David Maurice Smith – Living in the Shadows

David Maurice Smith

Living in the Shadows

In 1835 the town now known as Wilcannia, New South Wales, Australia was “discovered” by explorer Major Thomas Mitchell. Located far inland on the shores of the Darling river, the name originates from the largely disappeared language of the local Barkindji people and is thought to translate to mean either ‘gap in the bank where the floodwaters escape’ or ‘wild dog’. The polarity of this lost translation has come to reflect the identity of the Barkindji who have called the area home since long before Mitchell arrived.

The Barkindji are a people striving to rewrite a cultural story long ago torn from their grasp through historical wrongs. Simultaneously they face the challenge of adapting to external influences and living in the deep shadow cast by present day institutionalized racism. Despite being traditional keepers of one of the most prosperous countries on the planet they endure near third world conditions. Barkindji men have an average life expectancy of only 35yrs, the rate of domestic violence is 13 times that of other Australian communities and the infant mortality rate is 3 times higher than for non-aboriginal people. A dependency upon government subsidies for survival, overcrowding, violence, alcohol and drug abuse keep the community in a cycle of survival mode.

In plain view of these challenges, my work strives to reflect not only the scars clearly on the surface, but to also to shed light on the fabric of a people that although damaged, dysfunctional and flush with self-harm, carries on. There is rhythm, meaning and intention, despite the shadows cast on the Barlkindji. The fact that even shreds of their culture remain is a testament to the resilience.

A multimedia version of the story




David Maurice Smith began his working life supporting disadvantaged individuals as a social worker. It was this experience with those on the fringe of society that shaped a desire to explore personal stories and led him to documentary photography. Originally from Canada David has been based in Sydney since 2009. He joined Australia’s Oculi Collective in 2012.

In 2013 he was named Australian Emerging Documentary Photographer of the Year and his work has been recognized in the International Photography Awards, The American Photography Awards and the Anthrophographica Human Rights Awards.

His work has appeared in The New York Times, Geo, The Guardian, Le Monde, CNN, The Discovery Channel, Monocle Magazine, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian and The Huffington Post and has been exhibited at the International Centre for Photography, The Museum of the City of New York, The State Library of New South Wales and PHOTOVILLE.


Related Links

David Maurice Smith


12 Responses to “David Maurice Smith – Living in the Shadows”

  • Great essay. Love the way the photographer has managed to get in so close and intimate.

  • A really good photo essay; as Paul says above, David has got very close to his subjects. I like that the photographs are in colour: the subject matter is a prime candidate for a traditional b&w approach but the colour really works here.

    Why do we see this kind of essay on a people marginalised in their own country in this day and age? And why did I look at it and my first thought be “Great use of colour”? Maybe that’s the reason.

    Thanks for the essay David,


  • Superb! I was impressed by the consistent use of backlighting to bring solidity and coherence to the entire body of the essay.

    Burn still needs a caption editor to check spelling.

  • Sad story… and great work. I like how you use the light, shadows, and backlighting. Also the portraits.


  • Never been to Australia, but it all looks painfully familiar. You did get close, you did use light beautiful and you resisted the temptation to let your photographs sink into utter ugliness and despair. It is well done so far as it goes and I would agree with the statements above. Personally, having spent much of my life in Indigenous (mostly American) communities and being married into an Indigenous family and having Indigenous children and grandchildren and having, even in the worst of situations, always found an underlying strength in heritage and culture largely unknown to the mainstream world, I would have liked to have seen more photographic depictions of the shreds of culture and resilience you write about.

  • Great work, Powerful and sad story. Without reading I would assume it was in the American west. Very sad that most Indigenous cultures are treated this way around the world..

  • I don’t know, more and more I’m considering a contrarian attitude on these kinds of things. It seems we expect to see indigenous peoples keep their cultures unchanged for our viewing entertainment, like a diorama in a natural history museum or drive-through adventure safari. And it’s not like much of anyone from a European background is has locked into a paleolithic belief system and established a fashion police to keep the old ways intact and the tourists happy. For us, the nineteen seventies or eighties might are considered ancient history. I suspect a lot of us would be heavy into drinking and drugs if we had to live under that kind of cultural dead weight.

    Nice photos though.

  • Mike – Keeping a grip on culture and heritage is not at all the same thing as keeping cultures unchanged. An indigenous person or people can be completely modern and still know, hold, and practice their culture and heritage. Culture adapts. In so doing, culture remains.

  • I don’t know, Bill. There’s all kinds of people and peoples in this world, but it seems like a lot of us over the centuries have benefited either ourselves or humankind in general by running away from the culture we were born into just as fast as we could. When I meet those kindred souls struggling under the weight of oppressive or failing cultures, I’m prone to recommend they get the hell out of Dodge, just as I and most of my friends did. I know that doesn’t work for everybody, but I suspect it’s probably the best option for at least some of the poor folk in this photo essay. Of course sometimes we end up running to other cultures. And sometimes, ironically, we want them to stay just the way they are.

  • David, nice to see your work here. Congratulations. Very nicely done, lovely photos, sad situation.

  • Hi all,

    Thank you for the comments and discussion.

    To be clear, my feelings about this work changes often. Sometimes I am left feeling inspired and driven to share this story and hope that it leads to empathy and change. Other times I am left defeated and wonder if there is any hope for places like Wilcannia and the people that call it home. At the end of the day it is my relationship to these people that have kept me going back for 4 years, and an appreciation for what a special place it can be despite the rough surface.

    In suggesting that people in Wilcannia “get out of dodge”, one must also ask the question “and go where?”. I would be lying if I said I did not catch myself sometimes asking the same question. However I am inevitably left with the thought that this is their home. This is their land, they are tied to the river, to the community that exists there. While admitedly a piece of the puzzle, the location is not the problem. The deep emotional wounds are the problem… and those will not disappear with a change of scenery.

    I personally don’t expect the Barkindji people to stay traditional or tied to the heritage. The ultimate situation would be for them to have a platform of health and well-being where they could make the choices that so many other Australians are afforded about how they want to live and what aspects of their culture they want to remain tied to and which they wish to leave behind.

    A photo essay of 15-20 pictures does not do a story like this justice in my opinion. I would encourage people to watch the multimedia piece that goes with the work as I think it is able to tell a broader story.

  • Mike, your argument reminds me of a discussion I had with a school teacher back in 1976 on my wife’s White Mountain Apache Reservation, where we lived for five years shortly after our marriage, and where I produced the tribal newspaper and did a three part story on the tribe for National Geographic.

    The teacher was a photography buff so we got together a few times and on one of those visits he stunned me by saying he felt that efforts currently underway to include the Apache language in the school curriculum should be dropped. He thought the language should just die out. He explained that his recent ancestors, his grandparents if I recall correctly but maybe even his parents, had immigrated to the US from Germany. They had become Americans and had not kept the German language alive in their family. He could not speak it all. He was an American and didn’t need to. He thought the same logic should apply to the Apache. His family had left their Native language behind and had joined the larger American society. He thought the Apache should do so as well.

    I was so stunned because he could not see the difference between making a choice to leave the place and language you come from to take up a new home and a new language as opposed to having an alien force smash its way into your homeland, force you to take English names and wash your mouth out with soap when you spoke your own language at school. He and his family had left, but Germany was still there and the unique knowledge, literature and poetry in the language still lived. Yet, if things were to unfold as he thought best, the Apache language would have been killed in its own homeland, along with all its unique knowledge, poetry, and orally-transmitted literature.

    To “get the hell out of Dodge” to escape the repression you find in your own culture is a completely different thing than to have an invading force smash its way into your homeland, claim much of your land for its own and wreak hell upon your life and culture. The impact this has on people is of a completely dimension then when they chose for whatever reason to leave one society behind for another. Everyday, for untold generations to come, you awake and see all around you what was been done to you. Yes, you can leave and many do – some to success, some to live upon streets in a daze of despair and frustration. Somewhere inside them, most who do go still hold their origins in a cherished, hidden spot which will sometimes come to the surface at the most unexpected time. When it does, and you are with them, then you know that even in their state of despair they still find strength and pride in it.

    And I can tell you from long observation and experience that when Indigenous people reach out to their own origins and culture, good things tend to happen. It brings pride, generates hope.

    David – “I personally don’t expect the Barkindji people to stay traditional or tied to the heritage.” Don’t bet on it. I have only lived for a bit longer than 63.5 years but in that short time, time and time again, I have heard people say this culture or that culture is dying, it’s all but dead, it’s on its way out and in 25 years it will be gone. Then 25 years comes. It is there. It is still alive. In many ways, it is on the increase, not the decline.

Comments are currently closed.