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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

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The art of peace

by Sven Knudsen, 2 October 2018

Royal Solomon Islands Police Force recruits, Maranatha Hall, Honiara by Sean Davey
Royal Solomon Islands Police Force recruits, Maranatha Hall, Honiara by Sean Davey

During the period known as ‘the Tensions’, from 1998 to 2003, Solomon Islanders had little to smile about.

The small Pacific nation once known as the ‘Happy Isles’ was engulfed in an internal ethnic struggle that descended over several years into all out conflict on the streets of the capital, Honiara. The growing political and economic instability, coupled with a lack of any plan for recovery, saw the country teetering on the brink of failed state status, with civil and economic collapse imminent. The Solomon Islands Government’s consequent request for external intervention was met with a decisive response from Australia, which led fifteen Pacific island countries, including tiny Niue, to form the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands – RAMSI – or Operation Helpem Fren, in July 2003. The mission’s outcomes are manifest: in 2017, after fourteen years of peacebuilding, full control of the country’s future was returned to the Solomon Islands Government and Royal Solomon Islands Police Force. Today, this young nation looks forward to its future with confidence and a sense of renewal.

In 2017 the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade commissioned Sean Davey to photograph the drawdown of the mission, and to produce a series that revealed the state of the country at this pivotal moment in its history. The subsequent exhibition Next Generation: Solomon Islands After RAMSI captures aspects of daily life in Honiara, as well as the air of excitement and optimism that permeated the capital. Life on the streets had returned to normal, and indeed it is this normality that is so striking. These photographs could have been taken anywhere – they might have been from an Australian town – and yet the sum of the images, quotidian, poignant and joyful alike, constitutes the portrait of a nation emerging anew.

It is difficult to grasp just how far Solomon Islands has come since the Tensions began, when the small archipelago of islands in the Pacific made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Images of Honiara’s Chinatown ablaze, shops looted, gang violence, rioting, and boys running amok with stolen military-grade weapons filled news reports around the globe. The images were surreal, like excerpts from a Hollywood film, except the scenes were anything but staged and were occurring on Australia’s doorstep. Two hundred people lost their lives. It was utter chaos from any objective standpoint, but most shocking are the personal accounts of ordinary citizens who lived through this period, and the trauma it caused.

‘When they came I had to hide my children in the house. I take one of my sons and hide him under the bed, cover the bed. I take another girl and put her in the cupboard. Close the cupboard. And I take the baby, two years old, and I lay her on the bed. If they come they can kill her because she is just a baby. So I have to stand at the door and prepare to meet these men who is coming (sic). I don’t worry about me dying, but I worry about the children.’
(Village elder, Verahue, July 2017.)

Emotions from the Tensions are still raw; the trauma will take decades to heal. However, for most Solomon Islanders enough water has flowed under the bridge. RAMSI has given former foes the breathing space needed for peace to flourish, with the next generation seemingly willing to reconcile their differences and get on with life. Modernity facilitates a new focus – there is engagement with technology, fashion, social media, fitness, education, trends and language-learning. The country’s leaders, intelligentsia, entrepreneurs and investors are returning with their families from self-exile in the provinces, or lucrative work overseas. The next generation is confident, passionate; they know what they want. The country is on the cusp of big things.

Dr Shaune Lakin, Senior Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Australia, brought astute context to the Solomons commission at Next Generation’s opening night in Canberra: ‘How do you photograph this place [Honiara] when you don’t have the language of conflict to draw on anymore? Because we’re outside of this period of conflict, we’re in this period of peace … what does peace look like?’ It was a consideration that mirrored my own before the commission. What I feared most was a photographer looking for action or drama, as they wouldn’t find it – essentially, if it had been there, then RAMSI had failed. I needn’t have worried, as Sean ‘got it’; he had the brief and the experience, but most of all he cared. He cared about Solomon Islanders and took an interest in their stories, with this deployment another outing in his lifelong engagement with the Pacific. He had a real, uncontrived connection to the people. He also had an extensive back catalogue of street photography and informal portraiture to draw upon.

Sean is a photographer who creates his own luck by, in his words, being ‘present’. He gives his time freely and adapts to whatever may transpire, as well as carrying his trusty rangefinder wherever he goes. He notes, ‘it is about having your camera ready and opening yourself up to new opportunities and experiences’. A typically serendipitous exchange came about as Sean was heading out to photograph an official street parade to kick off the end of RAMSI celebrations. He left early that morning to walk across town to our rendezvous point. Proximity to the equator means stronger sunlight, so mornings were Sean’s ‘golden’ window of opportunity to shoot to his heart’s content. Roaming the streets along the way, he ran into the Belaga family.

‘When you stopped us in the street my girls asked “Who is this man?” and I said “He will take our portrait; stand still!” We are from a very rural area, from a village called Ave Ave. It is two hours by outboard motor … It is very special for us that you made our portrait. For our family this is history, our history. And it is also the history of the end of RAMSI. And for this it marks a moment in our history and for this reason we will never forget you … We have never had a family photograph before and we were just walking on our travels and now we met you and we have one now. Thank you.’ (Moses Belaga, Honiara, June 2017.)

For Sean’s part, the interaction between artist and subjects was similarly gratifying: ‘They looked lovely and I asked to make their portrait. They happily agreed and after taking their names, Moses, the father, asked how he could get a copy of the photo. I was a bit unsure of how to reply, as he had no email address and lives in a small village in a rural part of East Guadalcanal. He asked for a print and I thought “where will I find a printer here?” ... So right down the street is a chemist, which has a little Noritsu printer that does up to 12x10" prints. In 20 minutes I had the print and a frame to match! Solid!’

The Belaga family portrait is arresting in aesthetic terms, but ultimately it is the story and connection between photographer and subject that is so interesting. Sean adds, ‘It isn’t often that photography means so much, and costs so little. Forget editioned prints, exhibitions and the desire to sell or be collected; that all seems so insignificant when true personal communication is made through the medium.’ I also love the timelessness of this photograph; it could easily have been made a century ago, yet it is contemporary Honiara. It was from this image that we drew inspiration for the exhibition’s title. The clothing shop in the background ‘New Generation’ inspired the slightly modified title, Next Generation.

Every day on our walk to the Australian High Commission, we would pass a small trade store run by Michael Cheung and his wife Justine, a couple who have lived in Honiara for over 20 years. Most of the trade stores in Honiara are either Chinese or Taiwanese- owned, with locals in sales roles. At the height of the Tensions, shop owners such as Michael and Justine bore the brunt of hostilities to property and person. Their story, like that of so many Solomon Islanders, is one of tenacity and dogged determination. This comes through in their portrait; the proud couple pose in resolute fashion with their staff, surrounded by all manner of imported goods and curiosities.

Such street photographs stand in contrast with the massed emotional intensity of the images of Solomon Islanders who turned out to farewell RAMSI at their national athletics stadium. Every time Sean raised his camera to the crowd he was greeted with a sea of smiling faces and ear-piercing shrills. Sean calls these photographs his ‘jubilation’ shots.

The images throb with the latent energy of so many people tightly packed into the grandstands. The depth of field collapses the scene into a single mass of heads stacked on top of one another; one wonders where bodies are meant to fit! Printed as huge black and white panoramas over four metres in length for the exhibition, the viewer feels immersed in the scene, enmeshed with the overwhelming jubilance.

One morning, between assignments, Sean followed a lead he’d been given by an Australian volunteer working with Hope School at Koa Hill, a settlement on Honiara’s southern outskirts. Founded by Pastor Jerry Akwasiba in 2013, it was established to give children in the area the opportunity to attend school. Currently there are 70 enrolled students ranging from 3-11 years of age, with parents paying fees to help cover its running costs. However, with many people in the area unemployed and relying on subsistence farming for food, those who cannot pay their children’s school fees contribute what they can. The school principal welcomed Sean into their makeshift classroom, where he spent a morning photographing the students during their lessons. While providing little protection from a tropical downpour, the roofless structure let in the most amazing beams of light, illuminating the children and their surrounds.

Selecting a shortlist of photographs for the touring exhibition was never going to be an easy task. However, Sean and I both agreed that the exhibition’s title image of Connie and her son Philippe was a standout. Not only is it a strong portrait in its own right, but the image of a mother nurturing her son is an apposite metaphor for what the country has been though. Sean made Connie’s portrait in fading light; she cradles her youngest son, Philippe, whose pudgy bicep appears cocked in the strongman’s classic pose; he’ll celebrate his third birthday in only a few days. Glued to Connie’s hand is her mobile phone. Just like any twenty-something, owning a mobile phone is a status symbol and lifeline to a wider world. Almost every Solomon Islander – especially the bulging youth population – owns one, despite the exorbitant usage costs and slow, patchy access. Connie represents this next generation. She is young, confident, cool and relaxed, even though she carries a great deal of responsibility, and life as a parent is full of uncertainties. As it turned out, Sean would be guest of honour at Philippe’s birthday party on nearby Kakabana Beach, and the photographer was able to procure a cream sponge cake just in time for the party. In some cultures, cake isn’t only for the eating! And even with icing smeared in her hair, Connie always looked glamorous in her own Solomon Islander way.

Related people

Sean Davey

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