between an outsider’s truth and an islander’s fiction, the odds would be unfavourably stacked.

    Usually, I find proximity to the sea calming – the continuum between land and water provides a sense of freedom; a means to escape, an interconnectedness. While on Pitcairn, however, the sea became a barrier. The island’s sheer height, its lack of beaches, the aggressive ragged cliffs – elements combine to create a sense of claustrophobia; of entrapment.

    Behind its rugged beauty, Aute Valley is riddled with its own demons. Inland from this promontory exist a number of ‘gardens’ belonging to island families. As detailed in court documents, it was in one of these gardens that Steve Christian forcibly raped a teenage girl (his regular target) in a shed. After he had finished, he told the girl not to say anything, adding that if she did, she would, in any event, not be believed.

    I remembered the story of the mutineers and empathised with the Tahitian women who tried to build a boat to escape their rugged confines. Now, as then, the ocean creates an insurmountable wall, a ‘big fence’ – the island a prison in all but name.

  • Christians Cave
    The Omniscient Eye (Polaroid SX-70)


    Christian’s Cave sits like an all-seeing eye surveying Adamstown. It is so named, as this was the spot where Fletcher himself would sit as his own madness closed in - watching over the tiny community that he had founded, and scanning the horizon for approaching vessels.

    I wondered whether Fletcher was looking for ships, not to raise the alarm, but rather as a way out; I ruminated on whether he was purposefully distancing himself from the goldfish bowl below.

    I too took solace in the cave. Most islanders are now unable to clamber up the steep slopes to its entrance, and those who can, are disinterested. Loose rock and spiky “grab-a-leg” seedlings make the walk hair-raising and uncomfortable. There are no railings to be found en route, and loose, bare, rock makes up much of the journey. A cliff edge vanishing into the blue. A whisker between life and death.

    I was happy to take the risk, as I knew that I would be left alone up there. Though, if I made the pilgrimage for privacy, that I did not find. There is nowhere quite as conspicuous Christian’s Cave. It is visible in almost every outdoor photograph that I took, a reminder of the Mutiny past. If Pitcairn has an iconic location, this is it.

  • The Unholy Trinity, triptych.

    (Left) Randy Christian:

    Randy Christian is Steve Christian’s (my host) middle son. In the 2004 trials he was convicted of five rapes and four indecent assaults, including gang rape with his brother Shawn. The two men had stuffed a t-shirt into their victim’s mouth and ‘took turns’. His victim’s testimony led to widespread awareness of the sexual abuse issues on Pitcairn, and kick-started the investigation. He is now father to three and stepfather to one, though during my time on island, his children were living in New Zealand.

    It is hard to imagine that the Randy that I knew is the same man that was convicted in the trials. I knew Randy as my host’s son, a man who cooked me roast chicken and had a penchant for listening to Cher. The jovial island clown.

    I never spoke to him about his trial. It was an unspoken code of behaviour on Pitcairn, to turn a blind eye to the past. At night, however, when I was alone in my room, I would think about the compromise I was existing in – socialising with men who in the UK, I would have avoided at all costs. On Pitcairn, life exists in a kind of suspended reality, morality is twisted. Each day you weigh up the consequences of saying what you feel, versus the sanctum that silence provides.

    Like the island women before me, I chose silence and survival.


    (Centre) Pitcairn Girl, found photograph:

    This anonymous picture was discovered stashed in the back of an album destroyed by water in the last remaining traditional dunnage house on Pitcairn (made from washed up materials thrown overboard by passing ships).

    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 one of the most powerful images of my trip, drawing the parallel between Pitcairn’s particular geography and some of the lasting effects on its people and diaspora.

    When I left Pitcairn, I too felt emotionally destroyed – to leave the intensity behind was the greatest sense of freedom I have ever experienced.

    (Right) Pitcairn Mayor, Shawn Christian:

    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, David. Shawn’s portrait haunts me, I can see it sometimes when I close my eyes. Real island memories have now 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. The weight of his troubles seems impossible to bear. You could be forgiven for thinking he was a patient at a Victorian asylum – being the Mayor of Pitcairn would certainly have been maddening enough.

    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. The convicted men, like Shawn, are routinely denied visas to travel. If Pitcairn’s days are numbered, where will they go? To Britain, the only country obliged to settle them, more than 14,000 miles away?

    Due to a legal loophole, Shawn is able to take on Pitcairn’s highest office despite his criminal 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.

  • Olive Christian, Public Works
    Fuel Store


    Olive refuses to believe in the trial’s conclusions, and supported the men through their ‘ordeal’. Denial it may be,
    though her position is somewhat understandable. After all, almost every male member of her family was implicated and latterly convicted.

    She seemed fragile and frantic – her thick Pitkern accent rising and falling at pace. She always seemed as though she might break at any second. I enjoyed her sense of humour, her hospitality, and her companionship. I became very attached to Olive, and found it hard to leave her behind on island – I often pictured what her life could have looked life if she had left. I wonder if she would have been happier. She now seems defined by her state of compromise.

    Olive holds multiple government jobs (the government is the island’s only official 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. Her attire reminiscent of an Imperial Storm trooper.

    Left: front page of appeal to Privy council made by the men who were convicted in 2004. Len is her father, Randy her son, Steven, her husband, and Dave, her brother.

  • Banyan Trees
    Jack Williams Valley (expired Polaroid)

    These spindly trees occupy the far corner of Adamstown. Their fronds hang like long fingers, layered into a tangled web. I would pass them on the way to Pulau school, or to Down Flatcher. A shaded nook with a mystical quality. In the past children would swing from its tendrils, emulating Tarzan.

    Today, they hang silent. Inanimate.

    In the 70s, Steve Christian raped a twelve year old girl amidst the Banyan trees. The girl in question had been walking with other friends, when Steve and a gang of boys, grabbed her and forced her to the floor. They removed her shorts, and Steve raped her, while the others held her arms and legs. When he was finished, he encouraged the others to ‘have a go’ – a familiar pattern, one repeated by his sons two decades later.

    I had seen Steve speed around the corner at Jack Williams Valley. It had become a storage area for heavy machinery, some of which Steve was the only person licensed to drive.

    I wondered if he considered the significance of the place. Whether the vehicles were parked there in protest – a suggestion that despite his convictions and the remnants of his crimes, he was still ‘top dog’.

    Left: Details of the crimes that took place at the Banyan trees; right: Poem by Steve's wife's (Oliver) sister, Yvonne about the "dark" banyans.

  • Kevin Young
    Up Tibi


    Kevin is Steve Christian’s cousin and the first person I met on island, nicknamed ‘Seagull’, after his propensity for chatting. He is a born Pitcairn islander, but spent many years in New Zealand’s Air Force. In his early 60s, he made the decision to move back to Pitcairn to try to set up a wine-making business in order to bring an alternative funding (and population) stream into the island. His optimism was infectious, even if the realities of his plans seemed impossible to imagine.

    Here, Kevin sits on his bed in his new home, Up Tibi (later renamed Kate Fence). On Pitcairn, building materials are in short supply and high demand. It can take several years to gather all the necessary supplies to build a home, due to cargo restrictions and tight schedules. The alternative is to take over an empty house when one becomes available. As the population dwindles, empty property is becoming more common.

    Up Tibi, for instance, is the former home of one of Kevin’s distant relatives, another man convicted in the trials, Brian Young.

    Brian is the only convicted man to date who has managed to leave Pitcairn permanently. Brian now lives in New Zealand with his Norwegian wife, Kari. New Zealand, and the Australian territory of Norfolk Island, are Pitcairn’s jump off points, and home to the bulk of Pitcairn’s diaspora. It is a generally accepted fact that, due to the severity of their crimes, the remaining convicted men would be denied permanent settlement visas, and, in some cases, even transit visas, through either territory. The only country obliged to settle them is the UK itself, Pitcairn’s funder and perceived arch-nemesis – itself more than 14,000 miles away, a place that few islanders have ever visited. Though their sentences have been served, Pitcairn remains their own private Alcatraz.

    Brian, however, circumvented the system. He was granted medical dispensation to reside in New Zealand after a diabetes-linked gangrenous infection from an embedded thorn resulted in the loss of a toe. After a dramatic and life-saving medical evacuation to Mangareva via the longboats, Brian was deemed unsuited for island life.

    There was some discussion between islanders that the toe incident was in part self-inflicted, when piles of unused prescription diabetes medication were later found in his home.

    Left: Pitcairn's own hymn, hinting at "guilt"

  • Brenda Christian
    Pommy Ridge


    Brenda Christian is Steve’s sister, and mother to Andrew, Pitcairn’s only gay man. She lived off-island for many years, working on an army base in the UK, where she met her second husband, Mike Lupton, an affable Brit with piercing blue eyes, whom she brought back to Pitcairn.

    Brenda serves as the island’s community police officer. To prevent bias, since 2004, the role has been overseen by a police officer brought in from New Zealand (paid for by the UK taxpayer). All policing decisions are now made in collaboration.
    Brenda was responsible for smoothing over the ‘David situation’, and attempting to manage the island gossip machine. Malicious gossip is, incidentally, a fine-able offense on Pitcairn, and is enshrined in the Pitcairn law book.

    Her home is derogatorily known as “Pommy Ridge” because of her time off island, and her husband’s nationality. Steve once said in an interview that his sister ‘didn’t understand’ the island because she is ‘British’. Brenda herself would beg to differ – identifying as a true Pitcairn islander, though she remains loyal to her police oath and won’t be swayed.

    Left: Brenda as a young girl on the rocks at Down Rope

  • David Brown
    Molasses Shed


    David Brown is Pitcairn’s youngest male. He is son of Dave “The Mouth” Brown, grandson of Len Brown, nephew of Steve and Olive Christian, and cousin to both Shawn and Randy Christian.

    He is one of the few younger Pitcairners who refused to leave the island to finish their education. Most head to New Zealand at 15 and never return, often meeting an off-islander and having a family. Now that David finds himself alone, he has no such option. There are no women of his generation remaining on Pitcairn.

    Soon after my arrival, I heard a story that set my alarm bells ringing. David sits on the island council but was absent the day that councillors gathered to vote on my long-stay visa application. Other councillors, seeing my attached photograph, cast a vote in David’s stead, approving my stay. In their minds I was an ‘opportunity’ for David. It was unspoken, but ever-present.

    It became clear that David had similar intentions. Some community members seemed intent on engineering situations for us to have contact, or be alone. They openly teased him, goading him about “not getting the girl”. One female islander had suggested that he should “piss” on me, in order to mark me as his own.

    Over time, his actions became more and more extreme, and after another incident involving David, I decided to move house to Te Kiva Bounty, home of the island’s one child, Cushana, daughter of Charlene and Vaine Warren-Peu. Because of the implied exclusion zone for males outside of her immediate family, I assumed her presence would, in some way, protect me too. However, during my first night in my new home – a self contained unit on the patio – I found my relief short-lived.

    As an island engineer, David was part of a rota to turn the island’s power off a few nights a week. After he turned the lights out, for silence’s sake, David parked his quad bike, and began the long, steep, walk to my new abode. I awoke to the sound of the window above my head being slid open and a male limb appearing in its aperture, trying to climb in. In his apparent defence, David had said that the ‘bed had moved’ and that he wasn’t expecting me to be next to the window. Of course, that led me to wonder how many other times he had attempted such nocturnal break-ins. Apparently, this had once been common practice on Pitcairn – a practice that his own father, Dave, had been known to be particularly fond of.

    The next morning, I finally decided to file a complaint about David with the off-island police officer, John. It was not an action I took lightly, knowing the risks of becoming a perceived ‘snitch’ – and the impacts that this would have, both on the project and my day-to-day existence. But, I knew that if I didn’t, and this went further or happened to someone else, I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself.
    I had, perhaps foolishly, assumed that given the island’s recent history, that Pitcairn men would think better of any behaviour that could be perceived as sexual harassment.

    After getting wind of my report, then-mayor Shawn Christian invited me to his home in a hidden copse near The Edge for the first time. His mission was to dissuade me taking further action against David, or escalating the complaint. He claimed that if I did, I could personally jeopardise the island’s future.

    Throughout the conversation, I had to remind myself that David was Shawn’s first cousin and close friend, and that Shawn himself had been convicted for far worse.

    It was then that I had a moment of true insight into how the abused women must have felt; caught between their own predicament, family loyalties and a sense of responsibility for the future of the wider community. In one article published in the NZ Herald at the time of the trials, one complainant stated her reasons for withdrawing: “this whole mess could destroy our tiny community.”

    There seemed to be no right answer when attempting to navigate it – each decision was based on it being the lesser of evils, or a more tolerable consequence. A toxic and heady mixture of conflicting loyalties.
    Left and right: Archive - notes from

    David to me, and a police report I filed against him.

  • The Loneliest Child in the World
    Cushana Warren-Peu, Te Kiva Bounty


    Cushana, aged 6 (b. 2009). Cushana was the only child living on Pitcairn Island during my stay. She is the youngest of five but all of her siblings had left for New Zealand to finish their schooling, as Pitcairn’s own school system ends at 15.

    Cushana is ferried to and from Pulau School by the island police officer, Brenda Christian, or by her mother, Charlene. At no time is she allowed to wander unaccompanied, and she is never left alone with island men.

    Cushana has a ‘safe adult’ list, and is instructed to associate only with those on it. On an island of just 42 people, Cushana’s contact list is limited.

    Her childhood is very different to that of the older Pitcairners, who describe a youth with few rules and absolute freedom. If Cushana’s world is controlled by the blue Pacific that circles the island, her life is dictated to by the apparent threat of her neighbours.

    When she grows up, she wants to travel to London, see snow, and meet the Queen.

    Below: excerpt from the Child Wellbeing Charter

  • Pirate Pawl Warren



    Pawl Warren is one of the ‘good guys’. He left Pitcairn aged six, returning as an adult when his father, Kean, came back to build a house. Pawl followed, with his young family in tow.

    It was after a party at Pawl’s house that the catalyst for the trials was set in motion. A young girl was raped by Ricky Quinn, an off islander, who was in attendance. PC Gail Cox, a visiting Kent police officer (sent to train the island’s police) heard the victim crying in the dark as she made her way home.

    After intercepting the girl, and later conducting a series of interviews (including those with other girls who had attended the party), Cox discovered a worrying trend of concerning attitudes to under-age sex. Her work led to an investigation spanning multiple continents, named Operation Unique, which ultimately resulted in the conviction of eight island men, six of whom were still living on Pitcairn when I made this project.

    Pawl’s children now all live off-island, and he keeps many in the community at arms length, preferring to socialise with visiting off islanders. He became my personal bodyguard, offering a safe haven to retire to when the pressures of island life became overwhelming.

  • Dennis Christian
    Postmaster


    This image is of Dennis Christian, Pitcairn’s Postmaster. Dennis has a distinctive look – with darker skin than the rest of the islanders, black sprouting hair, and Polynesian features. His short rounded torso balances atop his slim legs, protruding from his creased cotton shorts. His face is kindly, his eyes soft.

    On island his nickname is “Sambo”, a reference to his complexion and Little Black Sambo, a children’s book first published in 1899. The first time I heard him called that, I gasped. Clearly racial stereotyping is still thriving on Pitcairn Island.

    Dennis ‘celebrated’ his 60th birthday when I was there with a community fishing trip and fish-fry Down Landing. There, I saw him sitting alone on a plastic garden chair, pondering his life and what was left of it.

    He has never married, nor had a girlfriend. The closest he ever came was with a visiting American graphic designer who painted the large dolphin mural that dominates the living room wall at Steve Christian’s house, Big Fence.

    But, as he said to me later, with a sense of sadness – “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 to two representative counts of sexual assault. As a result, he received a lenient sentence, even by Pitcairn standards – community service, avoiding time in custody.

    But something seems different about Dennis, a sense of remorse, a sadness that pervades his being, despite his usual effervescent cheerfulness.

    When I was on island, he was living with his mother, a charming and birdlike woman named Irma. We spoke about what his life might look like when Irma was no more – and he simply sighed. What would be his purpose? His reason for being? Irma was his sole driving force.

    I asked him if he would move off island again, for he had lived and worked in the UK for a time (which he said he had enjoyed), but he said he wouldn’t be able to cope with life “out there” these days, and Pitcairn is, after all, his home.

    Dennis spoke fondly about his former best friend, Terry (Brian Young’s brother), who had also been convicted in the trials. Sadly, Terry had also passed away, en route to Mangareva during his own medical evacuation. Unlike his brother’s rescue, Terry’s emergency was answered by a passing yacht, when the island raised a mayday call after he was struck down with appendicitis. Since the trials, friendships had become fractured and strained – islanders keep themselves to themselves, or within their family groups.

    Irma died in 2016. I often think of Dennis, alone, and I sometimes have to wipe away a tear. Dennis has no parents, children, or brothers and sisters on island, and few opportunities to form new friendships. It’s now just him, calling out that “dinner’s ready” to an empty chair.

    Left: the societal imbalances of power shown in an old book. Despite being the first place in the world where women could vote, Pitcairn's council was entirely male.

  • Jesus,
    Big Fence


    Pitcairn Island used to be a staunch Seventh Day Adventist outpost. 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 on-island 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 having allegedly taught literacy using the Bounty Bible itself, a book held under lock and key in the church. When visited by Adventist missionaries, Pitcairn had 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.

    Until relatively recently, the SDA had 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, or that Jesus had also turned his back on Pitcairn.

    Right: Letter from SDA leader to islander in the midst of the trials. The islander to whom this was directed was the mother of a complainant.

  • Man and Baby
    Big Fence


    A copycat version of 1987’s famous ‘L’Enfant’ poster (also known as ‘Man and Baby’), published by Athena.

    The original poster sold over 5 million copies, becoming the biggest selling poster in British history, gracing the walls of millions of teenage girls’ bedrooms both in the UK and around the world. The image was meant to signify a sensitive ‘New Man’ – empathetic, sensitive – a man capable of embracing his softer side and challenging traditional gender stereotypes. A vision completely at odds with Pitcairn’s innate chauvinism.

    This version sits in a long-empty bedroom, abandoned when its owner left at 15 for school in New Zealand, before the sexual abuse trials that would ensconce her family began. It stands like a devotional panel; a hope for an alternative future that had to be sought elsewhere.

    It sits, ominously, at the end of the bed. A sinister hint of what was to come or a eulogy to what was lost.

  • Burning
    Up Tibi


    Kevin Young burns abandoned personal documents and belongings found in the former home of Brian and Kari Young. A contained fire smokes, emerging from an empty oil drum in the yard of Up Tibi – the house that he has just bought from them for $400. By the time I had arrived on island, Brian had already made his way off. Up Tibi had recently become empty, when Kari also left the island for the last time.

    Smoke hangs between the palms on a still afternoon, the air thick and weighty. A purge, a cleanse, but the glowing embers fight to survive, the heaviness surrounding the fire’s tinder refusing to be extinguished.

    On Pitcairn I often felt that I was looking through a cloud of smoke, trying to decipher the detail. Somehow this image seems to sum up my island experience: everything in front of me, yet concealed from view, obscured. Quite literally smoke and mirrors.

    Right - Brian Young pictured in a newspaper clipping with a 'clutch of island kids"

  • The Devil Makes Work for Idle Hands
    (Irma Christian)


    Before you saw her, you heard her. Her lilting Pitkern twang was peppered with accentuated intonation, shaky and slightly lisping, where her ill-fitting false teeth had become slightly loose. At points, her voice pierces the air, vacillating between the austere British accent of a 1900s governess, mixed with the projection of a priest, and flowing in a sing-song of birdlike chatter. She was rarely quiet, talking to herself when no one was around, and occasionally bursting into song. Her laugh was rapid and erupted in bursts, a kind of high-pitched mischievous cackle, carefree… as indulgent as treacle.

    Irma smiled with her whole body, as though every bone in her skeletal frame had suddenly become childlike again. She was so slight that the beaming grin on her face seemed to become at least 50% of her mass.

    I was amazed that she could be so small and still be breathing, walking, and functioning. She wore jogging bottoms and a sweatshirt every day, usually in mismatched bright block colours – hot pink, aqua, electric blue. Like someone from an 80s exercise video about to spring into action. Though she was now frail, she fizzed with a kind of frantic energy. Here she is peeling ‘wild beans’ – a Pitcairn staple that even most islanders dislike. Her fingers as knobbly and gnarled as the beans themselves…

    Irma told me stories about going to Buckingham Palace – “have you been, dear?”, she asked, with genuine interest. “No”, I said. “Oh you must. London is divine”. As a Londoner myself, it seemed surreal to be having such conversations with an elderly Pitcairn Islander, as the Palace was completely out of reach, but of course – Pitcairners were different. Due to their small number, official visits and tours became part of most island roles.

    Her son Dennis would walk in, and suddenly her voice would flip into Pitkern dialect, “Wussin yourley doing?” she would ask, as he walked into the kitchen to prepare dinner.

    No matter what was on the menu, Irma would push the food around her plate, and sip on a high calorie milkshake, the same as my grandmother used to drink. An incongruously modern drink given the setting.

    Sadly, Irma passed away in 2016, leaving her son, Dennis, alone. I often think of her and how I was lucky to share her last birthday with her, just before I left. There, she gave a public speech about the future of Pitcairn, imploring her fellow islanders be more open, and tolerant, to outsiders, for without outsiders, Pitcairn would cease to exist.

    I always suspected she may have been talking about me – Irma, unlike so many others, was never afraid of the fickle tides of public opinion turning against her.

  • Brandon Young
    Down Rope (Polaroid)


    Brandon arrived on island roughly at the same time as I did, and was aged nineteen when this was taken. He is a Pitcairn descendent, through his father Darrin’s line, but lives in Auckland, New Zealand. He was on island for an extended stay with his uncle, Kerry Young (Kevin’s younger brother, and Darrin’s elder), and Kerry’s partner, Heather.

    Brandon’s experience was the antithesis to mine. The islanders went into overdrive, surreptitiously trying to entice him to settle. They taught him to fish, to cut down banana trees, to carve curio, and where to find all of the island’s best hidden locations. On passing cruise ships, he was encouraged to sell Pitcairn souvenirs. He was considered ‘one of them’, but not by his own designation. They saw him as a Pitcairner in training, a youngster to whom to pass the baton of history.

    I, instead, was largely treated like a problem, or prey. Brandon’s presence was like a mirror to my own life as an ‘outsider’ – casting each disquieting experience into sharp relief. Brandon himself felt almost guilty for the communal warmth that swaddled him wherever he went.

    Sometimes we would walk together and I immediately felt an invisible weight lift from my chest, a burden shared. Brandon was one of the few individuals on island who had no reason to feel suspicious of me. On our walks we would talk – and it became clear that Brandon’s hopes were set on becoming a paramedic; he had no intention of becoming a Pitcairn Islander.

    On one of our walks, we went to Down Rope, a secluded area of pebble ‘beach’ – the closest Pitcairn has to one. As we clambered across the boulders, I remember Brandon explaining that he felt a part of the land itself, but not of the people, adding that maybe “Pitcairn would be better off without them”. A grave thought, and an increasingly likely proposition.

    I took this Polaroid double exposure of Brandon and combined it with the volcanic rock face at Down Rope. Hidden in the Polaroid’s blue depths are the petroglyphs left by early Polynesian peoples, the same icons that adorn a tattooed band around Brandon’s uncle Kerry’s bicep.

    It seemed fitting, to strip Brandon from the relative modernity of the Bounty, and to anchor him in something deeper, a Polynesian history often usurped by the colonial sentiment of the mutiny. To render him as part of the rock itself, the part to which he feels that he belongs.

    Right: Mel Gibson, in his role as Fletcher Christian in the film 'The Bounty' (1984)

  • Cushana and the Frigates
    Down Landing


    Cushana, Pitcairn’s only child, waits for the frigate birds that circle the landing with detritus from the day’s catch, feeding the giant birds by hand. When they swoop down, they appear bigger than her. More like Pterodactyls than birds. A storm was brewing, and a wall of rain was quickly approaching from the sea. As the wind was picking up, Cushana’s joyous yelps vanished with the gusts.

    I watched her shiver with excitement and wait for the right moment to let go, just as the frigate had successfully grasped its prize.

    Watching Cushana and the frigates reminded me that here we were at the intersection between man and nature...

    It is impossible to divorce the Pitcairners from their rock - the two are inextricably linked. The isolation and rugged landscape as coarse as the personalities and attitudes of our living characters, as though they come from the pages of a book. It is as if their geographical location is a device or literary construct.

    Sometimes the parallels between the island and its people can seem “too neat” a metaphor, but the intermingling of fact and fiction are Pitcairn’s reality.

    In hindsight, this image took on a new significance as representative of female defiance. Pitcairn is in Cushana’s hands now, as she is the next generation. It is up to her to change the narrative, to chart a new course.

  • Vanishing Point:
    Leaving Pitcairn


    As Pitcairn faded from view, I cried. Those watching me on deck assumed it was from a deep sense of overflowing sadness, but instead, they were tears of relief. I had survived, albeit emotionally scathed. I was on my way out. 17 days at sea (or so I thought), and I would be back to ‘civilisation’. New Zealand. The name itself bringing comfort.

    Vanishing as quickly as it had appeared, the impenetrable island had seemed, almost instantly, to become a dream. Already my experience had been relegated to the status of a story. One I would retell, but could not relive.

    I knew that I could never go back, and I knew that even if I did, the island would be transformed from the one I left. In such a close-knit environment, a single death would change the dynamic beyond recognition. My island experience would forever become a picture to me – frozen in time, divorced from the developing narrative that I was leaving behind.

    On my last longboat journey, out to the Claymore II, my rescue vessel, Shawn Christian, sitting behind me at the tiller, wearing his familiar black life jacket, casually asked me if I would be back.
    He was philosophical – he said he knew that the island had its problems, but people like me were ‘what the island needed’. I would have laughed, had I not been so shocked.

    After all that had happened, it seemed incomprehensible that Shawn could believe there was any possibility for my return.
    If I was worried for my safety on island, I would only become more so when I began to receive hate mail after islanders latterly heard the retelling of my experiences. To speak out against Pitcairn is to go against the common code of silence – the attitude of ‘what happens on Pitcairn, stays on Pitcairn’.

    As the Claymore II picked up speed, and I watched the island shrink astern, I reached into my pocket. David had slipped me something as he had said goodbye, though I hadn’t noticed it at the time. The grip closed against cool fabric – another satin pouch. I tipped it out, and there it was, tiny and black in my upturned palm – a Bounty nail. Similar to the one he had previously given me that I had handed into police weeks before (allowing Bounty relics off island is illegal), only this time, without a museum code.

    I could leave, but I could not forget. This time, I was left with no choice. I would be proverbially ‘nailed’ after all – whether I liked it or not.


    In the three days preceding my departure, a feeling of impending dread started to creep in. My world had shrunk to a 2 mile by 1 mile lump of rock – my patterns and behaviours dictated by ruts and bumps on the roads down to Adamstown, by shop hours, post office times, or the crackling VHF announcing the arrival of yachts. A rhythm.

    I had melted into island life, and I could no longer remember who I was before it, and nor could I imagine how I would be after it. I now know how people can get stuck there, or how certain behaviours can become normalised – because if two or three people on an island of 40 behave in a certain way, a ‘new normal’ is defined. After a time, despite your better judgement, you forget to question it.

    Each person has an influence that ripples throughout the island, one word can cause a tsunami.


    Below: Telegram from official who was stationed on Pitcairn in the late 1930s suggested Pitcairn was not safe for women and children, and this fact was well known to British officials who ignored it for decades.

  • There is much additional material with this project, including this family tree - from the original mutineers to the present day. Yellow markers were implicated in the trials, blue markers are outsiders, pink lines denote those in the project, green outlines indicate those who refused.


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