This blog is about how objects weave us together and contain stories. The object I want to talk about today contains some strong weave, it is woven of story upon story motivated by story… It’s a triple layered tale folks!
The other focus this blog is collaboration, and in this project I got to collaborate with a wonderful photographer and creator – Matt Nettheim, and the permanent Residents of the Brighton Beach Caravan Park. What was created is a document that honors the stories of the residents and witnesses their struggle to hang on to their homes and their diverse and caring community.
It came about because my Mum lived at the Brighton caravan park for a number of years, invested her life savings into buying into it and had laid down her anchor for this phase of her life. She loved living there, with their diverse back rows of community who often ate together, supported each other, sometimes annoyed each other, and cared in an unconditional kind of fashion for each other. She was very happy living there, and I was very happy knowing my Mum lived in a caring community where she was safe and included.
Out of nowhere in January 2013 they received eviction notices for a place most did not realise they could be evicted from. They were under the impression their homes were secure and they could not be ousted. Holdfast Bay Council knew otherwise, and the residents were expected to leave in a couple of months and clear their sites, no compensation, barely any warning, and definitely no assistance or acknowledgement of the long term residential status of these people. One of the most painful things was that the Council would not communicate with the Residents directly, they would not listen or negotiate or explain, the orders had been given and that was that. The inhumanity was heartbreaking and totally unnecessary.
That is why I decided to make the book. I wanted to hold them all, care for their lives and stories, provide hope and encouragement, and make their humanity a public affair and a private holder of precious memories. Quite a tall order for a book and I knew it would hold a lot more depth with images, and not just snap shots but someone who knew how to weight an image with meaning and story – *cue in* highly talented photographer boyfriend I had been really wanting to do a collaboration with! So great to have someone to bounce ideas and formats off, another creator to hold the container as the work manifests through hours/days/weeks of focused attention. I love the images Matt took for this book and his format vision, the internal/external portrait. This was important to show the ‘houseness’ of the ‘caravans’ because the Council folk mostly had never visited and had no idea that the residents could not just attach their caravans and drive away. For most inhabitants the caravan served as the initial structure that homes were built around, and these dwellings were quite permanent. The Residents seem to really like the book and got copies for family and gave it as gifts to a number of people who helped with their campaign. It even got submitted as evidence in their court case which was a little bit like winning an award for us! Unfortunately they never got a fair hearing. It appeared the Holdfast Bay Council’s strategy was to keep the Residents on the witness stand until they could not afford to be their anymore, so they got starved out without a just and fair hearing. Many are left with layers of complicated grief and issues of homelessness to work through. What can I say – it is fucked up. A community that could have modelled a way forward in building fabulous low-income housing communities, a community that improved the quality of life for its people and provided safety, connection, support and care. It was highly human and very rare in our busy impersonal cities.
Now our book bears witness to a great loss and the displacement of a community. I hope it also holds fond memories for the Residents, who showed tremendous fighting spirit and solidarity. Big Respect goes out to all involved with this legal case and community, along with heartfelt wishes for healing and making a new home.
Matt (photographer and collaborator):
I am really proud of this book. Seeing it I am reminded of how quickly we had to work. All the photos and most of the stories we were taken on the one day, over a few hours. With 20 odd residents, I remember working out that it would mean only 10-15 minutes per visit. It helped that the residents themselves were so welcoming, and prepared; their places were all immaculate and they were very grateful for our support.
The book was my first artistic collaboration with Ky, my cool new arty girlfriend, and we worked really well together. We still do. I remember Ky running around with my bounce board doing the lighting and helping lug my gear from place to place. She was a great assistant and a fantastic creative to work witb. Laying out the book together was fun.
I was lucky to have visited the Brighton Caravan Park in the pre-eviction notice period. It had felt safe, the location was a beautiful the place was vibrant with nature and activity. Coming back to do the portraits the tension and heaviness was present. As Ky and I went from house to house I got to experience just how diverse this tight little community was. All the age groups were there, many nationalities, and all the relationship status’s and configurations. The place was a microcosm of Adelaide’s cool diversity, perhaps minus the rich folk. The residents diversity and unity was never more apparent than when I photographed them a second time, as a mob, marching and protesting together at the council chambers. Of the many injustices and indignities that the residents faced it was the fact that they had paid big money for these homes, and then paid regular park site fees on top, and they would get absolutely no money back. These were generally very low income people to start with, before losing everything. They were even originally expected to pay to have their places demolished and the sites cleared.
Among the residents was my cool new arty girlfriends mum, she had fought battles before and she was certainly not going to shut up and fuck off. Marilyn was an inspiration and I am so proud of her. Exhausted, she faced up to endless photo shoots and media calls. She was a dynamo. Her little van in the back lane became campaign headquarters and she fought passionately for over a year until their case was crushed by the council with their bigger money.
Ky gets the gold star for doing the hard yards on this book. Learning on the run, she built it, collected and edited all the stories which are alive with the residents own voices. When we published the compliments and thanks we received from the residents was a huge reward, many books were ordered. The books appearance in court as evidence was also very satisfying. Personally, the book marked a welcome return to my roots as a social documentary photographer, which had always given me a huge amount of gratification.
With the last of the vans only just demolished I feel that Endangered Communities stands as a fine record of a really interesting and successful community, a rare species, and a precious memory on the shelf for the now scattered residents to remember and share.
to view or order the book:
all photographs by Matt Nettheim