SURVIVORS is a story of respect and of acknowledgement. Of love. Regret. Dignity. Occasional sadness. Of validation. But mainly it’s about the people who participated and what they stood for – what they stand for to this day.
Telling that story became my life’s work. Before the project I might have even boasted about how well I understood Aboriginal people; about their lives, their experiences and struggles. After all, some of my best mates are Aboriginal. We grew up together. I knew as well anyone, right? Surely. In 1986, my parents moved me and my brothers from Newcastle to Wellington. I grew up playing sport. That’s just what you do in a small country town.
The irony is: when we were all little, I don’t really think any of us felt too different from each other. We laughed at the same jokes and liked the same food and got up to the same mischief. There’s a certain innocence you get with youth. Before long, I was grown up. At university, I couldn’t believe some of the things I heard people say, how ignorant they were.
Most people I found relied on the media to inform their views on Aboriginal Australia. I gradually came to recognise the establishment’s casual racism and the mainstream’s colonial disdain. It unsettled me. That was 2001. My passion for photography was born in Newcastle in 2004. I began noticing the perfection that bathes every moment. The silence. The moments in between. Their composition. Their godliness. I breathed it with every breath. And I learned how to capture it as a moment in time.
In 2007, I moved to Sydney to pursue a career in abstract photography. By 2008, I was represented by Sara Roney Gallery, in Paddington. At the end of 2009, during a conversation with my mentor and Arthere Creative Producer, Sandy Edwards, I explained to her how Wellington was an area I wanted to document.
Sandy’s words have stayed with me to this day: So when are you going to start? Two weeks later I was in Wellington. Searching. A chance encounter, spiked with fateful inevitability, guided me headlong into a conversation with renowned Wellington hard man, Jamie Stanley. It was he who introduced me to the first Elders of the SURVIVORS project.
My journey had begun. I approached each yarn attentively, building trust bit by bit. I knew I had no choice but to offer what lay deepest in my heart. I allowed the Elders to feel who I was for themselves; where I was coming from. I was humbled. They could tell – and they held me in the palm of their hand.
I remember feeling present during these conversations in a way I’d never felt before. I focused on the words; every last flourish and inflection. There was such stillness, yet such movement and colour. I could see the frames with every breath. These people were telling me their story.