Paradise Lost • Michael Christopher Brown • Magnum Photos

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Environment

Paradise Lost

Michael Christopher Brown meets the Marshall Islands inhabitants whose history is defined by displacement

Michael Christopher Brown

Michael Christopher Brown Leftover columns from a structure. Majuro, Marshall Islands. July 2016. © Michael Christopher Brown | Magnum Photos

In March 1946 all 167 residents of a small island on a remote Pacific atoll packed up their belongings and left their homes. They were assured it would be for a short period, during which the United States government would carry out a series of nuclear tests. 70-years later most surviving Bikini islanders have yet to set foot on the island paradise from which they were evacuated. Today, the the surviving Bikini islanders and their descendants live scattered between the other Marshall islands in Micronesia; some on Majuro, the capital, some on Ejit and Kwajalein, and many on Kili where they eke out a living producing copra, farming what little land is available and fishing where and when it is safe to do so.

In 2014 the Islands filed a suit against the world’s nuclear powers, claiming they were violating international law by failing to respect their disarmament obligations under the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and customary international law. However, in October 2016, The United Nations’ highest court rejected the bid, stating that the court did not have jurisdiction because there was no evidence of a legal dispute that it could adjudicate.

Michael Christopher Brown MARSHALL ISLANDS. Majuro. July 2016. Destroyed/abandoned building. © Michael Christopher Brown | Magnum Photos

The Marshall Islands have been experiencing unusual flooding since 2011, which has been linked to global warming.  Kili, tiny and low lying, regularly finds itself swamped by seasonal ‘king tides’ which flood houses and destroy roads. For many Island natives, this is just another case of their welfare being compromised at the mercy of world super powers. Earlier in 2016, Michael Christopher Brown visited some of the surviving Bikinians on Kili, not only to capture the rapidly changing coastline being lost to rising sea levels, but to give a voice to a marginalized people.

The Marshall Islands has a complex history environmentally, what were you specifically looking to photograph?

I’m always cautious when I do stories about the environment. Not that I don’t believe in the changing climate, global warming, etc., as it is affecting the planet globally, but it can also be difficult to say if one place is worse than the next. I think we are experiencing environmental threats everywhere, as there are humans everywhere, and much of it cannot be seen, at least not yet. Ultimately, we are discussing a problem largely expedited by the presence of humans, we are the root of the accelerated environmental changes so, besides the obvious coral crushing and garbage thrown in many places around the Marshalls, I was less interested in documenting the coastline and more drawn to the situation of the Bikinian people and what they have faced over the years.

Michael Christopher Brown MARSHALL ISLANDS. Kili. July 2016. Young girls take a break on the grass runway. © Michael Christopher Brown | Magnum Photos
Michael Christopher Brown MARSHALL ISLANDS. Kili. July 2016. Before church on Kili Island. © Michael Christopher Brown | Magnum Photos
Michael Christopher Brown A number of men on Kili go spear fishing, preferably at night as there is more fish near the coast at night, about 6 months out of the year. This sea life supplements the food they receive every fe (...)
Michael Christopher Brown MARSHALL ISLANDS. Kili. July 2016. Kili Island Police Department. © Michael Christopher Brown | Magnum Photos

Did you get a sense that people there feel their plight isn’t being taken seriously by the wider world? 

The Bikinians and their descendants, who I spent much of my time around, were primarily concerned with what they saw as a small amount of food and money given by the USA government, as well as their increasing population and that there was not enough land, money and food for their expanding community. Initially the size of the land given to them, as well as the money, was enough as their population was still somewhat small. But now they are having to move and relocate, but this is less due to global warming and rising ocean as it is to expanding population.

Michael Christopher Brown Waiting room at the Bikini Atoll Town Hall in Majuro. Images on the wall depict a nuclear test as well as Bikinians leaving Bikini Atoll before the testing. Majuro, Marshall Islands. July 2016. © Michael Christopher Brown | Magnum Photos

"The mentality is not unlike that of the Native Americans I’ve met on reservations in the USA"

- Michael Christopher Brown
Michael Christopher Brown MARSHALL ISLANDS. Kili. July 2016. The youth enjoy basketball. © Michael Christopher Brown | Magnum Photos

Who did you meet?

I focused on the original Bikinians, the people originally born on Bikini atoll before the population was moved by the US Military. Most of them are gone, we only found eight or nine to photograph and many of them could not remember much of their history, which was fortunately previously recorded in books by other local historians.

Michael Christopher Brown MARSHALL ISLANDS. Kili. July 2016. Henly Jorre was born on Bikini Atoll. © Michael Christopher Brown | Magnum Photos
Michael Christopher Brown MARSHALL ISLANDS. Kili. July 2016. The average family (in this case, a family of six) is given this amount of rice, chicken and flour every 3 months by the U.S. Government. The food is brought in b (...)
Michael Christopher Brown MARSHALL ISLANDS. Kili. July 2016. Neki Jorre was born on Bikini Atoll. © Michael Christopher Brown | Magnum Photos
Michael Christopher Brown MARSHALL ISLANDS. Kili. July 2016. Herbert Jorre was born on Bikini Atoll. © Michael Christopher Brown | Magnum Photos

 

Your photographs feature both elderly people and children. Some of the elderly people may have been moved off Bikini the first time around. How did a lifetime of displacement seem to affect them?

Most of them, the ones who were of decent mind to remember, seem to have a bad taste left in their mouth. The US government apparently promised them they would be taken care of but perhaps nobody took into account the decades ahead, when the population would expand into the thousands (initially it was under 200 moved from Bikini) and the dividends would become smaller and smaller. On Kili, one of the elders a man named Ichiro said, I don’t know how many times, “We need more land, we need another island, preferably with a lagoon. Because Kili is too small for us now. It is too small.”

Michael Christopher Brown Laura Laurum was born in Bikini Atoll. She is pictured here outside and inside her home, with her children and grandchildren. Majuro, Marshall Islands. July 2016. © Michael Christopher Brown | Magnum Photos

What did the children you came across understand of the situation?

The mentality is not unlike that of the Native Americans I’ve met on reservations in the USA. They’ve been raised with an understanding of their heritage and that they were moved and though they are somewhat taken care of by the USA many are bitter against the government and believe they are victims, etc. and they use this for everything from winning local elections to trips to Washington D.C. to try and raise funds. And their population had been left on Bikini, which was controlled by the Japanese during much of WW2, would their situation have been any better today? The Japanese did not treat them well, so it is tough to say.

Michael Christopher Brown A number of men on Kili say a prayer before going spear fishing, preferably at night as there is more fish near the coast at night, about 6 months out of the year. This sea life supplements the foo (...)
Michael Christopher Brown Kili, Marshall Islands. July 2016. © Michael Christopher Brown | Magnum Photos

This photo essay is available as a Magnum Distribution via the Magnum Shop. A photo essay in an envelope, this collection of six prints, in a limited run of 100, is inspired by the traditional way photo editors would receive photo essays on their desks.