Polaroid photography of Britain’s most isolated community

Next month London-based photographer Rhiannon Adam will sail to an island 3,000 kilometers west of Chile for a three month tour. Like the Polaroid film she will use during her time on the British Overseas Territory, Pitcairn Island is rare and hard to find.

Her idea to visit “Britain’s most isolated community,” with only 47 residents, hit a nerve with Kickstarter photo bugs.

With less than a day left in her campaign, about 220 backers have pledged £11,400 (roughly $17,600).

“I want to draw out the parallels between the fragility of the dead stock Polaroid film and the delicate and precarious nature of Pitcairn,” Adam writes.

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Two centuries ago, British seafarers boarded the “The Bounty,” a ship commanded by William Bligh, whose mission was to collect breadfruit plants from Tahiti.

Controversially, sailors began having sex with Tahitian women and taking wives, leading Christian Fletcher and the crew to commit mutiny in order to avoid returning home.

To avoid the British Royal Navy, fugitives settled on Pitcairn Island, starting a new community approximately 9,000 miles away from London.

Adam will sail from Tahiti to Mangareva, where she will board a supply ship one of three supply ships that visit the island every year.

Over the next three months and using alternative photographic processes, Adam aims to complete a unique photographic project documenting the 47 permanent residents of the island, the descendants of Tahitian women and British mutineers.

The BBC and Royal Geographic Society Journey Lifetime Award, a grant worth 5,000 euros, will allow Adam to shoot video and produce a documentary of her experience.

Wastelands/Dreamlands, a publication inspired by Adam’s childhood spent at sea, also reflects on what it means to be British, both at home and abroad.

Through the Cracks interviewed Adam about her creative process and experience crowdfunding her photographic project. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Meleán: Why do you shoot with expired film?

Adam: I shoot with expired film mainly because I love the definition of original Polaroid film and I have no choice – Polaroid doesn’t exist per se anymore, so I shoot with it because I can’t buy new film. I have also made a pact with myself to shoot with expired Polaroid film ‘till it dies out completely. I like the idea of following a medium through to its inevitable end. The Polaroid story is crazy really – one where finance got in the way of creativity and took a whole medium away from artists.

With my Pitcairn project I wish to draw out a comparison between the dying film and the fragile nature of the community that I’ll be recording. It seems a fitting “last blast” for the film while it’s still in a good enough state to render results….

Meleán: Will this be your last Polaroid project?

Adam: This won’t be my last Polaroid project. I’m a Polaroid photographer and it defines me and my practice… I’ll shoot it until there is no film to shoot. I’ll use all my available stock for this project on Pitcairn, so then it’ll be back to eBay to source more. I use Polaroid because I see it as the bridge between fine art and photography – creating one off objects rather than photographs.

When I say this is my last project, I mean it will be the last major project because I won’t have a chance to stockpile more film, or dream up such a big and detailed project. There just isn’t time- each day that passes means the film gets older. It’s getting to the turning point where I can’t rely on it anymore.

So this is my last swan song – a chance for me to bring everything I’ve learned and experienced and wish to show all in one place.

After Polaroid? Maybe I won’t photograph anymore. Maybe I’ll learn to paint.

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Meleán: Where did you spend the majority of your childhood?

Adam: I was born in Ireland and lived there until I was 6, in the Republic near Cork. My dad is a boatbuilder and it was his big dream to sail around the world on a boat, so we bought a boat, Jannes, and then my mother, father and I became nomads. I moved to England as a teenager to live with my aunt, but in the interim we were sailing around, mostly in the Caribbean and South America.

It’s a strange life. You’re like a hermit crab carrying your home with you but never really being a part of the place where you are. You are in a no mans land of identity. You no longer belong to where you came from and don’t belong to where you are.

Meleán: Why do you want to make a photographic record of Pitcairn Island?

Adam: I became interested in Pitcairn when I read Mutiny on the Bounty while we were sailing. It’s the last remaining British Overseas Territory in the Pacific Ocean and the world’s most remote and least populated country. They experience many of the same things we did when we were sailing.

Much of my work is autobiographical and this seems like the ultimate expression of this – revisiting my childhood through the experience of Pitcairn.

They are British, but not, if you know what I mean. British in name and not by nature. That’s rather how I feel.

Meleán: Will you produce a documentary during your stay on the island? If so, will you have a film crew? What challenges do you expect to face?

Adam: I will travel to Pitcairn alone, and my focus is on the photography element and the radio documentary I will make for the BBC, who also funded my endeavor. I will be taking some super 8 [film footage], a GoPro and a Canon 5D Mark II, which will allow me to make some video, but this is an intimate and absorbing experience that would only be diluted by crew. It’s something I need to do on my own.

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Meleán: Do you have any advice for documentary photographers launching crowdfunding campaigns? What worked and what didn’t?

Adam: I chose to match fund my project on Kickstarter after I won a grant from the BBC and Royal Geographical Society that meant I had to deliver a radio show by September 2015.

I didn’t have a lot of time and Kickstarter seemed an efficient way to get my story out there. There was only one boat scheduled to get to Pitcairn and get me back in time for those delivery dates and the grant was only awarded at the end of January, so I had to find a fast way to generate project momentum and funding.

Kickstarter has pushed me to promote the project and announce it before I usually would; it necessitates a different kind of promotion that I’m not altogether comfortable with, but there are many plus sides. The best part has been that people all over the world have been in touch and offered their advice or their homes for me to stay in.

It really is true that Kickstarter is a community of supporters and you have a lot of people gunning for you. It’s encouraging, because often you might think an idea is just good to you, but when the backers come in you know you’re onto something and it gives you a big boost of confidence.

You have to be transparent and accountable and you can’t underestimate the amount of time running a campaign takes. I messaged my Facebook friends and already had a 2,000-strong-mailing-list. I asked people to tweet and share even if they couldn’t back it themselves and the word got around fast!

The only issue I didn’t foresee is that when you set your reward levels and postage rates. That is to say: you offer a reward at $20, and postage is $10 within the U.S. Then $30 counts towards your target. But if you set your postage to $20 for international, the $20 reward suddenly turns into $40 and that makes you reach your target faster though a greater proportion of the money is actually hard costs. If you have a lot of international backers that can have a huge effect… It can artificially inflate your funds and as you get closer to the target, people back less.

It’s a tough call as you can never really predict how much international interest you will get. So be careful about shipping charges and where you are willing to ship!

To follow Adam’s journey, follow her Facebook page PolaroidPhotographer or on Twitter @blackbirdsfly or visit her blog.

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