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Jagath Dheerasekara 'Manuwangku, Under The Nuclear Cloud' 2011

Alice Reynolds interviews Jagath Dheerasekara, photographer and human rights activist.

You have been labelled a human rights photographer, how do you feel about this label? Do you feel it accurately describes your work?
I am not too bothered about the genre I am categorised in to. My work is somewhat of a cross between photography and human rights. Though they are inclined towards documentary photography in appearance, the images often go other ways as well. Having said that, being labelled a human rights photographer, in my mind, is too big a pair of shoes for me to fill. I personally knew many unsung heroes who during their work as human rights photographers perished and there are many photographers who risk their lives to do their work and defend human rights. With this knowledge, I wonder if I could qualify to the title or label anyway.

The Sri Lankan government’s campaign against the People’s Liberation Front and crackdown on the student movement, labour unions, opposition political party supporters and other dissident groups in the southern parts of Sri Lanka resulted in the death and disappearances of over 40,000 people at the hands of state forces and allied paramilitary groups, over a period of approximately two years or so between1988 and 1990. During the said period, as a key member of the Students for Human Rights – Sri Lanka, I was responsible for photographing, documenting and disseminating information on illegal detentions, disappearances and killings as well as liaising with human rights lawyers in filing habeas corpus applications and tracing young men and women who were abducted or arrested by state and paramilitary forces. Students for Human Rights was an organisation formed by university students.

I was a key activist in the Mothers’ Front too. Mothers’ Front was a human rights campaign formed in 1990 by women, whose children or partners had been killed or had disappeared, and was coordinated by a few opposition parliamentarians. As a result of my involvement in these campaigns, I was persecuted as well, putting my life in an unexpected, life threatening, vulnerable and very painful trajectory.

Perhaps my life experiences and the more nature of themes my work tends to focus on as well as being awarded with the Amnesty International Human Rights Innovation Fund Grant would have led to my being labelled as a human rights photographer. However, as mentioned before, I am not so sure of the accuracy of such a label. My personal experiences in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and the events that unfolded there after heavily impacted my life. It is natural that they would continue to influence my thoughts, feelings, ideas, perceptions and therefore anything I do including photography work. I reconcile with my past through my work today.

What led you to want to photograph the people of Muckaty?
Muckaty (Manuwangku) is situated 120km north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. In 2007, the Northern Land Council contentiously nominated Manuwangku as another site to be assessed to build a national nuclear waste storage facility, more commonly known as a nuclear waste dump. There was no meaningful consultation with the Aboriginal Traditional Owners of the land who maintain a deep spiritual and cultural connection to the area. The community has engaged in protests and launched legal action in the federal court to defend their right to live in a clean and safe environment, free of hazardous waste. The community’s campaign is supported by people across Australia.

At present, the majority of Australia’s long-lived intermediate radioactive waste, which is the highest level produced in Australia, is stored at the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor complex near Sydney. If the proposed storage plan goes ahead, 3,820 cubic metres of low-level radioactive waste and 435 cubic metres of long-lived intermediate level radioactive waste will be transported from Lucas Heights to the site nominated in Manuwangku. Both categories of nuclear waste grow at the rate of 35 and 3.5 cubic metres per annum respectively. The compensation funding received if this site was selected would likely be tied to provision of essential services and infrastructure such as education, housing and roads.

When researching this issue I came across some paternalistic references to a land that holds much significance and value to its Traditional Owners. Debating on the proposed sites to build a national nuclear waste facility in the Northern Territory, in 2005, then Minister for Education, Science and Training Dr Brendan Nelson had remarked, “Why on earth can’t people in the middle of nowhere have low-level and intermediate-level waste?”. His successor Minister Julie Bishop had later described the proposed sites as “far from any form of civilisation”.

The pursuit of Manuwangku as a potential nuclear waste storage site contravenes many articles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UN-DRIP). Aboriginal communities around Manuwangku have been opposed to the nomination of their country as a site for radioactive waste since its initial proposal. All these factors gave a strong reason for going there. I saw this as a human rights issue as well as one that threatened to undermine the hard-won and fragile Aboriginal land rights that exist today.

Long standing activist for Aboriginal people’s rights and a nuclear-free Australia, Natalie Wasley, gave me the initial idea of the project. Natalie who is the coordinator for the Beyond Nuclear Initiative has been a pillar to this project from its inception. While I was researching and gathering knowledge about Manuwangku and the proposed nuclear waste storage facility I met a few key Elders of the community who were on a speaking tour organised by the Beyond Nuclear Initiative in 2010 in Sydney. Community spokesperson Diane Stokes, invited me to visit the community and asked if I could do some photography for them.

Jagath Dheerasekara 'Manuwangku, Under The Nuclear Cloud' 2011

Jagath Dheerasekara ‘Manuwangku, Under The Nuclear Cloud’ 2011

You chose to present quiet, intimate documentations of these people’s lives rather than the seemingly more obvious images of protest. Why? How long were you immersed in the Muckaty community to complete the project?
I agree to a degree. The images are quiet in appearance and in most cases simple and less dramatic in composition. What I have presented through images were my personal experience in accordance with my personal point of view. This is of course an outsider’s view as I was not a member of the community. True, as time went by my friendship with the community grew stronger. I don’t consider this project as one that is completed yet. The body of work that is shown at the QCP was shot in 2010 and 2011. I added some images in 2013 as well. I went to Tenant Creek several times to meet the community and photograph. Each time I spent 1~3 weeks with them. Elders from the community often come for the openings of the exhibition. I am planning to go there again soon.

This work attempted to bring the resistance and resilience of Manuwangku Traditional Owners to the fore. That, I believe, comes through their way of life itself. Time and again, the traditional land, the way of life and culture of the Aboriginal communities have come under immense pressure. Daily activities of the Traditional Owners of this land is a powerful reminder of their continuing co-existential relationship with the land, may it be bush trips for bush tucker gathering, kangaroo and wild turkey hunting or cooking in ovens dug into the earth. Painting bush tucker, when the very land it grows on is to go under a nuclear waste dump, is for me, a poignant protest of the people from the ‘middle of nowhere’. Their connection to land both physically and spiritually is undeniable.

What was the documentary process like for you?
In terms of pace, my process is slow. Very slow. In relation to the Manuwangku project, it began with the community involvement and support. In fact the community gave me support letters for me to apply for the Amnesty International Innovation Fund Grant. The community’s enthusiasm has always been high because I was photographing and recording their stories. Once we decided to go public with the exhibition, the community Elders were presented with a very large body of work for discussion. Final selections for the exhibitions were made from the large collection of images that received collective consensus. The community Elders had an idea of what they could expect on the walls. I did the same when I was adding new images. I made an extra effort to present a body of images which was faithful to situations and the context. Penny Phillips Napangardi, Traditional Owner of Manuwangku remarked “They (photographs) are just beautiful. This exhibition will be a real eye opener for people in the cities. It shows the realities of our lives in the outback, out under the stars. People need to see what is really happening.” I usually get a few experts – some are not of photography background – to see the work and obtain their feedback before sitting with the editor or curator. Elders from Manuwangku took turns in attending the exhibition openings. They told the audience their story which often included “this is how we live”, “our mob will lose our way of life if the waste dump comes”. Curator Djon Mundine, OAM wrote in Real Time “… Dheerasekara purposefully sets out to show that this supposed empty desert, the place for a proposed radioactive waste dump, is a ‘green’ landscape full of normal people of strong character actively engaging with their environment and each other …”

I am sure different photographers have her/his own preferred processes and workflows. My personal way of working has evolved over time and also varies depending on the project. For instance, as for my new work, ‘In the Outskirts of the Australian Dream’ I had the luxury of presenting a large body of images and voice recordings to 4~5 community groups before going into final editing.

As we know, photography’s history in general and the history of documentary photography in particular is not as pure as one would hope. Historically it is skepticism ridden. Photography’s history is nothing but a facet of world cultural, economic and political history. It has more often been a powerful tool in the hand of the dominant power structures.

To quote an analogy, we in the role of consumers are increasingly concerned about what we consume – food, apparel, furniture etc. We tend to look into the value chain to know how and where the products we consume are produced and what their sources are. For instance, whether the sources for a product were obtained by the logging of a rainforest, killing of an animal of an endangered species or whether it was produced in a sweat shop. We know well that no matter how smart a t-shirt is or how big the brand name is, if the t-shirt comes from a sweat shop it would be a product of heartless exploitation. We do this to safeguard less powerful communities and vulnerable eco systems and species. I think this logic should apply to the production of art as well – including photography. To put it into perspective, in colonial days, among other professionals, photographers and film makers also exploited the colonised communities in producing their work. This continues to happen in the third world today, as well as in comparatively less powerful communities of the first world. I believe that the manner in which images are gathered, how they are presented and the nature and degree of community involvement should also be a factor in valuing an image – whether it is for a publication, exhibition, festival, collection or any other consumption. It is not easy to do especially because it varies depending on the nature of the work and contexts but I believe it is not impossible to initiate frameworks if leading stakeholders work together. This is the only way one could put some ethical and moral safeguards on the process.

Jagath Dheerasekara 'Manuwangku, Under The Nuclear Cloud' 2011

Jagath Dheerasekara ‘Manuwangku, Under The Nuclear Cloud’ 2011

Do you believe that photography has the power to change public awareness and gain the social justice that these people deserve? If so, what outcomes do you hope will arise or what has arisen from this series in regards to the decision of whether to go ahead with nuclear waste dumping in the region?
Photography or any other form of creative public engagement medium has the power to influence public’s awareness of and attitude towards social justice in certain contexts. I doubt if photography has the power to change public opinion in isolation. Rather not. In relation to the history of photography we are repeatedly told that certain events of the world changed thanks to some images brought out by photographers. We often see some images categorised as “photographs that changed the world” etc. In my mind, such categorisations are over simplifications of complex situations. There are also attempts to glorify the adventures of photographers who go to unknown lands and communities to save them. Regardless of lands, communities, and emotive statements, photography hasn’t and will not be able to escape power relationships of the world in which it dwells. As I said before if photography represents something, it does so by encompassing aspects of the complex cultural, economic and political history of the world. However, I believe that photography or any other medium has the ability to give impetus to social movements that attempt to bring justice and fairness to the society. This again I believe, heavily depends on the individual photographer’s model of application of the medium, nature of work, the context in which she/he works, most importantly her/his relationship to obvious or not so obvious power structures etc.

To answer to the second part of your question … ‘Manuwangku, Under the Nuclear Cloud’ is an independently traveling exhibition. Beyond Nuclear Initiative coordinates the tour with the help of supporters and well wishers. Speaking at the launch in 2012, Photographer and curator Sandy Edwards said ‎”… He has created a lasting positive document that will remain invaluable as we hopefully continue to develop more photographic archives of Aboriginal Australia that combine realism with a keenly felt positive empathy” . So far the tour has been successful. The galleries and art spaces were kind to it and the media has been favourable. The 2012 edition of the Head On Photo Festival and the Customs House in Sydney gave a tremendous boost to it not only by showing it for three months but also inviting Ms Diane Stokes, the community spokesperson to speak at the festival opening. Audiences all around connected and related well to the story. Hence their support and feedback were overwhelmingly positive. Art historian Prof. Catherine De Lorenzo writing in her paper in the Artlink 2012 December edition described the exhibition as a salutary reminder that the struggle for self-determination (Aboriginal people’s) continues unabated. By August 2013, it would have gone to all the states and territories of Australia except for Tasmania. The exhibition’s multimedia projection was shown in London by PhotoVoice. The initial funding for the project came through the Amnesty International Human Rights Innovation Fund Grant and then by way of crowd funding through Pozible. The objective of the project was to create a forum for the Traditional Owners of Manuwangku to engage the public in a dialogue. The traveling exhibition today has become an integral part of the grass root community run campaign to stop the nuclear waste dump being located in the traditional Aboriginal land of Manuwangku. Exhibition openings usually correspond with the Elders’ speaking tours. It is the community who present the exhibition to the public. Writer and film maker John Pilger remarked in Koori Mail “The photographs are excellent. They are a moving portrayal of Aboriginal Australia that all Australians ought to know about on an issue that wont go away.”

The exhibition in my mind raises many questions : the current process of radio active waste management, the sustainability of the nuclear industry itself – one that is essentially dangerous and unclean. It speaks about Aboriginal land rights and the Manuwangku Traditional Owners’ connection to their land. I would not expect this body of work alone to have the power of stopping the nuclear waste from coming to Manuwangku. However, I believe the project has contributed to bring a wider audience to the discourse.

For more information about Jagath Dheerasekara, please visit his website.

Alice Raynolds is an emerging art historian based in Brisbane.

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