“Molokai,” examines the history of misunderstanding surrounding those afflicted with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) who were banished to the Kalaupapa peninsula on Molokai, Hawaii. Even though Hansen’s disease is not transmitted by casual contact and most people are naturally immune, for centuries people with this chronic infection have endured intense social stigma and ostracism. From 1866 to 1969, decades after treatment was available, the afflicted were exiled to the isolated Kalaupapa peninsula. Comprised of still, moving and archival images, this project investigates the transition of the settlement from prison to hospital to National Historic Park and Museum. In the collision of tropical landscapes—beautiful and mundane, spectacular and everyday—with their desolate histories, viewers encounter a neglected part of the American story.
The Kalaupapa peninsula is surrounded by harsh seas and the pali; some of the highest sea cliffs in the world that plunge 2,000 feet down into the Pacific Ocean, separating it from the rest of the island and forming a natural prison. At its peak over 1,200 afflicted were imprisoned to Kalaupapa and currently over 8,000 graves permeate the once inhospitable land. Today there are only fourteen patients that remain on the Hawaiian Islands with eight that continue to live in the settlement. Created during the final years of the last remaining patients, viewers come to question this overlooked part of our history.
This work would not be possible without the assistance and guidance of many giving individuals. Mahalo nui to Fe and Bernard Schwind, TyLor Tanaka, Eric Brown, Sylvester J. Lee, T. Scott Williams and Julie Sigler for making and facilitating connections to Kalaupapa and for being my guides while on the peninsula. Many thanks to the Kalaupapa National Historical Park and State of Hawaii employees for allowing me access to their facilities and daily lives.
All images © 2014-2018 Shannon Benine