- Island Encounters in Focus: Photography and the R.L. Stevenson Family
Lloyd [Osbourne] and [Robert] Louis [Stevenson] planted their camera stand in the centre of the village, and walked about to look for good points of view. While they were away a serious-looking man delivered a lecture upon the apparatus, to the evident edification and wonder of the crowd. During his explanation he mimicked both Louis’s and Lloyd’s walk, showing how Lloyd carried the camera, while Louis walked about looking round him. I sat down on a log to wait, when immediately all the women and girls seated themselves on the ground, making me the centre of a half circle and gazing at me with hard, round eyes.—fanny stevenson, The Cruise of the “Janet Nichol”: Among the South Sea Islands
In the encounter that unfolds in my epigraph, Fanny Stevenson implies that photography is not always a unidirectional process; rather, the photographic act is located at the intersection between colonial and Indigenous subjects. Fanny’s remarkable anecdote describes her husband, Robert Louis Stevenson, and her son, Lloyd Osbourne, strolling among their prospective Islander subjects on 9 May 1890 during a photography session on Penrhyn Atoll (Tuvalu) in the central Pacific Island region.1 Unexpectedly, the photographers find that they have become spectacles for those whom they wish to photograph: the Islanders’ parody of foreign curiosity undermines the photographers’ seeming authority.2 The playful Islander appropriates the device for the “edification and wonder” (98) of his friends and makes the apparatus, which is designed to see and record, the object of ridicule; likewise, the photographers’ idiosyncratic gestures are cause for amusement. Fanny, too, fails to escape this scrutiny: as she sits on a nearby log, Islander women surround and gaze at her with “hard and round” (98) eyes—unflinching and camera-like.
In the following pages, I take Fanny’s account as my starting point to consider how photography might trouble, rather than simply regulate, colonial hierarchies.3 In particular, I examine a selection of photographs taken during the family’s visits to the Marquesas Islands (French Polynesia) and [End Page 67] the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati).4 By the time the Stevensons arrived in the Marquesas in August 1888, there was abundant evidence of depopulation from smallpox and measles. The population decline was compounded by the dissolution of Indigenous political institutions. In 1842, France took possession of the Marquesas, only to abandon the settlement in 1857, and then re-establish control in 1870. In 1888, Stevenson observed the remains of what had once been fierce Indigenous resistance to French authority. He photographed the struggle for local control between a French-appointed chief and one who had been deposed by the colonial authorities. Less than a year later, when the family visited Butaritari Atoll, they encountered a very different sociopolitical situation. Unlike the Marquesas, the Gilbert Islands, although well-known to whaler and commercial traders, were sovereign until 1892, when they became a British protectorate. On Butaritari, where the Stevensons photographed a local dance competition, Stevenson believed that he was witnessing the last vestiges of a society that, he predicted, would vanish in a decade. My case studies, therefore, consider how Moipu, a dispossessed Marquesan chief, reasserted his political standing by posing for the Stevensons’ camera, and how a group of dancers on Butaritari inadvertently transformed what otherwise could have been a straightforward act of photography into a complex exchange of gazes and subject positions.
These photographs frame the stakes of my central argument: that the historical and local specificities of colonial impact on Pacific societies unsettle the presumption that “colonial photography” is a consistent and uniform object of study. In fact, specific photographic acts highlight the daily mundane (but no less fraught) negotiations between the individuals who stood before and behind the lens. My goal is not to rehabilitate the racist ideologies that motivated nineteenth-century colonial photography but rather to shed light on those moments during which Islanders influenced the outcome of the photographic event in which they were involved and thus shaped colonial perceptions. This interest in how Islanders participated in photography aligns with critical understandings of the medium’s potential...