Having grown up in the wilds of Papua New Guinea, and with a strong sense of social justice, Richard Jones says he is drawn to work with people unlike himself. It has enabled him to learn more about other cultures and inspired a creative life that has seen him partner with some of the most marginalised in society.
Up until the global COVID-19 pandemic, Richard was travelling regularly to Timor-Leste and Indonesia in between research at the University of New England (where he is an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences and Education).
Volunteering with disadvantaged communities and NGOs (like the International Red Cross and World Vision) to devel- op communication, literacy and advocacy skills, he took inspiration from photographic workshops he’d given from 2004-11 in Aboriginal communities, with ‘at risk’ youth, women recently released from prison and those still incarcerated in maximum security.
“The camera can be a valuable greeting card and learning tool,” Richard says.“Mentoring and teaching photography can contribute to art-based adult education. And the learning is not only on the part of the students; in fact, they are often my greatest teachers.”
A former ABC documentary cinematographer and journalist, Richard had discovered that visual storytelling can empower people to celebrate their lives and make changes in their communities. The participatory research projects he’s built around this concept, as an academic, have since taken him into foreign territory.
Caption – Richard with students in Suai Timor
The series of exhibitions and book Hadomi Rai (meaning ‘Beloved Country’ in the local Tetum language) he published in 2018 with four groups of young Timorese adults, a direct result of his PhD research, is a case in point. This collection of images and stories celebrated the traditional people of the Comoro and Hai Laran markets in Dili, as the country emerged from over 400 years of Portuguese and then Indonesian occupation.
“In 2008, I was working as an artist-in-residence at a free fine arts school in Dili (Art Moris) for young adults,” Richard says. “Many struggled to find work and would end up attending the school so they had somewhere to sleep and eat. It was an all-male environment and I started teaching photography to a group of Rasta guys – there was virtually no photographic tradition in the country at the time – but then a group of women approached me.
“I immediately agreed to teach them as well. At the time, women were not getting access to cameras and training. Photography was ‘men’s work’. We produced an exhibition that proved ‘women can do it too’, garnering accolades and respect from the local community, Timorese leaders and NGO workers.
“I didn’t know where this case study research was going to go and it was risky because I didn’t want to impose my research agenda on the participants. I had to stand back and ask them to show me their world. I didn’t tell them what photos to take; I simply gave them photographic techniques.”
“The photographers became concerned that the traditional people, who were the backbone of the resistance movement, were being overlooked in Timor’s rapid modernisation. They wanted to document what they call povu maubere, ‘the wisdom of the ordinary people’, and the awful, vicious brutality they had experienced and survived. The project exhibitions we held in local markets became a sign of respect, an acknowledgement of all that they had sacrificed, and their courage and resilience.”
In the process, Richard’s research investigated what young Timorese, the first generation with the freedom to openly express their opinions, values and cultures, had to say about themselves, their communities and their fledgling nation.
“I realised how important the hopes and dreams of ordinary people are to development,” he says. “By seeing who they are, they strengthened their sense of community and pride. Their culture, spirituality and language had given them a powerful inner strength.
“For the twenty-five years of Indonesian occupation, when their language and cultural ceremonies were banned, the traditional people would go out at night, to secret places, to dance and conduct their ceremonies. Our photo-storytelling projects celebrated the power and revitalisation of that culture.”
It certainly struck a chord with Dr José Ramos-Horta, Minister of State, former President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who wrote in his Foreword to Hadomi Rai: “By learning about the lives and aspirations of the market people we learn more about ourselves as a nation. In doing so, we further consolidate the peace and prosperity won through the sacrifice of ‘ordinary’ Timorese who gave so much so that we can live in freedom”.
More recently, Richard’s unique brand of humanitarian work took him to Indonesia, to contribute to relief and recovery programs following the Lombok and Sulawesi earthquakes, in 2018.
“A lot of the village schools were too dangerous or had collapsed, so we set up tents as pop-up schools,” Richard said. “Parents could then drop their children off with Indonesian teachers and trauma specialists and be able to go on with the process of recovery, knowing their kids were safe.”
This year Richard will cast his lens closer to home, to the Ezidi refugee community in Armidale. He plans to use photography workshops to explore the resettlement experiences of young, unmarried men in a rural setting.
“I have no idea where it’s heading,” Richard says, “I am just curious about who they are and how the Armidale community responds to them. Hopefully, photography will give them a form of storytelling, to represent their lives and aspirations.”
While Richard is pleased that some of the women he collaborated with in Timor-Leste are now working as professional photographers, courtesy of the skills they acquired, he is completely open to the outcomes of any research project he undertakes.
“Most of what I do is speculative,” he says. “In Timor, there were no grades, tests or attendance requirements in the workshops, and I’ve never selected the photo-stories to be exhibited. Participants soon learned that the focus was not on pleasing the teacher/foreigner, and that I was not their judge.
“I, too, wanted to learn about their culture and language. I became both a learner and a teacher, and they were, too.
“My experiences have taught me a great deal about our common humanity. It’s not really about the camera or the photographs, but the experience of sharing a creative space with people who are only superficially different. These experiences often remind me of the African Ubuntu saying, ‘I am because we are’.”