‘STOPOVER’ By BRUCE CONNEW
VICTORIA UNIVERSITY PRESS (RRP $40), Reviewed By JEREMY ROSE
Labour of love is a horribly hackneyed phrase, but it’s difficult to think of another that adequately sums up the exquisitely crafted work that is STOPOVER. Bruce Connew travelled to Fiji seven times over a period of as many years to record the lives of the Indo-Fijian community of Vatiyaka.
The resulting work reveals a Fijian reality far from the well-worn tourist track. In a series of intimate photos Connew lays bare the daily lives of a cane cutting community.
And it’s a community in a sense that is all but foreign to a modern-day city dweller: a community that lives, works, plays, bathes and prays together.
The late Michael King’s argument that Pakeha have become Aotearoa’s second indigenous culture seems both hopeful and premature to me. King cited the overwhelmingly Pakeha tramping clubs as evidence of a connectedness to the land; yet the desire to conquer every hill and mountain – as summed up in Ed Hillary’s famous phrase: “We knocked the bastard off” – could equally be argued to be an expression of the colonialists’ desire to dominate the land.
Connew’s photos of the descendents of the indentured labourers that make up Fiji’s dwindling Indian community, on the other hand, provide a portrait of a community rooted to the land it toils.
In a short story by the Indo-Fijian academic, Brij Lal, which appears, a little eccentrically, in the centre of the book, an old man asks: ” Beta, desh ke ka hoi?” What will happen to this land? and the narrator comments: that it’s an interesting formulation because he is putting the nation – desh – before the indo Fijian community. “I wished Fijians who were applauding the departure of Indians could see the transparent love an illiterate man like Kaka had for the country.”
Anyone lucky enough to get their hands on a copy of this book will see that “transparent love” in Connew’s photos.
Despite the acres of column centimetres that have been devoted to Fiji and its recurrent coups I have no memory of seeing images or reading stories about the lives of the cane cutting communities that make up the bulk of the Indo-Fijian community.
The stereotypical Fiji Indian is, I suspect, for most people a shopkeeper.
Anti-Semitism has memorably been described as “the socialism of the fools” and there’s no shortage of fools expressing similar attitudes to Indians both here and in Fiji. The ‘logic’ is as simple-minded as it is dangerous: A lot of businesses seem to be owned by Indians and some of those are rip-offs ergo all Indians are crooked business people.
Stopover provides a welcome window into an Indo-Fijian world that defies such stereotypes and documents a way of life that is fast disappearing.
A series photos of cane cutters at work are reminiscent of Bruegel’s painting of European peasants and equally stunning and sensual is a series of pictures of women releasing garlands in a stream at the end of a religious festival.
There’s a tragic poignancy to the colour snapshots sent back by Indo-Fijian emigrants to the settler societies of Canada and New Zealand that Connew includes in the book. In one photo sent from suburban Auckland, five men sip on cans of beer with a loaf of white bread and pottle of tomato sauce providing proof of their assimilation into Kiwi culture. It’s an entirely different world from that in Connew’s black and white Fiji photos.
Documentary photography can at times be a cold, almost vulturish profession. The photographer “shoots”, “captures” or “takes” a picture. And then, perhaps because a picture is worth 1000 words, he or she will deem it unnecessary to record even the two or three words required to dignify the subject with a name, age or location.
Connew and the book’s designer Catherine Griffith have avoided the visual clutter of captions by reproducing all the photos in miniature at the back of the book along with a paragraph about each. The paragraphs read like, unedited, diary entries and contain a mixture of the highly personal (who’s married who) and the political (land tenure). It’s a neat solution to the problem of visual clutter but might have worked even better if the captions had been kept briefer and the political, social and economic insights had been worked into a brief essay.
The cloth-covered book, printed in Italy, is beautifully produced, a delight to hold and almost flawless. “Almost” only because there’s one photo of a couple of men sleeping in a cane field where one of them has his face neatly cut in two by the book’s stitching.
This is an extraordinary book that will act as a lasting reminder of fast disappearing community.
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Jeremy Rose is the editor of the Scoop Review of Books and Wellington journalist.