Living in the Shadows: Storytelling From an Indigenous Australian Community

by Katie Scott Aiton Nov 6, 2013

David Maurice Smith, a photographer hailing from Vancouver, chatted with me recently about an ongoing project with the Barkindji people in Wilcannia, Western New South Wales, Australia. Living in the Shadows is a project and a journey with no objective other than to tell a story. David has crafted a stunning multimedia project, approaching a conversation rarely entertained in the Australian public sphere.

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KSA: What drew you to this project?

DMS: Prior to becoming a full-time photographer, I worked as a social worker. I have always been very interested in the stories behind people living in marginalized communities. The last several years, I have been working in indigenous communities in Canada. The same kind of injustices that happened here [in Australia] happened in North America — it was a similar model. When I first moved to Australia, I put it out that I was interested in visiting some indigenous communities. A friend, who is a psychologist, invited me along to take some shots. That was back in 2010, and since then I’ve taken it upon myself to carry on visiting the community and keep documenting.

Do you have an objective for your work in Wilcannia?

No. The story is important to me and it has taken some time to flesh out. I have not approached any publications with my project — with deadlines in publishing you often don’t get the space to breathe. I wanted to tackle this project differently, going back time and time again. Each time I go back I move further away from finishing it.

What are your relationships like with your contacts in the community?

It is always a challenge with this kind of work; I can’t worry about pleasing everyone all the time. Because I am continually going back I have to be more aware of my presence, than perhaps if I was flying in and flying out. There are some people that are still wary of me, but most have got used to seeing me. When I go back I always bring prints and share my work with them.

I have made no promises about what I am doing or why I am doing it, mainly because…I don’t actually know. It is not an assignment. It is a story.

Tell me about your choice in making this a multimedia story.

I can be frustrated by the lack of appreciation of the use of multimedia in storytelling. I am a photographer, that’s who I am, but I like shooting video as it helps complement the stories. Using differing mediums like this can be a powerful way of engaging the audience.

Tell me more about your storytelling.

I want to tell a balanced story and I want to tell a story that has not been told before. It is not hard to take a photo of some of the more graphic and heavier aspects of this community — but those images tell one side of the story. That’s not all that is there — you have to try to have a balanced approach. It seems people choose one camp or the other, when recording the lives of indigenous peoples in Australia; they either show images of rosy-cheeked Aboriginal children or despair and horror — what we are seeing is a massive polarity.

What happens between this? Life happens. I hope to show the fabric of the community — the people having birthday parties, funerals, getting sick, living a normal kind of existence.

You talk about the dysfunctional elements of the society. Are there elements of the Wilcannia community that are ‘dysfunctional’? What is classified as being socially unacceptable?

I would be ignorant if I did not acknowledge that there is ‘dysfunction’ there [in Wilcannia]. This is coming from my perspective of what I think is healthy and what is sustainable for a community. The average male life expectancy in Wilcannia is 35 years old. That is lower than the majority of third-world countries. It is hard to get around that, every time I have been there, there has been a funeral. Often deaths are not due to natural causes.

But what a lot of the outside public seem to be doing is honing in on that — this being all they see. What I am trying to do with my work is not only focus on this part of the community but also to listen to people’s stories about normal life. We need to present knowledge about this culture in a manner that is relatable to the audience. If it is painted as a messed-up place, there is no connection between the audience and the story. The outside public, however, can relate to the fact that the Aboriginal people are similar to them — sisters, mums, brothers who play sport and want to be a NRL player when they grow up — life goes on aside the ‘dysfunction.’

Do you see the issues in the community streaming from the effects of the colonization of Australia? What are the opinions of your contacts: Is history used as a crutch for the social problems in this community?

It is really important to note: In every community there are people with differing opinions. Some [indigenous people] could say yes, it is the friggin’ Australian government’s fault, and there are others could say it is our responsibility to pull our socks up and do what’s right for us. We still have people in that community that are my age [late 30s] who lived as part of the Stolen Generations, who were taken away from their families when they were little and put in prisons to have their culture taken away from them.

Just to clarify, we are talking about acts of genocide, correct?

Yes. There are people who directly went through this and there are visible signs in their society that this was part of their recent history. I think you can attribute a lot of the problems in Wilcannia to the community’s attempt to normalize after this genocide. But you cannot use this as a crutch. Blaming historical atrocities for consequential behavior in the now happens in every culture. But, if there was to be a community who would hold the right to do that, it is the indigenous peoples of this planet.

You are tackling complex and politically heated topics — how have you approached the issues?

I have been mentored by some great people. One of the things that has been impressed upon me by people, who’s opinion I think matters, is that you must spend time on this kind of work to make it meaningful. With time, the project only gets more authentic. You can see a person during one visit and then again in the future and they are in a completely different place.

A snapshot of life, if you like?

Yeah, exactly. I hope that my work will go beyond this and take shape naturally, over an extended amount of time.

This is perhaps a hard question for you to answer and by no means am I asking for a solution. From your experience, do you think reconciliation in Australia can still happen, and what form could this take?

Firstly, it is very important for me to make clear that I do not in any way classify myself as being an expert on this topic. There are much smarter, more experienced people out there who can comment on this situation with more clarity and knowledge than I. My thing is, I don’t pretend to know what is happening — I do the opposite. I watch, listen, and learn. Every Aboriginal community and every Aboriginal person is different. There are diverse opinions on all sides of the debate. So I cannot really answer that.

But what I do think is that the modern world moves fast. We often do not get a chance to stop and look backwards. Humans have this need to progress and move on fast, past issues. Yet life does not work like that in the indigenous communities — life moves at a different, slower pace. For ‘reconciliation’ (to use it as a word) to happen it will take generations of hard work. We need to be patient, proving solutions to problems embedded in the language and social fabric of the people.

For more information on Living in the Shadows and David’s other projects, please visit his website.

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