The twin Department of Housing towers in Waterloo, Matavai and Turanga, are not skyscrapers, but emerge into visibility throughout central and southern Sydney as skyscrapers would. I had lived nearby for some time and often tried to picture who might live behind the imposing cement veneers. You would see a mix of people when you travelled through the small parkland they stand on: aboriginal families, groups of pacific islanders, elderly men and women from a broad range of birthplaces who had lived in one of the highrises since they were built in the 1970s. Many more ageing tower blocks are distributed between here and Poet’s Corner in Redfern, surrounded by smaller red brick abodes, most of which were owned by the Navy before being transferred to Housing. This place is a central one for the aboriginal communities of the metropolis although uncountable paths have also led here from around the world.
I first came here with a camera in 2004, the day after a newspaper ran a cover story leaking a government plan to demolish the towers and all the other high density public housing and Redfern and Waterloo. There were some demonstrations and I wanted to take some pictures and, more importantly, ask people what they thought of living in the area. Many said they were happy, even those who lived alone in tiny flats: they loved their nearby friends and their million dollar views (precisely the Sydney-postcard aspects developers were ravenous to acquire). Others were anxious to get out and spoke of drugs, alcohol, violence and abuse. “I don’t want my kids to grow up here, it’s not safe,” was a repeated phrase.
I’ve spent a long time in these buildings and with this project partly because I get wrapped up in hearing peoples’ stories: escapes from Eastern Bloc countries during the cold war; journeys through addiction, then prison, then recovery (or relapse); involuntary relocation, toddlers in tow over Christmas, destination unknown. Such stories can be found in many places but not often so densely packed within one city block or one neighbourhood.
These photographs have emerged through personal odyssey and chance more than investigative rigour or careful planning. Plans often give way to chance in a place where web connection has been rare and telephone ownership not a given. In some cases I may have photographed 20 people in a building that houses 800. Some people don’t like to be photographed – in fact a good number are here because they have escaped the surveillance apparatuses of Franco, Mao and Brezhnev. Their faces do not appear here although they’re familiar amongst these pathways and corridors. By chance, the first person whose picture I took on that first day in 2004 was an aboriginal mother of six. Nine years later we keep in touch and I still photograph the growing family as it evolves. As I write, one grandchild is in her full-time care while both her parents serve prison time. The young girl is resilient, smart and street-wise. Yesterday, on the hottest Sydney morning since 1939, she farewelled her mother tearfully before she was returned into rehabilitation. Afterwards she got herself ready for the swimming pool and turned down a coke, insisting that a bottle of water would satisfy her thirst better. You get the impression she’ll conquer life whether she stays in this neighbourhood or travels far beyond.
TOM WILLIAMS is an Australian documentary photographer. His photographic work has been exhibited in festivals and galleries in Australia and South East Asia. These include the Reportage Festival of Photojournalism, Foto Freo, The Angkor Photography Festival, The CCP Documentary Photography Award (2007 and 2009), The Head On Photo Festival, Cross Projections and Sydney Life.
In 2009 He was awarded the 7th CCP Documentary Photography Award for his series ‘Neighbourhood’. This project will emerge in book form in 2013.
Tom co-founded Timemachine with photographer, curator and editor Lee Grant in 2011.