C is for Carteret’s Atoll

C is for Carterets Atoll.

It all started with an article entitled ‘Pacific Atlantis’, by John Vidal, in The Guardian telling the plight of the Carteret islanders, and how life on their 6 island atoll was becoming unsustainable, relocation was possible and they might become the world’s first climate change refugees….

Sounds interesting I thought. I pitched it to a client and didn’t get a positive response. A year passes by and then the client called me back, if the story was still valid, would I go….

A couple of weeks later and I’m stepping, or rather climbing in an ungainly fashion, out of a dug out canoe onto the blinding white sands of Han Island. Thankfully the short journey in canoe, from our fishing trawler that myself and 3 colleagues had hired, hadn’t got me or my over-sized (in relation to the canoe, the water a mere inch below the side of the canoe) camera bag wet. ….So I step out onto the sand, in my orange flipflops, long sleeve trousers, long sleeve shirt, and the little bare white skin which was left was covered in anti-mosquito repellant and factor 30 sun screen. Naked children ran at the sight of me, running off into the bush, or hiding behind their mother’s legs. Not many white skinned photographers graced these shores obviously.

I was to spend the best part of the next three days on the atoll, moving from island to island, doing some interviews with a colleague, filming, and photographing. And Lady Luck was travelling with us.

On the day we arrived the islanders, in their ever hospitable way, performed a ‘welcome ceremony’ in our honour. Women wore some decorative make-up and headdresses and danced for our enjoyment, the men beat rudimentary home made drums, and played electric guitars which were connected to battery powered transistor radios which served as amplifiers. On their heads the men wore sunglasses and some tucked leaves in for decoration. The music was harsh, metallic, like early Velvet Underground, with a catchy riff, it appealed to my 1980’s Indie music preferences. The song would finish, and a new one would begin- sounding exactly like the last one, and again the women would dance.  It was great.

We sat with the ‘Elders’ in a big circle, and we explained who we were and why we’d come. Off to our side a youth wearing a large green paper mache mask ran around and threw things at younger children. I was desperate to go photograph, but protocol demanded that I sat and talked, it was the right thing to do. The Masked Youth continued throwing stones, younger kids running off whenever he appeared. I asked about it, and got told it was to do with initiation ceremonies, but that it wasn’t really their tradition. The answer seemed contradictory, here we were miles from anywhere, on an isolated atoll, if it wasn’t their ceremony and traditions then to whom did it belong? Alas, and I regret it, by the time I could shoot images the Masked Youth had gone, or I was invited in a different direction, I forget, but for all that I can see the image in my head, I don’t have a frame of it. Sometimes to get other pics you have to let one go. Such is life.

Lady Luck was still with us, beside me in the shade, hiding from the equatorial sunlight. The Elders told us that the next day there would be a ‘school closing’ ceremony, with graduations and prize givings, music and dancing. We couldn’t have come at a more fortunate time, lots to see and experience, to photograph, to watch, to enjoy, to savour.

Islanders from all the islands making up the atoll came together for the ‘school closing’ at end of term. Each island provided a band who travelled by dug out canoe with their amps and electric guitars, their Tupac and Snoop Dogg t-shirts, their shades and their panifully shy smiles and “hello’s”. There weren’t many visitors to these islands, even the gangsta rappers were shy.

The school closed and speeches were made, prizes were given, children ran about, and some ran away whenever I, or one of my colleagues, approached. Some children walked beside us, not scared, not nervous. The bands played the same Velvet Underground sounding songs, and guitars cranked high blared out of their radios. One woman stood to the side holding a cassetter recorder on her shoulder taping the music. Women danced with headdresses made of little wooden birds and bananas, their hand actions during the dance mimicked the actions of someone rowing a canoe.

One little kid had no fear of the visitors. He walked on the beach with me as I toured the island, he held my hand and smiled, pointed at birds, at the sea, at the trees. His friends giggled and walked behind, or to the side, if I turned they scattered in all directions laughing, some crying. But this one little kid, skin blackened by the sun, showed no fear. Later that day, or the next, a teenage youth rowed me out to our fishing boat in a canoe, and in return I gave him a can of fizzy drink for himself, and also one for the little friendly kid back on shore. Sure said the teenager, I’ll give it to him. From the deck of the trawler I watched as he drank his can, then rowed back towards shore, to give the 2nd can of Coke to the little kid, my pal. But then the canoe stopped half way to the shore, and the teenage boatman drank the 2nd can of Coke, tossing the empty can over the side, to float ominously and obviously on the calm, still, idyllic waters of the lagoon. Red floating on turquoise. “Congratulations” said one of my colleagues beside me on the deck, “you’ve just brought Coca Cola garbage to paradise”.

The 3 days were quickly up. We’d drank from coconuts chopped off the trees, the nuts full of sweet refreshing milk, in complete contrast to the coconuts I’d won at the Fairgrounds of my youth which had a dribble of milk in them. I never knew coconuts could be so good, but then if that is one of the staples of your diet, as it was for the islanders, I’m sure the pleasure would soon wear off.

As time came to depart I stood talking with some youths, a fierce burning sensation on my foot. I look down and the red ants are swarming all over, biting me. I hobble quickly to the waters edge to wash my foot, the children laughing and adults smirking.

As we await our canoe for our departure my journalist colleague has a snooze on the sand, and I stand watching a woman chopping coconuts on the wet sand. A boy stands beside me with a bird on his arm, and another boy swings on a rope on a tree. Behind me there’s the usual gaggle of kids, interested but nervous. I’m looking out to sea and keeping an eye on this bird on the kid’s arm. There’s a picture to be had, but it hasn’t quite come together. The kid on the rope-swing keeps going, to and fro, out over the water, to and fro, to and fro. The black bird takes off, and I curse, a picture gone. But then moments later the boy comes back, with the bird standing tamely on his head. The kid on the swing is still going, to and fro, to and fro, at sea a canoe has launched and the boy with the bird on his head moves beside me, and it’s all come together.

See my photographs of the Carterets Atoll here, and read another essay I wrote about the Carterets here, and listen to/watch a podcast here about the Carterets.

A is for Albania

A is for Albania.

And in particular the north, the northern city of Shkodra.  I was there in the early 1990’s, passing through a few times, and sometimes stopping to photograph. Shkodra, and the north, in those days always felt a bit more lawless than the rest of Albania. There was something about the mullet haircuts and the flares, they seemed more threatening in the north.

At that time I toured Albania shooting with two colleagues- a fixer called Alban, and a driver, Eddy, with his long silver estate car. I’d call the shots, plan the days adventures, look at maps and decide where to go. Shkodra was gateway to the north, to the mountains, and had the only hotel in the area. So even if we went shooting in the mountains somewhere chances are we’d come back to Shkodra in the evenings.

One time, traveling with a journalist and different driver/car, we left our car overnight in the police station compound, figuring it’d be safest there. Next morning we arrived and it had been stripped, gone were wing mirrors, wiper blades etc. The policemen shrugged.

The hotel in Shkodra was an adventure, it’s name escapes me though. Probably Hotel Shkodra, but maybe not. One evening we checked in, and retired to the armchairs in the corner to plan our next move. CRASH. The ceiling above the reception desk fell to the ground. Concrete galore. Albanians scurrying and running, dust and debris everywhere. We escaped with our young lives, with seconds to spare.

Another evening in the same hotel, travelling with the same journalist, a UK guy called A.B. We checked in, the concierge being friendly. Perhaps it was late, perhaps we were dusty from a day in the sticks, who knows, time has blurred some details. We check in, we buy a bottle of cheap wine, perhaps fizzy wine, from the concierge, produced from under the reception desk, and paid for in hard Dollars. In those days it wasn’t a case of what would you like to buy, it was a case of what can you sell us. We retire to our room, a shared room. We drink our fizzy alcopop and retire to beds, another day of adventure behind us, another day of living life to the full, chasing stories and images, dreams and adventures. Fast forward a couple of hours, we’re asleep. There is a knock at out room door.

I remove the armchair we’ve rammed up against the door, and open the door, wearing only my boxer shorts, and there’s a police man. He has his gun. A silver pistol of some sort I remember. And behind him, is the concierge. It was late, too late for this scenario whatever they wanted. They wanted to come in, we wanted to sleep. But the concierge had finished his shift, it was the middle of the night and he’d sensed money making schemes and adventures. He’d run home, across the city, to fetch another bottle of fizzy wine/champagne/alcopop to sell to the thirsty Dollar Weilding Westerners. And now, from behind the gun toting policeman (who was also thirsty) he produced it, grinning.

Who were we to resist ? No, no thanks, not tonight, we’re tired. No. And there’s a silver pistol in their hand. No, hey, guys, friends, what kept you, come in!

And in they came, the policeman in his blue shirt and wide brimmed hat, and the concierge. Of course we had to buy the fizzy juice, of that there wasn’t much discussion. And of course we had to open it, of that there wasn’t much discussion. And of course we had to drink it with their help. But it was amicable. Us in our boxer shorts, them in their uniforms.  We drank, the pistol was  passed round, heavy and silver in our hands. Cheers !

Same hotel different time, I arrive with Alban and Eddy and a woman journalist N.N. We ask what was on the menu and they tell us they have red wine. A rarity in 1992 Albania. We bought a case, and drank the rich, red fruity wine in the back of the car on a journey back to Tirana.

Same city different time. I go to photograph in the childrens orphanage, or perhaps it was a hospital. Either way, it was incredibly sad. Not the type of place to leave a child, or to go to. The children wore rags, cold against the stone floors and walls. The walls were painted in two tones, one tone up to the level of two or three feet, the different tone for the rest. The floor had tiles and was cold. The window had bars and no curtains. The women staff were all very big, and buxom and matronly and stern, wearing white, and non plussed about their surroundings and the children. Some Canadian teenagers played guitars and sang to the kids “Give us a J, give us an E, give us an S, give us a U, give us an S, JESUS”. The kids sang and clapped, and in the corner one of them masturbated with the excitement of it all.

Just north of Shkodra was a particularly scary town. Perhaps it was a good place, perhaps I do it a disservice, but it always worried me. It was closer to the Montenegran border. It always seemed like cowboy town. They had a bakery which I shot in if I remember correctly. Albania in those days had so little that a working, operating bakery was news. The town though had a feeling, a bad feeling. Every time we arrived there, or passed through, I’d reach over from the back seat of Eddy’s silver estate and press the button between the two front seats locking the 4 doors of the car. Call me nervous, call me scared, call me cautious.

And all of the above had a sound track, especially the days in Eddy’s car. A cassette played non stop, at top volume, as we drove amongst fields of cows in the sun, of white geese on dusty tracks, as we passed through lawless towns, men in flares and mullet hairdo’s by the roadside, Hoxha’s pillboxes at every turn. The music was good then, and the music is still good now. Primal Scream’s ‘Screamadelica’ album. The soundtrack of Shkodra. The soundtrack of Albania in 1992.

(View photographs of Albania here and photographs of Albania in colour here)