Kjerstin Lang / Photographer Captures a Changing Tide in an Island Nation / Capstone / by Kathleen Hawkes

UW-L photographer captures a changing tide in an island nation

Kathleen Hawkes, UW-L assistant professor of photography, let her camera be her guide as she returned to the island country where she lived as a child.

Hawkes took about 28,000 photographs in Fiji and surrounding countries for a year on a Fulbright grant in 2012. She was revisiting the place she lived from age 6-8 while her parents worked at the University of the South Pacific. It was a place she daydreamed about long after she moved away.

But what Hawkes saw through her camera lens was not what she expected to find. She thought she’d see people on the islands isolated by the vast Pacific Ocean. What she found was the opposite — a country buzzing with communication technology from Internet to mobile phones.

Moreover, the people didn’t see themselves as isolated in the middle of an ocean.

“The ocean is instead the connective tissue that links the land masses, people and cultures together,” says Hawkes.

Hawkes communicated the discrepancies she found between her preconceived, westernized view of the South Pacific and what she actually found in a photographic exhibit “Ocean/Land” Aug. 1 – Sept. 5, 2014, at The Gallery of Oceanian Art at the University of the South Pacific.

“Ocean/Land” challenges the westernized view of Fiji as a tourist’s paradise. Instead, Hawkes portrays the people and places of a country with a complex national and cultural identity and history. She explored not only trends in the country’s communication technology, but also the effects of climate change and political unrest through the stories of people and photographs of them and their homes.

“This is a question that I am interested in in general,” says Hawkes. “What do larger trends look like on a personal scale? What does political unrest look like five years in? What does the anticipation of environmental devastation look like? And what does a change in thought process look like or how does one communicate these phenomena visually?”

Hawkes says her reasons for applying for the Fulbright scholarship were both intellectual and emotional.

“Intellectually, I wanted to know how much this place that was dear to me had developed in that very concise time period — 20 years,” she says.  “But also as a child I really loved living there. To me it was almost a magical place — full of mystery, adventure and beautiful things… I really longed to go back.”


– Kjerstin Lang

UW La Crosse, College of Liberal Studies, Capstone, Spring 2015 issue