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Manoa 17.2 (2006) 52-69

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Water games, Rangiroa, 2004.
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Young girl during an Easter procession, Tatakoto, 2004.
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Games in the smoke of a limestone oven, Napuka, 2004.
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Javelin thrower, Fakarava, 2003.
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Praises, Anaa, 2003.
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St. Michael's Cathedral, Rikitea, 1999.
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Calvary, Tatakoto, 2004.
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TANGATA: The photographs in this series were taken in the Tuamotu and Gambier Islands and are from Marie-Hélène Villierme's latest book, Tangata: A Polynesian Community (Éditions le Motu, 2005). The Tuamotu archipelago comprises over seventy-five islands and atolls arrayed across nearly a thousand miles of ocean; the Gambier archipelago comprises a small number of high islands surrounded by a single enormous reef. Except for Makatea, a coral island that has white cliffs three hundred feet high and has been heavily mined for phosphate, most of the Tuamotus are small and poised barely above sea level. The elemental forces of ocean waves, intense sunlight, and sudden typhoons are always present. Here, tightly knit communities share skills and resources to survive. On those special occasions when an entire community comes together—for example, to compete in games, to celebrate, or to worship—relationships among individuals and families are reinforced. [End Page 60]

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Preparation of a limestone oven, Napuka, 2004.
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Preparation of a limestone oven, Napuka, 2004.
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Games in the smoke of a limestone oven, Napuka, 2004.
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Champion javelin thrower, Fakarava, 2003.
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Old lady of Makemo, Fakarava, 2003.
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Three old ladies on the square of the cathedral, Rikitea, 1999.
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Gathering day of pahua clams, Tatakoto, 2004.
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Sailors on a schooner, Toau, 2005.
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Tangata is a Polynesian word used throughout the Pacific with variations in pronunciation and meaning, defined generally as "a human being, person, or individual." The equivalent in Tahitian, for example, is written ta'ata; in Hawaiian, kanaka; in Samoan and Tongan, tagata. In some of these languages, however, there is a clash of multiple intentions, since the word can also refer to the community of humankind as a whole—just as in English, man can also mean "mankind"—and/or to the ethnicity of a distinctive island group.

The relationship of the individual to community has been of particular interest to photographer Marie-Hélène Villierme. Her first large-format book, Visages de Polynésie/Faces of Polynesia (1996), is comprised primarily of portraits of individuals. Her new challenge, called "Rites and Communities," is a vast audio-visual project documenting the sense of community fundamental to Polynesia. In a recent interview, she noted that soon after beginning the project, she became aware of how difficult the undertaking would be. Even after narrowing the project to the peoples of French Polynesia, she was faced with an astonishing diversity of social, religious, linguistic, and other cultural differences. Further, she realized that many communities in the far-flung islands did not know one another and seldom met and interacted, and therefore the very notion of Polynesian community was multifarious. Moreover, there were people who told her that "traditional" community simply no longer existed in the Islands because of the introduction of modern technologies, such as television, which had undermined communal practices and values.

Undeterred, Villierme embarked on the project. The first of the volumes in the series, Tangata: A Polynesian Community, contains photographs of the communities on the sparsely populated Tuamotu and Gambier Islands. Many of these islands are home to fewer than 500 people. For example, Napuka, where she documented the communal restoration of a limestone...


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