Nightmarish Photos of Nauru's Tropical Prison
Welcome to an island of abandoned mines, carcinogenic dust, and discarded human beings.
Photography has taken me to some pretty dubious places. Places like North Korea and Cuba, but Nauru is the most broken place I’ve ever been. In September, I walked out of the arrivals terminal to find an oppressively hot island in the middle of the Pacific—humid in a way you can’t imagine, and claustrophobically small. Driving around the circumference of the island took less than half an hour. And there, so many of the refugees I met told me how unbearable it was to live for years in open tents exposed to the elements. All of them seemed flat and defeated. Some were covered in scars from self-harm. One refugee named Saji, an eight-year-old Tamil from Sri Lanka, talked openly about wanting to kill herself, should she find a knife.
It was horrific in a way that seemed otherworldly. This tiny rock surrounded by ocean, home to people who wanted to die. And so I tried to capture it as a nightmare.
Prior to my trip I’d obtained some of Kodak’s last remaining 35mm colour infrared film known as Aerochrome 1443 III. I’d brought a bunch to Nauru thinking that the psychedelic colours of the expired film might capture the experience of living in limbo. So, with infrared film, I tried to capture how the island looks to the refugees who live there.
Nicknamed “Topside,” this is the inner, raised section of the island, which was long ago strip mined for its deposits of guano—better known as bird shit. Nauru was once one of the richest countries in the Pacific after the world discovered that phosphate-rich bird poo doubles yields of food crops. And for a brief period Nauru became rich, until its guano deposits were scoured clean, leaving the island sliding into bankruptcy. Today Nauru is covered in abandoned hotels and an interior landscape that looks like the moon.
This dilapidated building is another part of the phosphate-processing complex in Aiwo. The whole framework was covered with a fine, white dust that stuck to my clothes. I later learned that the dust contained cadmium, a toxin that has disastrously poisoned the air and water around Nauru. Refugees often complain of the dust irritating their eyes and causing body pains. So naturally I tried to avoid breathing it in as I explored the island, although I left several skin tones lighter.
Here are some big tyres sitting in front of some more broken conveyer belts. And again, it's all part of the phosphate-processing factory at Aiwo, which I (reasonably) assumed was inoperative. But to my surprise, a security guard flagged me down and insisted the plant was operational. I doubted it but left.
At Yangor Beach I found a local Nauruan boy digging in the sand amid a backdrop of wrecked mining machinery. Jutting out of the turquoise water was a monstrous dilapidated cantilever, once used to transfer phosphate onto ships. Now it's all collapsing into the sea.
At the roadside in Buada I found this burned-out wreckage of a car. Infrared film typically creates a stark contrast between organic and inorganic material—or the living and the dead—but I took this just after a storm and the surrounding foliage was rendered pink on the car’s wet surfaces.
I found this white good graveyard along the road towards the regional processing center, where they hold asylum seekers. I couldn’t figure out why so many washing machines, dryers, and ovens were rotting in the greenery. But then rubbish seems to be a recurring sight on Nauru. It’s just a factor of modern consumerism on a minuscule island.
And here's another stack of metal wreckage on the road to the regional processing center.
This is the town at Nibok, as seen from one of Nauru’s many abandoned hotels—you can see the pool railing falling into the shrubs below.
The regional processing center is so heavily guarded that this road is about as close as you can get. It's the road running from the center, over to the phosphate mines of Topside and back to the port. Sticky and sweating, I tried to remain inconspicuous as I crawled past the camps, which were undoubtedly in the hottest part of the island. It was a harsh environment to be in, and especially for children. The air is hot, dusty, and alive with phosphate dust from all the mining trucks. And while the locals were generally humble and welcoming, there was a sense of sadness around the place. Actually that's the takeaway emotion you get on Nauru—utter misery, without an end in sight.