Skip to main content
Menu

Missionary positions

by Stella Ramage, 30 August 2016

Matepai c. 1929-32
Matepai c. 1929-32

A monochrome photograph fixed within a large and fragile old album shows a Melanesian girl of nine or ten peeking merrily over the shell of a giant turtle. The warmth between photographer and subject is palpable. A caption, typed on a slip of paper, has been carefully gummed underneath. It reads ‘Matepai trying to imagine she is a turtle’. The tone is chatty; the child is granted the ‘dignity of naming’; the words display an engagement with the inner life of the subject. 

This is one of hundreds of remarkable images taken by a Roman Catholic Marist missionary, Father Emmet McHardy, a young New Zealander stationed on Bougainville, in what was then the North Solomons, between 1929 and 1932. Emmet, together with his brother John, who remained in New Zealand, engaged in a joint venture under challenging conditions. Between them they produced a photograph album which rapidly evolved into a public presentation of glass lantern slides toured on both sides of the Tasman. 

The colonial period engendered a hungry international traffic in photographs and footage of Pacific peoples. Images circulated in the West amongst ethnographers sharing information, adventurers seeking commercial gain, and Christian missionaries appealing for financial support. These categories were porous; images drifted and captions metamorphosed according to context.  Nevertheless, such images were often how Europeans of the colonial period – whether from magazines, lantern slide presentations or church newsletters – gained their impressions of brown ‘otherness’. 

Pictures of indigenous people taken by Western photographers ‘in the field’ were considered as documentary rather than portraiture. The majority do not meet art historian John Gere’s criteria for the latter: a representation of a person ‘in which the artist is engaged with the personality of his sitter and is preoccupied with his or her characterisation as an individual’. Disparities of power and the racialist ideology of the period made such cross-cultural, humanist engagement unlikely. 

For example, consider a ‘Lantern Lecture’ circulated by the Bougainville Roman Catholic mission around 1929: the surviving typescript commentary lists sixty-two slides, although the slides themselves are missing. Excerpts from the script demonstrate the persistent seepage into missionary discourse of the ‘cannibal-headhunter’ trope ubiquitous to the adventure genre. Titles such as ‘A Fleet of the Head-Hunters’, ‘Head of a War-Canoe’, ‘Taboo House of the Head-Hunters’ suggest stock Solomon Islands popular travelogue imagery. But the more religious accent is equally sensationalist. One slide is entitled ‘A Pagan Trinity’. It carries the caption: ‘Here the devil remains very strong … there reigns here the threefold tyranny, here represented, of superstition, distrust and revenge.’

‘An old man in Evo country. He had never seen a camera before – but after a bit of palaver he did not mind running the risk!’ c. 1929-32

Another, entitled ‘An Old Man-Killer At Buin’, announces that ‘This particular individual has, they say, as many murders on his conscience as he has bracelets on his two arms.’ Likewise, regarding the closing of an inland mission station: ‘… it became necessary to abandon [it] because of the fewness of missionaries, and also – worse still – because the Father who was provisionally in charge had already had his name written on the menu of a cannibal banquet, of which he was to be the staple article … Behold the inland folk of Bourgainville [sic], man-eaters.’

Hearsay trumped evidence when it came to regaling wide-eyed listeners with the bloodthirsty behaviour of ‘savages’, and clearly this persisted even in missionary publicity. We may compare this to McHardy’s more measured comment from the same moment: ‘[the central interior] is another region in which I am now sure there is no cannibalism.’

Pitakai and Tapisoko c. 1929-32

In contrast, then, here are further examples of McHardy’s inclusive style of representing Bougainville people to Western audiences, evident not only in the images themselves but from the detailed captions he wrote to accompany them. Of a photograph of two bare-breasted young women, one swathed in strings of valuable shell money, the other adorned with prestigious cicatrice markings, who smile for the camera with their arms round each other: ‘Pitakai and Tapisoko – two aristocratic young ladies in Rorovana. Pitakai, the younger, is baptised Doreen. Tapisoko is still preparing for baptism.’

And another of a similar subject: ‘Spring fashions in the Northern Solomons! And they think they are as swish as anything (just as white girls do!).’

Of an older woman wearing a rain cape: ‘This lady lives about three days hard going from Tunuru; the little cape she is wearing is made from very strong leaves cleverly sewn together.’

Mature women are always, respectfully, ‘ladies’. The images of the girls could so easily, in other hands, be co-opted for the ‘native belle’ genre – that salacious tendency of Western travelogue illustrators to exploit the innocent nakedness of indigenous young women. But McHardy introduces them as named individuals with a social rank that has not been obliterated by baptism. He seems content for Pitakai to remain Pitakai as well as ‘Doreen’, and indigenous names appear frequently in both his captions and correspondence. Likewise, as regards dress and adornment, McHardy demonstrates imaginative cross-cultural relativism in how he wants his New Zealand audience to think of these individuals: he acknowledges otherness but frames it in terms of similarity: ‘… they think they are as swish as anything (just as white girls do!)’. Indigenous skills and freedom from Western commodity dependence are emphasised: the rain cape is ‘cleverly sewn together’; a hand-crafted net is ‘better than a bought one’. He never ascribes ‘savagery’ to the wielding of weapons, but rather expresses his admiration for necessary and difficult skills. Of an image of a highland (and ‘pagan’) man: ‘Sicope, one of my old Evo Kukerai friends, giving a demonstration in the use of a real man-sized bow and arrow; he can shoot a pigeon at a hundred yards. And it is not as simple as it looks: it takes all a big man's strength to stretch such a bow …. But the old chap is an expert.’

Sicope c. 1929-32

During 1930, a systematic project got underway between the brothers, Emmet and John (known as Jack). The initial intention was the compilation of a photo-album, but rapidly evolved into a public lantern slide presentation. McHardy laboured over his photographs and their captions. The latter were typed late at night by lamplight in his little ‘presbytery’ at Tunuru. He had to hand either the negatives or copies of the positive prints sent back to him after processing. We can trace the brothers’ convoluted modus operandi – and gauge the effort involved – in further letters: ‘Dear Jack … I am afraid I am letting you down a bit this time for I am sending down a bunch of negatives without spills [typed captions]; sorry, Jack, but I stopped writing spills at 12:30 last night, and the Gabriel is now waiting to take me down to Kieta. As I say on the papers, index one of each of my copies that you send back and I will return a spill by next mail. I am hoping this business will not be too much of a burden on you. I think rather enviously of your nice album, it should be interesting.’

Father John studiously pasted McHardy’s typed captions alongside the photographs that fill the album. By early 1932, John was having glass lantern slides made (and hand-coloured) from some of the negatives and had acquired a projector. Emmet expressed interest in the ‘projection outfit’ and how his photographs ‘show up on a screen’. An undertaking is evident to show these images in public, to raise support.

The McHardy album and lantern slide collection are now held in the Marist Archives of Wellington. In his 2005 essay, The Nation’s Portraits, art historian Roger Blackley appealed for recognition of such overlooked storehouses, where ‘millions of surviving prints, albums and negatives amount to a social documentation far beyond anything achieved by colonial painters.’ The vast majority of the McHardy slides are from Emmet’s negatives and duplicate those in the photograph album. My contention is that, given the brothers’ collaboration and the effort infused into those captions, Father John McHardy’s commentary to this slideshow, which he presented in both New Zealand and Australia, would have absorbed and transmitted his brother’s ‘voice’ to a wider audience. These, I have argued, are qualitatively different even to those of his fellow mission-promoters, let alone the commercial travelogue-adventurer genre. 

But photographic portraits also became part of the local visual culture, playing a multiplicity of roles on Bougainville itself. Thus they were not just documents of the white man’s colonial gaze, but had (and have) their own significance for the indigenous residents of the colonised region. Photography formed a network of connections that transcends any simplistic reduction to an exploitative colonial gaze. 

McHardy was assiduous in sharing copies of his prints: ‘It is surely one of the greatest joys of photography to take snaps of people who have never seen a camera before; the exclamations when the finished snap goes round!’

There was, of course, a significant time-lapse and a considerable international journey between taking the ‘snaps’ and handing round finished prints. That McHardy conflates the two stages underlines the continuity of his relationships with his subjects. Sharing photographs is here a modern means of cultivating friendships rather than merely acquiring mission propaganda.  

Maria and Baria c. 1929-32

A caption to a shot of a young woman adjusting her husband’s crucifix in preparation for a more formal portrait further exemplifies the community life of photographs, as well as the intimate relationship between modernity and photographic self-consciousness: ‘Preparing for the snapshots! Baria’s Catechist cross was not hanging to Maria’s satisfaction; she is here straightening it. This was a genuine [i.e. unposed] snap, and caused a whole lot of amusement in the village.’ 

Since this image also appears amongst Father John’s lantern slides, it had the further opportunity to inspire the trans-cultural rapport that is encouraged by any such appreciably natural and identifiable human gesture. 

Throwing himself into his work and travelling extensively under arduous conditions, Father Emmet McHardy’s precarious health deteriorated. He died in 1933 at the age of twenty-eight. But his legacy persists. Laboriously tapping out his captions late at night in the steamy lamplight of his hut in Tunuru, McHardy inexorably converted his ‘snaps’ into fully fledged portraits of indigenous Bougainville personalities – thus challenging entrenched colonial attitudes and offering both European and indigenous viewers a path from paternalism to modernity.

The above is a revised excerpt from Stella Ramage’s 2015 doctoral thesis, ‘Missionaries, modernity and the moving image’.