Shackleton’s Boat Journey – Fact and Fiction in the Visual Record of the Rescue
Senior Picture Editor Julie McMahon researched the photographs featured in our edition of Shackleton’s Boat Journey. Here she tell the story behind one crucial and seemingly simple image.
The Endurance expedition was famously documented by the Australian photographer Frank Hurley. One photograph from our selection stands out, and not just for its memorable imagery. Hurley captioned this photo ‘The Rescue’. It appears to depict Shackleton’s party returning to save the stranded crew on Elephant Island, who wait on the shore waving at the boat – the lifeboat from the rescue steamer Yelcho – as it comes into view. It is a picture full of emotion: they have been saved.
Hurley’s caption has accompanied this photograph since it was first shown to the public nearly 100 years ago. However, the caption in Frank Worsley’s 1931 memoir, Endurance, contradicts this. It reads: ‘The departure of the James Caird from Elephant Island’, in which case the men are waving the boat off as it sails away to get help. And it’s probably not relief they’re feeling but dread, aware that their fate will be sealed by this journey.
Hurley’s photograph shows that part of the image has been scratched out. In fact, it originally showed two boats: the James Caird and Shackleton’s supply boat, the Stancomb Wills. The former was erased, while the latter – small enough to pass for the Yelcho lifeboat – remained. Why would Hurley deliberately change this scene? It was usual for expedition members, on returning home, to give public lectures, and Hurley doctored this particular image in order to deliver a suitable visual climax to his talk. But the manipulation was also unfortunate in that it changed an authentic, emotionally charged scene into a contrived happy ending.
Senior Picture Editor