Q: Did the graffiti grab your attention straight away?
It wasn’t instantaneous. I was working in film with a group of 50 or so students exploring ideas of nationhood and development in East Timor and noticed a lot of writing upon the walls. As much of my engagements in this period was with youth – who would be the main writers - I found the graffiti to be an interesting social aside in the context of the country, and so began documenting it photographically.
Q: When did you decide it was something to be documented and explored?
As I started delving deeper into communities and in all my spare time talking with people about it and making connections which were leading me in all sorts of directions – both socially and geographically – I really started seeing the value in the commentary in what was being expressed. I’d had a strong interest in graffiti before I went to East Timor, and what I was seeing materialising on the walls really, for me, reinstated its value in the sense of a narrative. Through the documentation, I became exposed to a number of different groups – from martial arts groups to small community arts groups – and really found it a fascinating gauge of the feeling amongst people who, I guess, had remained voiceless for much of their contemporary development.
The diversity in the expressions was fascinating, also. There were very territorial assertions, political commentary and haunting images of ghosts, skeletons, gargoyles and so on that really, for me anyway, seemed to breathe and be indicative of the country’s traumatic history. As well, of course, proud proclamations of peace and development that seemed to nod towards a desire for harmony in the country.
When the social and political crisis that fractured the fabric of the country emerged in 2006, the writing upon the walls took on a far more sinister appeal, as well as being directly political and aligned with the varied parties involved in the country’s functioning at that point.
As I continued documenting throughout this period it became evident that I was capturing a fairly interesting and “grassroots” feeling that was permeating the country. I realised that this transition, also, in the context of what I had documented thus far was really a media for the marginalised and a form of communication that was, and could be, accessed by all.
Q: How and who did you interview to gain an insight into what the graffiti means to them?
Everyone I could talk to really. When I first started documenting, the most obvious people were members of the various martial arts groups. I held a lot of interviews with them that were interesting, but were really providing them with a mouth piece to assert their gangs name and ideology, as well as facilitating them to further enforce their territory. As the project moved forward, I was interviewing various communities, artists, youths, poets, community leaders, as well as people who would stop and wonder at what it was I was taking a photograph of. A lot of the Timorese, in these instances, were kind of perplexed but enjoyed laughing at the strange white boy photographing their walls. These encounters would also elicit a grave reality of the country to. An exchange that sticks in my mind is between myself and a man outside his home who was asking why I was taking the photo. When I said I was documenting the writing on the wall, he asked if people would see the photo. I said I hope so. He then asked that “if people see the photo of my house, will they fix it?”
I developed some very strong bonds with a range of people that allowed me great access to, I guess, a lot of areas and people that many other foreigners wouldn’t necessarily have access to. This was hugely important, as the questions I developed over the four years were really about eliciting both emotional and somewhat analytical responses to the work, so, in this way, and with the demographic I included, I’m hopeful that the process and the content is as balanced as possible.
Q: Another thing I wanted to ask you about is the idea of the broken window theory. Could you explain how the broken window theory applies to graffiti in East Timor or East Timor in general?
I don’t really subscribe to the theory myself. I think what I found provoking, though, is that in the framework of East Timor, if you’re going to suggest that graffiti and vandalism stems from somesort of initial vandalism – eg the, or a, broken window – then that initial vandalism in the country was a scorched earth policy implemented by retreating Indonesian soldiers and miltia and a fairly systematic genocide that killed in excess of 250, 000 innocent Timorese people. That’s a fairly fucking broken window.
Q: The variety of the graffiti seems apparent in the background you have given me. It is understood that East Timor has entered a period of relative calm. Are trends in prosperity and stability apparent in the graffiti?
I think the trends are more about hope. There’s certainly a conscious movement amongst some of the graffiti artists in the country today to be painting what they want to see. The graffiti in the country, though, is quite reactionary also, so in that sense it reflects current understandings and feelings. I’m hopeful, though, that through the creative use of graffiti that the country may be able to realise the dreams and ideals that are being painted on the wall, whilst also referencing contemporary realities and history that are also evidenced through the graffiti.
Q: Graffiti has been seen as a way of making a statement, whether political or artistic. Do you believe that graffiti in East Timor means more than this to the youths who create it?
Yes. I think, in a number of instances that it is about hope and the future and it’s, quite literally, about trying to paint that future. I think it is also an extension of ideals of what it means to be free; or what freedom has enabled people to engage with. I think this is hugely important too because it is very much an exploration of ideals and desires in an independent state, as opposed to the struggle of a conflicted society to simply survive.