5:2 (2007), 12-15


University of Auckland

Juliet Trevethick discusses Vanuatu as a site for revisiting and rewriting the process of anthropological documentation with artist and photographer Josh Raymond.

JR: In planning a trip to the South Pacific I was distrustful of the idealism conjured by tourism’s promotional images and descriptions of Vanuatu, which always include ancient cultures, miles of sand, and tropical waters. Promotional packages from various websites offer how to sample from cannibal history, a cultural tour, the world’s most accessible volcano, rivers, cascades, beaches, swimming, snorkelling and kayaking. I saw Vanuatu as accessible, and even exotic, which I think contributed to some sense of obligation to uncover a part of it.

JT: What was your experience of the cultural presence you experienced in Vanuatu? Did they differ from your expectations?

JR: My experience – particularly photographing – in Vanuatu was really quite different to what I had expected. I had no sense of any traces of “colony” – even on the island of Espiritu Santo, where baguettes and cafe au lait are served in the wet heat of a cafe that no locals I saw dined at. Santo is ostensibly focused on wreck diving. By Pacific standards, its tourist infrastructure is very simple. Embittered Pacific locals who never adjusted to Vanuatu's cultural or structural quirks 'filled' us in. ‘Its just so difficult here, to run a business,’ they said. They commented that staff required more training and that the climate was relentless. The expatriate life in an island paradise always seems at odds with tourism, where barely 5% of tourists venture out of Port Villa on the island of Efate. It is difficult then, given the hardships of the locals and the absence of migration from it, what to expect of the place. They are always going to be ‘white children in the eyes of many Ni-Vanuatu. After the Americans left the allied bases of the Central and Northern islands after World War II, a lot of that infrastructure was laid to ruin, almost as if it were never needed or wanted, certainly by the local population.

JT: Can you contextualise the key image of the young Ni-Vanuatu boy holding a Polaroid of his own image?

JR: This image is an interesting one for me, as it comments on the cannon of early portrait photography where subjects posed with their own image. It was a time when photography was precious, magical even, and something far from the Kodak democratisation of photography that followed a century or so later. Subjects nursed their own reflections like they were nursing themselves their mother, or a child. The people I gave Polaroids to in Vanuatu treated them as something very precious. It was a fascinating exchange of the haptic, as a form of touching an image of one’s self. The image of the boy is such a direct visualisation that touches upon the tension within the act of photography, and the gaze and desire of the viewer to search for the identity of a photographic subject. Walter Benjamin speaks of, ‘the desire of contemporary masses to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly…’.1 Benjamin’s idea references landscapes, but also a particular relevance to visualising ‘developing cultures’, their imaging and their tourists’ eyes. I’m always interested to have a spectator’s response to that portrait, in this case, paradoxically within its own image.

JT: How did your participants react to this process of imaging? Did their responses configure how you framed your subjects?

JR: The image contains a wondrous loop for me, a spectre that always has me fascinated, like when Barthes happened on the photograph of Jerome, Napoleon's youngest brother, ‘I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.’ 2 It’s quite an odd thing for me, a 'dead image of oneself, a skull, a husk of a person, and it almost functions as a vanitas prop within the scene. The photograph here is as a prop that announces vanity, frailty and an inherent death of a ‘moment’. It is a question of whose death, a death of a native or the perception of the Other. What is unclear is whether such a loss is, or could be, lamented in Vanuatu.
Susan Sontag’s ideas of imaging the traces of a subject differ from Barthes’ when she says, ‘a photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.’ 3 I couldn’t help but feel this when in Vanuatu – that the act of photography as a historicised medium reaches back in the past and wells up all these moments.

JT: Photography takes place as an interesting metaphor for how the Lacanian notion of the Real operates, as it is specifically the elusiveness of the Real, which renders it an unobtainable extension of the imaginary. It is the same with the process of viewing photograph after the act as it becomes symbolic of that cultural imaginary that is impossible to record.

JR: It sounds portentous now, but at the time I remember being conscious of the way in which I photographed and what that actual exchange was, or meant, for my subjects. What did it mean for them to hold their own image, for they surely looked upon it. I’m not sure what they saw.

JT: How do you see Vanuatu as a particularly relevant site to reframe and revisit cultural experiences?

JR: The myths of these cultures and the way they are marketed to the adventure traveller amplify a sense of cultural superstition. Vanuatu is full of cultural superstition, real and practised today. Post-war Cargo cults 4 still exist in a weird mix, brushing up against Christianity and aid work. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation works with Malaria sufferers on Malekula, a fairly remote island. There is something uneasy about this kind of tourism, yet something fascinating about the dynamics of spectatorship that seems unavoidable when looking at otherness.
One afternoon, on the Island of Tanna, we happened unexpectedly on the preparation of our cultural display. I remember seeing women putting on grass skirts and men taking t-shirts off. There was a sense that the Ni-van kastom (traditional knowledge, practices and skills) had already shifted by the process of re-enactment, and I wish they hadn't dressed up for us. I preferred the unease and blend of their display, where the tension is made visible, just as the elephant in the zoo scratches against the fake palm tree to knowing onlookers. John Berger where he is talking about zoos, ‘The zoo to which people go to meet animals, to observe them, to see them, is in fact, a monument to the impossibility of such encounters.’ 5 I think the same can be said for attempts to ‘inhale’ other cultures. The Ni-Vanuatu people which tourists have the most contact with are often established as ‘filters’ for the rest of the local population. This adds yet another layer of complexity when a manufactured enaction and dressing up of apparently traditional and ingrained cultural practices in fact become current and Real. In some way kastom is being protected, and at the same time, given up for consumption by tourists.

JT: How do you see the documentation of culture in Vanuatu? Has it ‘survived’ colonisation?

JR: Because of all the ideas of dying cultures (Australia’s own indigenous culture for example), and in this heightened state of assessing our nation’s people, its culture, animals, etc, our drives are always in question. Do we want to survive? How can we mitigate our drives? Vanuatu has a remarkable culture. It’s so close to Australia (geographically), yet so remote. It is so culturally diverse with hundreds of languages amongst a relatively small population. With new popular anthropological/ environmental writing 6 there are alternative assessments of how culture died, which cultures survived and why. I feel like my images are documents, not just of my own photographic moments and experiences, but also part of some greater moments in the teleology of cultural survival.

1 Walter Benjamin, Trans. c1968 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc., Illuminations: Essays and Reflections: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Schocken Books, New York, 1999, p. 223.
2 Roland Barthes, Trans by Richard Howard, Camera Lucida, Hill and Wang, New York, 1981, p. 3.
3 Susan Sontag, On Photography, Picador, New York, 2001, p.154.
4 Cargo Cults were particularly pronounced after World War II as Allied forces abandoned their bases in the Pacific. The John Frum cult that developed in Vanuatu is difficult to trace in origin but is thought to have arisen from an individual or the idea of a benevolent provider. Within the tradition of cargo cults someone who arrives with objects that are completely foreign will often be regarded as magical and celebrated long after their traces are but a distant memory or story. The John Frum cult still celebrates this idea every year for the last 50 years.
5 John Berger, About Looking, Vintage, 1992, p. 21.
6 Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Viking, Penguin Books, Australia, Camberwell Victoria, 2004.

© Josh Raymond