Rhiannon Adam · Big Fence / Pitcairn Island

Jun 22, 2020

Rhiannon is an Irish photographer focusing her work on stories that involve avoidance of logic or critical thinking at their centre, creating in this way compelling visual narratives that also relate to the idea of 'wishful thinking'. In her series 'Big Fence / Pitcairn Island', Rhiannon demystify the idea that Pitcairn is an island paradise in the middle of the Pacific ocean initially populated by heroic mutineers. With a detached and honest approach, the project explores the realities of living in an isolated community as well as the aftermath of the convictions that shook the island in 2004. Thus, revealing that the romanticised visions of paradise can be sometimes deeply flawed.

am - First of all thank you very much for your contribution to our project. Can you please introduce yourself for us?

RA - So, I’m Rhiannon Adam – I currently live in London, but my work takes me all over the place, so under normal circumstances, I’m not ‘home’ for too long. I was born in Ireland, in Cork, and left there when I was a kid to go sailing around the world with my mum and dad, so I grew up all over the place. I suppose that’s why I hate sitting in one place for too long. I love my freedom.


Before becoming a photographer, I studied English literature at university. So I never studied the technical side of photography, and that’s possibly why all of my work is really about narrative, and I’m not afraid of messing things up technically – some of my best work has started with an accident. In fact, that’s partially what drew me to Polaroid, that, and the fact that a Polaroid is like an object in itself, and when we were travelling we never took photographs, but I collected objects instead. ‘Things’ were evidence of what I’d done and where I’d been. I became so obsessed with this idea of the photograph as a one-off object, and literally lived and breathed Polaroid for many years. In the end, I published a book about it, called 'Polaroid: The Missing Manual' which came out in late 2017 (published by Thames and Hudson).


At the moment, I’m rather trapped in London because of the Covid-19 situation, and most of my projects are on hold as a result – I was working on one in the Salton Sea, California and another in Japan, but both are on pause right now. It’s giving me time to go through my archive and scan all my negatives, but I’d be lying if I said the claustrophobia wasn’t getting to me!


am - How did you start in photography?

RA - I started because I just decided to do it – it really was as simple as that. As I say, I didn’t study for it. So I did what most people do – started taking pictures, started posting them places, started garnering some kind of following, and then started with small shows. It was quite organic. A lot of hard work, a lot of rejection, a fair few mistakes, and then enough successes to lead me to believe that it wasn’t a completely fruitless mission. Photography really is for those with a thick skin.


Every time I give a talk at a university, I say that unless you become a successful commercial photographer, you shouldn’t have the misconception that it’ll make you wealthy, so you need something else to drive you – I’m my own worst critic, so I thrive off of the challenges that come with this career path – I’m never happy with anything that I produce, and that’s what pushes me on to the next project.


There was no magical secret, my life is just one big passion project, I suppose – and I’m still questing after that elusive project that I feel 100% satisfied with. In all honestly though, I doubt that’ll ever happen.


I’m very practical, so I knew that being a photographer was 90% graft and 10% taking pictures, before I even started. Being talented only gets you so far, the rest is all marketing and resourcefulness. Be nice to everyone, do your research, and always be polite – I’ve said this before, but people will remember you, and reward you for it… I think that’s how I got my ‘start’ – being tenacious and being polite at once, and knowing that I didn’t really like working for anyone else in the traditional sense – it didn’t feel like a choice in the end!


Photography though, well that’s my current ‘outcome’ though I see other elements of my practice as equal in terms of importance, writing being one of them. Photography just happens to be an effective means of exploring and sharing the subject matter and stories that I am drawn to.

am - What is 'Big Fence / Pitcairn Island' about?

RA - The project is about Pitcairn island, Britain’s last remaining overseas territory in the Pacific. The island measures 2 miles by 1 mile, and is one of the most remote places in the world – sitting almost halfway between New Zealand and Chile. These days the population hovers around the 40 person mark, and while I was on island there was just one child, so the ‘country’ was on the brink of virtual extinction.


The island was permanently settled by mutineers from a British admiralty vessel, HMS Bounty, in 1790. The men were sailors aboard the ship, which was charged with the mission of bringing breadfruit plants back to the Caribbean to feed the slaves on the plantations, and after a hideous voyage, they reached Tahiti. Tahiti was, of course, heaven on earth by comparison, and when the time came to leave, some of the men planned to revolt. It resulted in one of the most famous seafaring stories of all time. The dissenters, led by Master’s Mate Fletcher Christian, cast the captain William Bligh (and his loyal followers) adrift in an open tender, and then went on the hunt for a place to settle. After a few failed attempts, the men settled on the idea of reaching Pitcairn, a land mass marked in the wrong place on admiralty charts. It took several months to find it, and when they did, the men disembarked with some (mostly female) Tahitian captives, and burnt the Bounty, ensuring their isolation. In the meantime, William Bligh made it back to Britain, against all of the odds, and he recounted his tale of the mutiny, which later formed the basis of many of the fictionalised narratives that have emerged since.


The island was later made famous by Hollywood, as the Mutiny on the Bounty story has been remade and revamped in almost every generation since cinema began. So many people around the world latched onto the idea of Pitcairn as it was perpetuated – as the archetypal island paradise populated by heroic mutineers who had stood up to the tyrannical Bligh. The island is so far out of reach that it has almost become a vessel for projection, for hopes and dreams. On paper – it should be Eden, a place with free land, free living, fertile soils, no tax, etc. Add to this the Paul Gauguin-esque idealised South Pacific imagery that imbued the cinematic iterations, and you have an intoxicating vision. I suppose I had fallen for this idea of the South Seas too. It’s easy to do when it is so far away and seems so perfect.


But, there is another major part to the story, and this is what had drawn me to it – the island’s central dichotomy. I knew that the reality was far from the romanticised vision. Starting in 2004, a number of island men stood trial for historical sex offences, many involving young girls, resulting in a total of 8 convictions for 20 rapes, and 30 sexual assaults. The convictions related to more than half of the adult male population of the island at the time. By the time I made the work, all were released from the island’s jail, and I spent most of my time on island living in the home of one of the convicted men and his wife, Olive. The project takes the name of their house ‘Big Fence’, which also neatly refers to the biggest fence of them all, the Pacific itself, which shrouds the island from scrutiny, but also traps all within.


The project didn’t start life as a negative depiction of island life, and I wasn’t there to make a project about the trial process per se, but the project inevitably became quite melancholic when the reality of being there hit me. It was impossible to make a positive project, because on island I was treated quite badly by many of the residents, and of course, that comes across in the final work. Initially I had wanted to make a project that captured the island as it was, before it was, potentially, depopulated.


I was interested in this place that had such a reputation in the outside world but in reality is just like many other small communities spread in any rural or remote part of the world. There is actually little that is inherently special about the island – and I suppose I wanted to reach this ‘holy grail’ at the end of the rainbow and illustrate its flaws, its fallibility, the farce of the myth. We always want to believe that somewhere there is perfection, that an ideal world does exist, and I suppose this project is a cautionary tale – a ‘be careful what you wish for’.


That’s a long answer – but at its core the project explores the aftermath of the trial process, the realities of living in an isolated community, and the emotional toll that these elements take on all who come into contact with the island – visitors and locals alike. It’s the loneliest place I’ve ever been to, and the project draws on multiple elements including archive and personal narrative to explain why this is the case, and why visions of paradise are so deeply flawed. We are all guilty of perpetuating the façade that allowed the abuse to thrive on island, by turning a blind eye, so the project does touch on that too – the question of culpability and colonialism.


am - How did you come up with the idea of this project?

RA - I first came across the island through reading the Nordhoff and Hall fiction about the Bounty Mutiny. My dad gave me the book to try to persuade me that going sailing would be a great adventure, and so in a sense, it was partially why I agreed to go sailing at all. In a way, I can trace many of my life decisions and strange twists and turns back to the abstract looming presence of Pitcairn.


Of course, as I grew older and started thinking about many of the elements of my childhood that were less than ideal, I came back to the Pitcairn story. In a way it seemed quite symbolic of my father’s general wanderlust and our own trip – great from the outside but quite unpleasant from the inside, or at least for me. The gulf between truth and fiction, the space between two people’s experiences, etc. It made me think.


I’d been stockpiling Polaroid film for a long time, and wanted to find a project that would really make best use of the film. So I settled on the idea of finally making a work about Pitcairn, because a work about Pitcairn was about me, too, and about all the converging paths that had led me to that moment.


Of course making it happen wasn’t so straightforward, and when I came back, I did a lot of soul searching before I settled on how I wanted to present the work. Each time I show it, it evolves a little more, so I didn’t have a fixed idea of how the project would turn out. I just knew that making it would be an adventure in itself, and I’m always in search of adventure.

am - What inspires your work?

RA - Inspiration varies, but broadly, I’d say that my work focuses on ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ – as humans, we all partake in this on some level. By this, I mean I’m drawn to stories that involve an avoidance of critical thinking or logic at their centre – that could be subject matter that relates to ‘wishful thinking’ –  e.g. a steadfast belief in the 'American Dream', or it could be about the gulf between fact and fiction (as in the case of Pitcairn), or it could be more political, where despite available information, we choose not to see it, and turn the other cheek. I’m drawn to what some would call ‘difficult’ subject matter – but really, I am completely obsessed with people and their stories. Why we do the things we do, and how we end up where we are.


Of course, almost everything I do is shot on film. In all of my projects you’ll also find some use of experimental photographic processes, usually to allude to some story element that I can’t capture with a ‘straight’ shot – e.g. Polaroid to allude to a kind of romanticism, or chemical intervention to invoke an invisible story element like pollution, or the use of salt prints made from sea water taken from the sea that I am photographing. I like the fact that work with film is so inherently tied to the process that surrounds it, and that can be so easily influenced, and results can be transformed. I love playing with the material itself, there is something naïve about it, something almost primal about getting your hands dirty. The alchemy of the chemical process – nothing beats it.


am - Who are your favourite photographers / artists?

RA - My photographic tastes are relatively varied – some of these photographers I love for their process, some for the inherent beauty of their images, some for their tactile processes, some for their research approach – but all share an intelligent approach to photography.


So, in no particular order – Taryn Simon, Sally Mann, Zanele Muholi, Laia Abril, Matthew Brandt, Stephen Gill, Mathieu Asselin, Teresa Eng, Rinko Kawauchi, Alec Soth, Catherine Hyland, Ryan McGinley. I’m sure I’ve forgotten a whole bunch, but looking through my bookshelf, and my instagram ‘saves’ – these are the ones that jump out.


Plus a shout out to my friends Laura Pannack, Alethia Casey and Diana Markosian – their work is incredible too. Diana is one of the hardest working people I know


am - What is your favourite movie?

RA - I probably should give you a more highbrow answer to this, but actually I think my favourite movie is 'E.T.'! Anyone that knows me also knows that I’m a big collector of 80s paraphernalia – I think someone pressed pause on my tastes at age 7, so honestly, I haven’t developed much past that. I still listen to 'Do The Bartman' on repeat and collect 'Ninja Turtles' merchandise, so it shouldn’t come as much a surprise that I have quite a bit of 'E.T.' memorabilia…


But since I’m also a lover of a good list, I’ll give you a few more:

Pretty much anything made by Pedro Almodovar, but I love 'La Mala Educación' – and that Moon River scene gets me every time.

'Clockwork Orange' – I love the book and love Kubrick, and the production design is incredible.

'Silence of the Lambs' – Because I wanted to be Clarice.

Andrea Arnold’s 'Fishtank' – and her short film 'Wasp', which I love for so many reasons – but basically anything where Robbie Ryan is the DOP has my vote.

Then Lynn Ramsey’s 'Ratcatcher'. I remember seeing that in the cinema in Soho and images from that have never left me. There are so many great British female film directors – and she is one of the best.


am - What is your favourite photo book?

RA - Elizabeth Heyert’s 'Travelers' is one of my all time favourite books, which is a beautiful documentation of bodies passing through a funeral parlour in Harlem, before the service. It’s intimate, sensitive, and tells a much bigger story of the struggles of many who moved to Harlem, often from the depression-era South. The bodies in the book are dressed according to the old style, and their bodies displayed in a way so at odds with the often emotionless way that the dead are presented in the West. It’s a simple book, and often overlooked, but in terms of content, it is one of my favourite projects.


Other than that, recent books by photographers I have already mentioned, like Mathieu Asselin’s 'Monsanto' – that’s a project that I really wish that I had made myself, and that book is just brilliant on all levels.


I’m a photo book addict, so best not to get me started on this subject, I’ll fall into a hole!


am - Thank you very much for your time and your contribution to analog magazine.

All images © Rhiannon Adam






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