Re-Encountering Ancestors: Martin and Osa Johnson’s 1917 and 1919 Photographs Return to Vanuatu

Montag, 01.07.2019 bis Freitag, 30.08.2019

Ausstellung, Vanuatu National Museum

In a time when most Americans never ventured beyond their own shores, Martin and Osa Johnson brought back the sights of faraway places. Their films and books featured stories of diverse peoples and close-up encounters with animals in the wild. They were among the first photographers to document life and custom in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu today), in both still and motion pictures. Their photographs capture the faces of island ancestors and much important island kastom that shaped people’s lives one hundred years ago.

As a young man, Martin accompanied author Jack London on his sailing ship Snark. The Snark, in 1908, sailed through the New Hebrides calling at Port Resolution (Tanna) and Port Vila. After returning to his home state of Kansas, Martin opened a theatre showing his “South Seas films.” He met Osa Leighty in 1910, they married the same year, and the two began saving for a return to the New Hebrides for more photographic exploration.

After raising $4,000 dollars, the Johnsons sailed from San Francisco in June 1917. They spent the next six months visiting the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, retracing Martin’s previous voyage aboard the Snark. In Vanuatu, they set up camp on Vao and from there called at Tenmaru Bay where they met and filmed chief Nihapat (who they called Nagapate) and his Tenmaru community. In 1918, back in America, the Johnsons released their first feature silent film, Cannibals of the South Seas. This made enough money to support a second and better equipped film expedition to Vanuatu in 1919.

The Johnsons returned to Vanuatu in July 1919 and again set up on Vao. At Tenmaru, they found their old friend Chief Nihapat and, having brought along an electric generator and a projector, they erected a screen on the beach at Tenmaru Bay to project their 1917 footage. The Johnsons then filmed the astonished and delighted community members as they watched themselves onscreen starring in a movie.

After their revisit with Nihapat, the Johnsons sailed around Malakula stopping and filming at Lambumbu Bay, Southwest Bay, Tomman Island, Port Sandwich, and then back again at Vao. They also visited and filmed at Lopevi, Epi, Tangoa, and South Santo where they met the anti-colonial prophet Ronovuro. From Luganville, they returned to Sydney with 25,000 feet of motion picture film and over 1000 still photographs. In 1922, they released their next popular silent feature film, Head Hunters of the South Seas.

Martin and Osa Johnson’s travels continued, including two expeditions to Sabah in northeast Borneo and five to regions of Africa. Martin was killed in an airplane crash in California in 1937. Osa was injured in the crash, but survived to live another sixteen years when she died of heart disease. The Johnsons had no children and, at Osa’s death, her mother Belle Leightly inherited the Johnsons’ lifework including over 140 miles of film and thousands of photographs, promotional material, field journals, and letters. Mrs. Leighty opened the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum in Chanute, Kansas on June 11, 1961. The photographs on display in this exhibition are archived today in the Museum. To see more of these photographs, please check out our photo research galleries at