In 2015 I spent an arduous three months working on a photography project about Pitcairn, a tiny island measuring just two by one miles, halfway between New Zealand and Chile. It is Britain’s last overseas territory in the Pacific, now home to just 42 islanders and one child. There is one way on and off: by sea, aboard a quarterly supply vessel.
As a child, I was an avid reader. One book that had a particularly lasting influence was the true story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, a rip-roaring high-seas adventure charting the ill-fated mission of HMS Bounty.
In it, the Bounty’s crew mutinied against their austere captain, and seized the vessel. After taking a group of (mainly female) Tahitian captives, the men went in search of Utopia, eventually heading for Pitcairn, an uninhabited and mischarted island where no one would find them. The Pitcairners of today are largely descendants of this motley crew.
Over the decades, the story has been made into multiple blockbuster films, cementing the idyllic image of Pitcairn as the rebel’s paradise. In 2004 this romantic façade was torn apart, when eight Pitcairn-born men were convicted of sexual abuse, much of it against children. Six of these men still live on the island; one is the current mayor.
In 2015, I headed to Pitcairn for 96 nights, to try to disentangle fact from fiction. Though most of my friends and family expressed concern for my safety, I (naively) assumed that the islanders would be on their best behaviour, seeing my arrival as an opportunity to change their narrative.
Once on the island, however, the reality was harsh – each day became a mental battle for survival. I was frequently referred to as the "only woman of breeding age", a phrase I had to learn to laugh off. One man took it upon himself to wait for me, naked, in my bedroom after the power was switched off (it runs from 7am to roughly 10pm daily). On a different night I awoke to find him attempting to open my window and climb inside; on another occasion he tried to cajole me into having sex on a piece of heavy machinery, giving me "the choice" between the "rock crusher, bulldozer, or tractor". I ended up reporting him to the island police. I knew that by doing so I was putting myself, and the future of the island, at risk.
Pitcairn’s map and sinister place names took on a new kind of terror – "Where Minnie Off", "Oh Dear", "Nellie Fall", "Where Tom Off", etc. – it would have been so easy for me to vanish without a trace. Only then did I have a real sense of how difficult it must have been for the women and girls attempting to call time on their abusers.
It was the hardest project I am ever likely to make, changing dramatically during its course. Almost everyone who took part was photographed in solitude, away from prying eyes, the loneliness of the islanders emerging from the very staging of the portraits. The expired Polaroid film I used seems to obscure the island, alluding to the magical power of the Bounty story. Together, the resulting images are filled with a sense of melancholy stillness, and a very Pitcairn-specific type of claustrophobia, a feeling I’ll probably never shake.