The tiny island nation of Niue, with its lush forests, turquoise swimming holes and outlying coral reefs, may seem like a paradise no one would willingly leave. But for decades now, Niue—known as the Rock of Polynesia, or just the Rock to locals—has been losing droves of its residents to New Zealand, which offers much better economic opportunities and standards of living. Around 5,000 people lived in Niue in the 1960s. Today, fewer than 1,200 remain, and approximately 24,000 people of Niuean descent live in New Zealand, 2,400 kilometres to the south-west across the Pacific Ocean.
Absence is, therefore, the crux of Between a Rock and a Far Place, a documentary series shot by the photographer Vlad Sokhin in 2014, over a week’s stay on the island. The work is part of a larger project he is shooting in various Pacific islands. Sokhin’s initial vision for Between a Rock and a Far Place, he said, “was to show life on the island that was largely abandoned by its people”; but when he experienced Niue’s desolation, he “realised that it would be quite challenging to show life at all.” A large share of his photographs feature deserted places, and he accentuates their emptiness through creative use of angles and depth-of-field.
Sokhin faced a difficult beginning to his time on the island. Hunting for sparks of life, he trawled aimlessly through morose nightclubs and depleted markets. Sunday was an especially challenging day, since national law prohibits many activities on the Christian Sabbath, including driving, fishing, and even boating. For his first few days, Sokhin said, “photographing Niue was more about thinking than taking photos.”
Sokhin had almost given up, when he finally began to meet locals willing to speak about their lives and let themselves be photographed. Many allowed him quite intimate access, inviting him to family dinners, birthday parties and school prize-giving ceremonies. This was a coup for the photographer, and allowed him to capture more personal shots, including many portraits.
But even these warm interactions were haunted by the Niuean exodus. Sokhin said that many of those who welcomed him did so out of a sense of duty to their struggling, depopulated home. “They hoped,” he said, “that more information about Niue would attract tourism,” and help raise the low standards of living driving so many Niueans away. Many old people, Sokhin said, dream that their children will “return to Niue, and help this country to grow.”
Vlad Sokhin is a documentary photographer, videographer and multimedia producer. He covers social, cultural, environmental, health and human rights issues around the world, including post-conflict and natural disaster zones.