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
Rhianna Harris (age 5) with her barbie. The reality for Rhianna is that the future likely looks very different than it does for her non-Aboriginal counterparts. David Maurice Smith/Oculi.
Residents drink wine from plastic bottles on main street in Wilcannia as a caravan of tourists drive by. As one resident put it, many people are afraid to come to Wilcannia because “you see the problems right there in your face”. David Maurice Smith/Oculi.
Eight stitches act as a reminder of the previous nights activities, the result of a drunken dispute settled by a headbutt. Viloence related to alcohol is a way of life for many Barkindji men, contribuing to the shocking life expectancy of only 35 years. David Maurice Smith/Oculi.
A Barkindji family’s hand prints permanently preserved in a comcrete slab in Wilcannia. Despite the challenges faced by the Barkindji, the connection of kin remains incredibly strong and highly valued. David Maurice Smith/Oculi.
An emu is placed in the ground and surrounded with hot coals to be cooked traditionally on the banks of the Darling river. The Darling is central to the Barkindji culture, a means of survival and identity. The term Barkindji is thought to translate to “river people”. David Maurice Smith/Oculi.
An evening hunt: spotlights mounted on top of a vehicle are used to track kangaroos, emu and wild boar at night. David Maurice Smith/Oculi.
A violent outburst between an uncle and niece after an attempt to steal some alcohol. Stories of family violence with often tragic consequences caused by alcohol are incredibly commonplace in Wilcannia. David Maurice Smith/Oculi.
A young woman cradles her infant sister at dusk. David Maurice Smith/Oculi.
Wilcannia resident Greta Clark’s wristband shows the black, yellow and red colours of the Aboriginal flag and the word “culture”. Many Barkindji show a deep pride in their cultural roots despite years of abuse and atrocities aimed at disconnecting them as a people from their traditional ways. David Maurice Smith/Oculi.
A young girl after a fight with her older sister. David Maurice Smith/Oculi.
Four year old Kade Cattermore waits in the car while his mother buys alcohol from the local bottle shop. David Maurice Smith/Oculi.
Young children play on the newly built community playground. The playground was payed for by the international aid agency Save The Children. David Maurice Smith/Oculi.
A man prepares to smoke Marijuana from a homemade water bong. Drug and alcohol use soars high above the national averages in Wilcannia, for many a means of temporary escape from the harsh realities of daily life. David Maurice Smith/Oculi.
Children gather in the street at dusk, drawn outside by the cooler temperatures later in the day. It is not uncommon for midday temperatures in summer to hover over 40 degrees celsius (104 degrees farhenheit) for weeks at a time. David Maurice Smith/Oculi.
A freshly killed kangaroo is bled on the back of a vehicle. Kangaroo is a major source of food to many Barkindji. David Maurice Smith/Oculi.
A rare site: rainclouds on the horizon. Wilcannia has suffered severe drought conditions in recent years. Ultimately these clouds passed the town by without offereing any precipitation. David Maurice Smith/Oculi.
A young girl and her dog play on what remains of an old house in Wilcannia. The home was abandoned and left to crumble after a family member passed away. David Maurice Smith/Oculi.
Barkindji men drink inside a neighbors house during the heat of the day. David Maurice Smith/Oculi.
The end of the day in Wilcannia. David Maurice Smith/Oculi.
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.
David Maurice Smith