[This interview first appeared at Get Lusty for Couples. The image below is from Get Lusty, it’s not mine.]
There’s a mysterious negative stigma attached to our bodies in America. Violence and drug-use rule the airwaves, but the thought of a penis or breast being shown is revolting. Why are we so ashamed of our bodies? What happened between the time when we all walked around naked with spears? Well, not all of us are ashamed. GetLusty asked Philip Werner some questions about his book, 101 Vagina and his thoughts on how women perceive natural beauty.
* * *
What is the premise of the 101 Vagina coffee table book project and what inspired you to create it?
The main idea is to break the taboo around vaginas and ease all the body image shame in general. I was first inspired after reading the Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler as it really highlighted how big an issue this really is. Our entire society is hobbled by these taboos and by this shame around our bodies.
Why do you think portraying pictures of vaginas, or even mentioning them, is still so taboo?
Yes, there is a bizarre juxtaposition where on the one hand sex and bodies are sensationalized, and on the other hand people feel ashamed and almost afraid of the simple realities of our bodies. Bikini clad women are plastered all around us and yet some people feel uncomfortable with women breast feeding in public. Something has gone wrong somewhere and I honestly don’t know how we ended up in this situation where people are afraid of the simple realities of their bodies. Perhaps vaginas are the ultimate symbol of vulnerability, openness, the feminine; all the things that the ideas of power, protection and control feel threatened by. But honestly I don’t know.
How do you think nude photography and seeing other women nude can help individuals overcome shame and issues with their own bodies?
Well, I think in particular when naked bodies are depicted as they are without Photoshopping it helps deconstruct these marketing-driven ideals that have been rammed down our throats. If you see someone who is also imperfect, just like you, you feel validated in a way. Somehow it reminds you that, yes, they are OK, and therefore I’m OK.
I was at a nude beach recently and there was a woman who had obviously had a mastectomy. One of her breasts was missing a nipple and both breasts obviously had implants. It took me aback initially, but it was also very reassuring in a way that humans are somehow perfect in their imperfections. She was comfortable, probably having come to terms with it long ago. How unfortunate that we hide our imperfections from each other all the time, no wonder so many people are depressed, trying to live up to some stupid ideals of everlasting happiness and “beauty”.
Like with overly skinny models and Photoshopped, airbrushed celebrities, do you think porn puts forth the wrong image of what vaginas should look like and make women self-conscious about their own nudity? What negative side-effects have you seen related to this issue?
Well, I think this is an interesting issue and there are many sides. “Porn,” comes in so many different variations, and anyone that’s had a bit of a look around will have seen many different looking vaginas. Yes, in mainstream porn most women are shaved, for example, but home made porn seems to be becoming more popular where ordinary people are just the way they are. Again the problem with porn has been that it’s been market driven, rather than community driven. Look at music these days. The big marketing machines are being circumvented by everyone being able to make and upload their own music. It means people are making what they love, rather then just what the big bosses say sells records. I think ultimately the same will happen with porn, people will just make their own and the big end of town will loose it’s grip.
But coming back to your question, yes, certainly anything which presents an unreal image to the world will lead people to believing that they themselves are not normal. In Australia we have the terrible situation that soft core porn mags have to airbrush vaginas into a thin slit. No labia are allowed to show. It’s ludicrous. Women end up believing that they themselves are not normal and seek out plastic surgery. It’s so, so sad that a teenage girl might think her vagina does not look the way it’s “supposed” to look.
Besides an inaccurate representation of “normal,” what other reasons have you seen for women being ashamed of their bodies and their vaginas?
Yes, besides all the women’s magazines, porn, etc? Well, there is also peer pressure isn’t there. So many of the older school feminists blame men for everything, but so often the pressure to conform comes from other girls in school or other women in social circles. Most people want to fit in and be accepted and conform. But this is also where things can change. Often it only takes one person to break out from a group and say, “I’m happy with how I am and I don’t think we need to all look the same” for the whole dynamic to change. And this requires courage.
How does portraying vaginas help pave the way for discussion of “taboo” topics like rape and genital mutilation?
Well, I think to a degree there is an indirect knock on effect. If someone feels more comfortable with their bodies as a result of surrounding themselves with positive messages then they will feel more empowered to talk about things. It may be easy to talk about rape or genital mutilation from an academic perspective, but it takes a lot of courage to talk about your own experience of having been violated.
So, for example, say someone has suffered some sort of abuse, or they have some difficulty with their sexuality but they have never spoken about it. Then at some point they come across a “vagina positive” book and they realize that they perhaps don’t need to be so ashamed. They may, perhaps, open up to someone about their experience and that could trigger a huge healing cycle for them. Or someone has an irregularity that they ought to get checked out at the doctor but they feel embarrassed, etc. Shame prevents us from talking about things. Seeing material which unashamedly addresses that issue will help ease people’s shame.
Remember also that with 101 Vagina, in particular, there is also a message that accompanies every photo. These messages are so diverse, and really it is these stories that give the book it’s depth.
Who are the models for the Vagina 101 project? Was it a big step for some of them to be photographed nude and what were their reactions to their pictures?
It started with friends. However, after a few months I had only taken a few photos and I realized I needed to ramp things up. That’s when I built the website and Facebook page. I invited every woman I knew in Melbourne, and then things spread from there. Before long the word got out and complete strangers came in to participate. I think the project has really struck a chord with a lot of people.
We understand you are self-publishing the book as of now and raising funds for its first print run. After the book is printed, what kind of reception do you foresee?
Oh, if only I had a crystal ball. So far people have been incredibly positive and supportive and I hope that will continue. Obviously I’d love the book to go as far as it can to have as large an impact as possible. I’d love to get on talk shows, radio shows, etc. Oprah? Ellen? I don’t even know who’s doing what really, I don’t have a TV myself, but yes, I’d love it to go big. And the bigger the better since $5 from every book will go towards women’s charities. But I understand the reality that ultimately no one cares about your project as much as you do. Never mind, if I only sell 100 copies so be it. In a way the project has already been successful because it has already touched a lot of people’s lives.
Where can our readers go to learn more and how can they support the project?
In addition to the 101 Vagina project, you’re also selling a vagina calendar to raise funds for the One Billion Rising event protesting violence against women. Tell us more about it. How did you get involved, and how does this event’s message relate to Vagina 101’s goal of erasing the taboo surrounding women’s bodies?
Yes, it’s an interesting union and one that some people may find a bit jarring, but I really believe that we need to take an unflinching look at the causes of sexual abuse rather than simply lament and be outraged at it’s occurrence. I strongly believe that sexual repression and sexual aggression/abuse are connected. I just don’t think that anyone who is truly comfortable in their sexuality would ever impose themselves on another person. Rape and abuse are NOT expressions of sexual freedom, but of sexual repression. And sexual repression is closely related to body image shame and taboos.
One Billion Rising is a V-Day event, and V-day was founded by Eve Ensler who wrote The Vagina Monologues, so it’s already a natural fit. I got involved because I already knew about V-day and One Billion Rising, and when some friends of mine started planing to organize an event in Melbourne I jumped on board. Regarding the calendar, well I figured that the media often like controversial calendars that are raising money for good causes, so this might be a way to raise the funds needed to stage the event in the most visible place in Melbourne. It’s not cheap, we’ve got to come up with $20,000 and are also looking for corporate sponsors. We can be contacted at: email@example.com.
Eros Shine Awards. Thursday, 29 November 2012.
I have divided the photos up into three sets, as you can see I have given each set a different treatment. Enjoy :)
First is my shoes, bums and cleavage set (closely related to my grounded series, besides the bums and cleavage shots). I actually really like these photos in black and white, but considering how much people spend on shoes I thought I might get lynched for leaching them of their colourful glory! So here they are in colour, however, I have included them in b&w at the end just in case some of you enjoy the b&w aesthetic also.
Next are a bunch of kinda candid shots, for some reason I find it amusing taking photos of people playing with their sex toys, erm, mobile phones, I mean! Well, not much difference sometimes perhaps ;)
I have no real idea about the who’s who in this industry, so please forgive me if you missed out…
And here is a set of random event photos.
I was tending to steer clear of the photographer mosh pit, so this is a fairly random mix of bits and pieces
Shoes etc in b&w, the way I like it.
A friend of mine, Eva, was complimenting some of my photos in a series of clay covered nudes and since I mostly shoot friends, I remarked that it could be her in those photos. She chuckled, declined and said she had a lot of body image issues. Stunning as she is I was not surprised since this is unfortunately all too common.
To combat one particular body image issue and taboo I have also been working on a coffee table photo book called 101 Vagina, a collection of 101 photos with a message from each of the women. When this arose in conversation I again asked if she might be interested in participating. Again she declined.
But her compliments kept coming and I suggested she might appreciate seeing herself through fresh eyes. In the end it was her boyfriend who emboldened her, saying it might help her get over some of her negative body image. So she got in touch to participate, in both projects no less.
Most people are a little awkward in front of a camera at first, but Eva was almost inconsolable. She was visibly struggling, so I went to give her a hug. I was stunned. Her whole body was shaking, from the inside, as if some massive tectonic plates were shifting in her character, dislodging old and strong patterns of shame. I had never witnessed anyone confront such massive fear, and have the courage to go ahead in spite of it. Massive kudos to her!
As it turned out it didn’t take long for her to relax into the shoot and we got some great images. She could hardly believe that the images were of her, seeing herself through my eyes allowed her to see the beauty in my beholder’s eye, rather than the critic in hers.
The next day Eva wrote to me that she looked at herself in the mirror naked for the first time ever!
More recently she shared this about how it affected her relationship. “It certainly has changed our relationship, firstly I was so amazed and felt so loved when he [boyfriend] told me to go ahead with something that I thought most guys would discourage. When I sent him the pics I was really nervous, and I was so happy to hear that he loved them. I’m much less shy around him now, and find it slightly easier to talk to him about my body.”
My journey with nude photography began many years before I ever took a nude photograph; in my mind. I dreamed of doing it ever since I became sexually aware but there was a huge barrier in the way. That barrier was shame.
My mother was a fairly strong feminist and the message I inadvertently internalised was that male sexual desire is the root cause of all evil in the world, that nudes are degrading and people who take them akin to murderers. And yet I loved the images.
Perhaps fittingly it was a woman who finally invited me into the world of nude photography, and that first experience, and all that followed, have worked to reverse my inhibitions. It was a healing process for me, an affirmation that my appreciation of the female form is not only tolerated, but appreciated. Further to that, it was often a healing experience for the women also.
Any shame we hold around our bodies and sexuality will always impact on the way we share ourselves with others. Shame is a powerful hindrance to happiness and it does not dislodge easily. If it’s easy to talk about it’s not shame you’re dealing with. Shame is the last thing we want to talk about, ever. But it’s the first step to really being honest and connecting with ourselves and others.
101 Vagina crowdfunding campaign to tackle body image taboo.
Philip Werner, photographer and organiser of Melbourne’s recent Peace March, has launched a Pozible crowd-funding campaign (http://pozible.com/101vagina) to support the publication of a taboo smashing coffee table photo book.
Alarmed by the huge increase in labiaplasty which he sees as a manifestation of the taboo around women’s sexuality, Philip has produced the coffee-table photo book, simply called 101 Vagina, which presents 101 black and white photos of vaginas in all their various forms, each with a story by the woman concerned. The stories are candid and span the emotional gamut from raw to funny, from joyful to sad.
The book aims to help break down body image taboos, raise money for women’s charities and celebrate women’s bodies in all their diversity.
Philip was initially inspired by Eve Ensler’s book The Vagina Monologues and wanted to contribute to the causes she highlighted, for example the V-Day foundation and OneBillionRising campaign which are working to end violence against women and girls. He has contacted V-Day to request permission to host a V-Day or V-Men event.
He decided to utilise his photographic skills to help break body image taboos. Thus 101 Vagina was born.
Over a period of two years he took photos of 101 volunteer subjects and collected their stories. The project has already sparked debate and the next step is to get it published.
“As a society we have such an unhealthy relationship with our bodies. Our sexuality is repressed and so many people carry deep shame about their body.
“I believe that sexual repression contributes to acts of sexual abuse and harassment. It also makes us easily manipulated into buying things we don’t need, the alarming increase in labiaplasty being the most glaring example.
“By tackling these taboos, the project allows a more open dialogue and helps us feel better about ourselves. Let’s not forget that sex should be about pleasure and joy.”
Five dollars from the sale of every book will also go to various women’s charities.
“Because I was first inspired by Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues so I wanted to give back to the causes she has highlighted.”
This Pozible crowd-funding campaign runs for about three months and needs to raise $20,000 for the first large print run to keep the cost per book down. People can pledge any amount from $1 upwards, and those pledging $50 (plus postage) or more will receive a copy of the book once it’s printed. Effectively it becomes a pre-order or the book, rather than a donation.
“The great thing with this Pozible campaign is that everybody wins. The project wins because it will enable the book to be printed, the supporters win because they will get the book as a reward, and various charities will win from the funds raised. Besides, once it hit’s retail stores it will more likely sell for around $70, so Pozible supporters will be getting a bargain”.
The Pozible campaign page includes a video where Philip and several participants talk about the project.
Visit the websites to see what it is all about and make your pledge to support the project!
For the Pozible campaign please visit:
And the main page is at:
Philip is available for interview or questions through:
Download pdf files of the above poster below:
Please feel free to download, print, post and distribute this poster :)
(Would love to know where you put it, so if you can be bothered, email me a photo or just tell me where.)
So I’ve suddenly been thrust into the media limelight for having organised the Peace March for Jill Meagher. The response was beyond all expectations and I have since been receiving supportive and kind words from many friends and random strangers, people who all believe in the message of peace, hope and non-violence.
I figure I might as well use this space to tell my story, perhaps it’s all related.
Here is the Music Player. You need to installl flash player to show this cool thing!
To be perfectly honest, when the images first started going round on Facebook about Jill Maegher’s disappearance I took little notice. I guess it was care fatigue mixed with a question of why random strangers suddenly care about her disappearance rather than the many other victims of crime.
However, early on Friday morning when I saw the news that her body had been found the physical violence of what was done to her really struck me and I felt deeply, deeply sad.
But first some background:
Violence against women is an issue that has concerned me for some time. I built the website for http://sisters-for-sisters.com as a donation to this loose collective who organise events to raise money for women’s charities. A close friend runs http://theart2healingproject.org, a charity that works to heal the wounds of sex trafficking, and helped organise her fundraiser http://www.celebratingwoman.com.au. I have signed up to http://whiteribbon.org.au and http://onebillionrising.org, two campaigns specifically to end violence against women and girls and am hoping to run a V-day event in February. [Jan 2014 Update: I ended up being one of the organisers for One Billion Rising in Melbourne in 2013, and support team in 2014.]
Please check them all out, I believe one of the most important messages to come out of all this is the difference one person and one simple action can make. There is so much we can do.
On a more personal level, I have a friend who was recently hospitalised by her boyfriend’s violent outburst, and beyond that have heard so many stories from women of their abuse, rape, harassment, etc. One very dear friend was subjected to truly horrific abuse for years as a child by a cult, abuse that goes far, far beyond what most people think humans are capable of, think Girl with the Dragon Tattoo but with children as victims, not adults. The hell realms really do manifest in the human realm, as do the celestial realms.
Of course it must be said that violence does not only affect women. Violence is violence, regardless of gender. That is very important to remember. Though as a whole, I personally believe that violence against physically weaker parties is worse than between equals.
Then there is the issue of sexual repression, genital mutilation of girls and boys (circumcision), body image shame and the taboo and shame around our bodies in general and sex organs in particular. A few years ago I read Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues and was incredibly inspired by the awareness that she was raising around these issues and the foundation, V-Day, she created to combat them. Then there was Greg Taylor’s exhibition of hand crafted sculptures of vaginas simply called Cunts. These two projects in particular prompted me to create 101 Vagina, a coffee table photo book project to smash the taboo around our bodies in general and vaginas in particular. This has been ongoing for two years and I have just launched a Pozible crowdfunding campaign to raise the funds required for a first large print run that I’m self publishing because publishers are afraid of vaginas. I have also planned the 101 Penis book, because I believe that penises are surrounded by just as much shame as vaginas, but I want to finish this project first. Another friend of mine runs http://sexcamp.com.au and her partner runs sexual awareness workshops through http://tantraislove.com. All these projects are part of the growing “sex positive” movement.
To even mention the words sex or vagina in these circumstances seems horribly jarring, but I believe we need to look at the underlying issues of why rape occurs in the first place, rather than simply lament it’s occurrence. Our culture carries such deep shame around sexuality that we cannot heal without looking it squarely in the face, even in the most difficult of circumstances.
My mother was quite a strong feminist, as a result of which I perhaps have a better understanding of women’s issues than most men. It also inadvertently resulted in me growing up with the unconscious belief that men, especially male sexual desire, are the root cause of all evil in the world. Most of that belief has healed by now, and my photography was part of that process, but that’s another story. My parents were both members of their local peace initiative back in the 80’s and we would go on peace marches every now and then. This was during the cold war. I have also spent a lot of time meditating (Vipassana mediation), which certainly helps cultivate peace, compassion, non-violence, etc. There are fantastic documentaries about the effect of Vipassana in prisons (Doing Time Doing Vipassana, Dhamma Brothers and Changing from Inside), great examples that reform is possible through deep self reflection, more so than through punishment, very poignant in this case. I believe that violence will not and cannot resolve the issues resulting from violence.
I guess all that background contributed to my decision to take action.
I decided that a peace march was in order in to show a quiet, peaceful defiance against fear, hate and violence etc. To show that, as a society, we believe more in peace, love, forgiveness, hope and solidarity than their opposites. So, I made this poster straight away and sent it around to a few news organisations. I chose to call it a “peace march” very consciously. I figured something would need to be done quickly to catch the spirit of the day and make a strong case for peace and love to counter any messages of hate. That evening (Friday) I also went to the candle light vigil and handed the flier to a few news crews and stuck the poster up on a few power poles.
I was nervous about whether I was doing the right thing though, because I had gone to the police earlier and of course they spoke of all the (valid) concerns they had, including consulting with the family (which I hadn’t done) and whether it was appropriate for another poster with her photo to go up in the neighborhood. Was I doing the right thing? I was suddenly not so sure. But I had already sent it out and the media knew about it as did some Facebook friends, so I had not real choice but to ride it out and see what happens.
The next day (Saturday) it seemed the mass media had run with the story of the march. It was on. I don’t have a TV, believing that it rots your brain, especially commercial TV, so I had no clear indication of what kind of coverage the march had received and the Facebook page only had 200 likes. But someone I met at a wedding that evening said her sister was going. So I had some idea that the word was getting out, but still I thought it might just be a hundred people or so at best.
Sunday morning it was apparently on various news reports.
So, my housemate Ben and I made a couple of signs, printed out 10 spares in case people liked them and headed off. On the way we saw people heading the same way we were and I had a sense that they were not the usual Sunday morning Brunswick crowd. My sign read “Choosing peace, hope, non-violence and solidarity with all women”, his read “I won’t close with fear. I’ll open up with love.” Ben being Ben, he selflessly gave all his signs away to people in the crowd and didn’t even keep one for himself. (His beautiful message ended up being carried by a woman at the front of the march all the way along. She had her own story of violence in Tunisia, violence is obviously an international issue.)
We arrived and I met the police to check in with them at around 11:45am, already 2-300 people were there. They had closed off one lane of Moreland road for people to gather in preparation for the march. The officer in charge said it would be great if we could march down the sidewalk to minimise traffic and tram disruption and the danger of people being struck by cars. I said I thought it would be great if we could walk on the road. I love the way that marches and festivals can close down, or rather open up, a public road, give it back to people on foot.
Within minutes it was clear the footpath idea was quaint. People kept streaming in, waves of people arriving with the rhythm of the trains from the nearby station and trams that were still running. The police, as overwhelmed as everyone else by the response, did a fantastic job of keeping everyone safe, marshaling the traffic etc etc. Very supportive bunch of men and women. (The officer at the front of the march got a huge round of applause as we reached the end, everybody showing their appreciation of a job well done under overwhelming circumstances.)
They asked me to address the crowd before we marched off so I spoke of my belief in peace, love, hope, non-violence, and off we went.
The rest is history.
In hindsight the whole experience feels very ephemeral and yet powerful at the same time. All these souls, beings of light, came together, marched in a silent, peaceful show of the strength of hope, non-violence and love, and then vanished again, taking with them a brighter flame than with what they came. Like a wide, wide river that chose for a moment to channel itself through a ravine, running slow and very, very deep, before spreading out again over the land, refreshed and charged.
30,000 angels descended on Brunswick to show us all that love overcomes hate and that hope overcomes fear.
I believe that Jill was one of those angels.
The following quote expresses my sentiment for the peace march perfectly:
“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. … The chain reaction of evil—hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars—must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.
Eyal and Emma
Tantra teachers at http://tantraislove.com
The Studio Brunswick
Melbourne. September, 2012.
Though my time here has not been an easy ride I feel a little sad to be leaving.
A couple of people already have looked sad when I told them I’m going and asked me why and whether I was coming back.
One thing that only just occurred to me today, as a result of being able to see people’s feelings openly, is the lack of artifice here. When people live in a pressure cooker community like this where everyone knows everyone and where tensions can often run high due to overcrowded accommodation etc etc etc. besides the fact that it’s hundreds of kms from anywhere, there is perhaps little use or room for pretense.
We have become so used to walking around with the masks that our individual space and privacy allow us to construct, they may simply not have that kind of personal/individual space. And perhaps it’s just a cultural thing also. Who knows. Either way I find it very endearing. 150 people dealing with a nation-load of denial, abuse, neglect, prejudice, trauma, etc. just being themselves. In a way I guess there is little else they have other than themselves.
But they have their land, and that connection is something that I did not even begin to really see let alone understand. I’m told it is so, but I guess it’s like the air, you can’t see it, but you breathe it all the time. And perhaps it is not about understanding it anyway, but feeling it. I myself can feel the profound silence and I feel the joy in simply walking on this earth and beholding her. And I have my own experience of feeling a physical connection to the land one time when I returned to Germany one time while living in Sweden, and I have experienced sufficient altered states of consciousness to understand that there are layer and layer there. With time, perhaps, some of the feeling of their connection may permeate those who live among them, but for me, for now, I have but a smidgen of an idea.
And what of their culture? There is no easy way around it, it is dying. In it’s old form, it is dying. There are elders here still who were teenagers and even in their 20’s and 30’s when they first came in contact with western culture. People who lived on this land, ate and drank of her the way she is. What an incredible way of life to lose. Really, in scale no different to any of us suddenly finding ourselves on an alien planet in an alien society with alien laws and rules, none of which make sense to us.
But I also believe that culture was never supposed to be static, and to the degree that the dreaming comes from the land, rather than from the people, it will always be as alive as the land itself.
What of me? I have had a little glimpse of this big elephant in the room of the Australian spyche and a little bit of contact with the worlds oldest living culture.
I will weave it into my traveler’s cloak woven of experience and carry on my way.
After the first week of big things happening one day after the next, the second week has been more about slowing down and taking stock.
A few things had been getting me down.
Even though the role I’m effectively standing in for is fairly clearly defined, my role as a stand in for that person is not. That has left me scratching around for work to do at times which is not a nice feeling. To not have work when you’re supposed to be working feels worse that not having a job at all.
And my mind was naturally inclining towards all the problems here in the community and trying to come to grips with them. The place looks like a dump, hygiene is really poor, as is diet and there appears to be a general apathy which hangs like an oppressive cloud over the entire place. Essentially it’s the apathy which I feel to be the problem and I’m baffled that more hasn’t been done to address it.
In my role as relief Community Development Employment Project officer, I may actually be able to do something to get the place cleaned up a bit, by allocating clean up tasks to be jobs. However I am warned that there is considerable resistance to boring clean up jobs, understandably. Since it’s really a cultural issue anyway, that is the area that I am most interested in affecting anyway, rather than applying a band-aid to a continuing problem. I’d like to figure out if or how the community people themselves want to change things and then help them achieve that.
I’ll see what scope I have to do some comprehensive community consultation and see where that leads. I think I’d really appreciate that process actually.
Those issues had be a bit down for a while.
On the up side, I went out to the local salt lakes about 15kms north on the weekend and was touched by the simple beauty of relatively untouched land and the profound silence out there. Only some birds and some wind make sounds out there and they add to the silence rather than detracting from it somehow.
My mind stretched to imagine what it would be like growing up your entire life never hearing any other sounds than that of the country, animals and a few people. And never seeing or touching anything that wasn’t entirely natural and of the earth.
That’s what we’ve lost.
I guess I had “thought” about it on many occasions in the past, but to be sitting there actually looking at and feeling the reality of the landscape and the knowledge that I was living in a community of people who actually used to do just that changed something. It’s not just theory anymore. It’s something that I think is incomprehensible while sitting in a technological hub like Melbourne.
Somehow, being out there on the land and appreciating it’s beauty and thinking those thoughts made the problems in the community feel far less important. Perhaps it’s a bit like heroin addicts letting everything else turn to shit, so long as they can have their hit. Perhaps the country is so important to the people that the crappy community is just a slight inconvenience endured for the sake of being in the land.
But I don’t buy that completely. How can only the land outside the community be valued? If you love the land, how can you at the same time trash it like they do?
Nevertheless, the profound beauty of the country gave me perspective and also inspiration and I guess a cause to fight for or reason to fight.
The other awesome project going on here is the art project. Every day several old folk sit around for hours and hours and work on their paintings dot by dot by dot by dot. Brad pointed out how similar the earth actually looked to some of their art. No wonder. It’s just just hanging around where they are painting. It’s very peaceful. And the paintings are stunning.
So, here are a few images, mainly of the land.
Less than two weeks ago, out of the blue I was asked if I might want to go work in the WA desert on an aboriginal community. “Tell me more” I said. I don’t get excited easily, but when it was put to me that they wanted me to fly out the following day my heart ran amok for a while. As it turned out, a week later I was on a plane.
The first flight was to Kalgoorlie via Perth and the following morning a 2.5 hr flight from Kalgoorlie to Tjuntjuntjara, in the Victoria Desert, another 700km east of Kalgoorlie. At the Perth airport it’s readily apparent via the advertisements where the money is; mining. There are lots of miners at the airport, many of whom might be fly-ins, two weeks on, one week off, half of them are still or already wearing half their safety gear.
Kalgoorlie airport again is full of miners, gold around there according to the taxi driver.
The next morning, after a spa suite overnight in a hotel, the spa of which I unashamedly used considering that I was facing a few weeks of not much water at all, it’s back to the airport for my flight with the mail plane (single engine, 12 seats) to Tjuntjuntjara, apparently Australia’s most remote community!
I had had a brief look at a couple of websites but confess that I only read the orientation manual while waiting for the fog delayed flight out of Kalgoorlie. Only two aboriginal women, two kids and an electrician were on the flight with me.
Google Tjuntjuntjara and you’ll find two or three sites. Google maps also locates it and you can zoom right in to see the airstrip and cluster of buildings that make up the community.
Eventually, after a couple of hours in the air, I was fascinated to see a straight, bare strip of land came into view ahead, the dirt airstrip of Tjuntjuntjara. A few mail bags and other items were pulled off the plane and onto a 4wd ute, someone brusquely greeted me and the sparky who was being flown in to do a day’s work, and off we drove after watching the plane take off again. We drove into “town”, dropped my stuff at my accommodation, and went straight to the office to drop off the loot, have a cuppa and meet Fiona, the general manager of the community (not sure of the official title, but that’s what the signature on her email says).
Before I knew it we were off in the 4wd to go check out the water bores because something was wrong with the water supply system, it had stopped pumping water into the main holding tank. A serious issue when 150 people are relying on it to survive and the nearest town is hundreds of kilometers away. Fiona said if the issue was not resolved within a couple more days they would have to start planning evacuations!
Enter the engineer :) … that’s me, by the way.
By checking the operation of each bore in turn I found that one of the bores was returning the compressed air used to power the bore pumps rather than the water they are supposed to pump. And since air is easier to push than water, this one faulty bore was overriding all the other bores efforts to push the water back to the main holding tank, a few kms away. So, we isolated that one bore and withing a couple of hours the water was flowing again and had saved a trip from the water service company to find this fault. Of course the faulty bore still needs to be addressed, but in the mean time the community can breathe (drink) easy. The next day I replaced a faulty safety switch which had half the office on power leads, again saving an expensive trip out by an electrician from Kalgoorlie. Chuff.
Part of my role now is the daily operations check of the water and power service. The community is powered by three diesel generators, any or all of them running non-stop according to demand. There are two 27,000 litre diesel tanks, which are filled every few weeks by tankers that presumably drive out from Kalgoorlie. The main water holding tank of roughly 100,000 litres and the header tank roughly 10 meters high and 30,000 litres are in the same fenced compound as the diesel generators a few hundred meters removed from the edge of the community, far enough away that the community itself is delightfully quiet.
I could not help think about the completely unsustainable nature of the community. The only thing not shipped in is the water and the few rabbits and kangaroos that are hunted. Everything else is flown or driven in. All the diesel, all the food, all the money. Not only that, there is no industry or livelihood here for the people in the community. There are a few odd jobs that community members do, but all the essential services are staffed by white folk. Everyone is on the dole and there is no incentive for them to work. Far out! Not only that, but the place is strewn with rubbish everywhere, not much care for the land at that level at all.
So, my problem solving mind gets busy thinking up all sorts of solutions to this and that, an experience I assume most new arrivals share. At least there is no alcohol allowed in this community and many people say that this place is better than most. After a couple of days it occurred to me that this town reminds me a LOT of a little Indian village. The people look similar, their language sounds similar, the land looks and feels like some parts of India, there is trash everywhere, people sitting around doing nothing, the family and community bonds are very strong, most things are ramshackle, but the clinic is spick and span. The only and significant difference is that fact that there is no industry, people aren’t working. In India there is no welfare for people without work so people find ways to make money and survive.
A couple of days later some boys roll into town from a grammar school in Albany for a bonding session with the Tjuntjuntjara community and a footy match. So, I got Friday afternoon off to go watch the footy, only the second footy match I have ever watched. I didn’t think I’d be pulling my camera out for at least my first couple of weeks on the community, but I could not resist the sun setting right behind the came on the dusty field.
Next day, turns out half the community is going camping a couple of hours north near an ancestral water hole. My awesome new boss gives me the afternoon off and says it’s a great opportunity, if I’d like to join them. My eyebrows are half raised, prevented from a full vertical by me trying to keep my cool in an “I understand everything you’re telling my but I have no idea what I’m in for” situation. I figure Fiona understands since she laughs knowingly.
A couple of hours later I’m packed and squeezed on the front passenger seat with Grant, who I know from 5 rhythms dance and was randomly standing on the airstrip when I landed (!!!). The back is full with the rest of our drivers family, a puppy and much food. The party ain’t starting without us!
However, after about an hour or so driving we notice that one of the swags is missing, fallen off the roof. Oops! So Trevor leaves the rest of us by the side of the track to turn around and look for it. Can’t be that far back since he only checked about 20 mins or so previously. An hour and a half later and I promise to myself that I will never allow myself to be deposited at the side of the road in a desert many kms from anywhere as I wonder whether we should start walking. But with us is one old fella, a mum, four kids and a puppy. The kids build a shelter for fun and I figure that we’d probably make it though the night ok.
Finally the 4wd returns and we continue on the way, sans one swag, which someone else had found, taken back to the community, and radioed it in.
About 100kms we turn off the main “road” (sandy track over the sparsely vegitated dunes) into an even smaller track which slowly gets worse and worse until a couple of hours in we are basically just making the tracks as we go, or, in our case, following the tracks that had been made by the 4wds ahead of us.
It’s near dark when we stop by the 4wd bus which is being left there since the tack is getting too impossible for it to navigate. We already passed one of it’s punctured tires on the side of the track which they must have changed and left there to pick up on the way back. We get out to have a break and pick up some stuff from the bus that was being left there. Already there are three fires burning and I initially thought this was our camp, but as it turns out this mob just lights fires anywhere they sit down for more than 5 minutes. Eventually some more 4wds come and we continue for perhaps another 45 mins winding through the countryside.
It’s long dark by the time we arrive at the designated camping area and there are many fires dotted around the place, at least 10 or so, with a few people camped around each fire. On top of that kids were running around just randomly setting fire to any old trees and shrubs that would burn. Having lived in bushfire danger country for many many years this is a big eye opener and eyebrow raiser. However, none of the fires spread. So grant and I found a little patch of dirt, pulled out some dry grass and collected some dead wood for out own little fire. By this time someone else arrives who brought Grant’s swag along from town and everyone is settling in for a nice bbq feed (I attempted to eat a sausage, but failed after one bite) followed by a few hours of muted campfire conversation.
We lined up some logs that we could easily reach from our swags to push further into the fire during the night. I woke a couple of times to pee and stoked the fire. Grant was happily snoring away. At some point I woke to the more gorgeous band of gold on the pre-dawn horison. I looked for a while but decided that it was still way to early, so turned around and slept some more.
The next day after breakfast we all gathered and the elders told the story of this watering hole, the story of the seven sisters and the old man who was chasing them. They passed through this place and stopped at the water hole. It had filled up with sand and we all proceeded to dig it out.
I collected a few different types of rock and asked some old men about them and if I could take them home. Of of them in particular looks like shards of crystal, they told me it was used to cut the men in initiations, one of them showed me his scars. Larger pieces were also used to cut open kangaroos and smaller ones were put on the end of spears. I have always loved rocks and stones and they will take a proud place in my little collection.
Grant and I also walked up a little hill a few hundred meters away from the hole to have a look around after asking permission. There were lots of rabbit droppings and also camel tracks. The wild camels are apparently a pest in these areas. From the top we could see a few kms each way. I went and sat with the old men again when I came back and noticed they paid very close attention and nodded when I started to describe the land that I saw from up there, the different shades of green in the different areas etc. The sharpness with which they suddenly listened took me by surprise, suddenly they here very interested in every word. I didn’t even say that much much, but it highlighted for me that knowledge of the land would have been the difference between life and death for them and so nothing is as important as any information about the land.
And I am falling in love with it.