DETAIL: Michael RILEY, 'Untitled from the series cloud [feather]' Cloud series Feather 2000, printed 2005 Photograph chromogenic pigment print Ed: 1/5 NGA 2005.294.5, Reproduced courtesy of the Michael Riley Foundation and VISCOPY, Australia

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I wanted to tell stories
Michael Riley

I first started to do photography at Sydney College of the Arts. I was actually doing a traineeship there as a technician in the darkrooms. I’d also taken a class in image-making. I worked in photography for a few years as a freelance photographer, independent freelance photographer, and then I decided to do a traineeship at ABC, a two-year traineeship in producing and directing documentaries. I was thinking what I might’ve wanted to do was to be a cinematographer or something like that, but I found that I wanted to tell stories and get stories from Aboriginal people.

My mother comes from a place called Moree in New South Wales, northern New South Wales. She’s from the Kamilaroi group of people. My father’s Wiradjuri from the Dubbo area. I grew up in Dubbo and also taking trips back and forwards to Moree. I sort of like had contact with my mother’s people and that country as well. The land around there is like quite barren and flat and almost sort of semi-arid desert, you could say.

What I was trying to do was show in those images how farmers or graziers or whatever, people have changed the surface of the land, country, but to try and give an idea that Aboriginal spirits – ramadi – is still there within that land, even though the surface has changed. You know, there’s still a sense of beauty and a spiritual feeling there. The images from Empire, they’re all shot in and around the Moree area and Narrabri, near Narrabri, Mount Kaputar. There’s a sadness within the film itself and that sadness is that sense of loss of country, of culture, of peoples. One of the images is a sign called Slaughterhouse Creek and it’s not far from Myall Creek, where the Myall Creek massacres happened. It’s just one simple sign that sort of conveys one of the incidents that happened around that area, you know, that great loss and sadness.

The Sacrifice series, really what I was exploring there was how Aboriginal people were put on to reserves and missions like in the 1940s and earlier and regimented and told not to speak language, not to act as culture and you would have different tribal groups thrown in together. Some of the images in Sacrifice, like with the spoons, that’s symbolic of addiction, like heroin addiction. The row of sardine, the fish, it’s like how on reserves people were lined up and regimented and everyone have their place and everything. The image of flour, sugar and tea, that was like the staple you’d get every week on the reserve, the mission, and that’s sort of all you got. Yes. I suppose, yes, just reflecting on that period of time when people did sort of start to lose culture, lose language, lose things, you know, because of the assimilation process and people trying, the government trying to put people on reserves to be good Christian Aboriginal people.

Empire, the way that I wanted to make the film was I wanted the film to almost hypnotise people, you know, and … they didn’t really have to think about these things until afterwards maybe, you know. They look at the images and then they can think about what those images meant.

In the cloud series there are clouds in every shot. I just find a very sort of serene beauty in clouds, in the movements of clouds, how they change, and people take them for granted, you know. I mean, they’re just there, you know. But once you isolate them and look at them there’s this incredible changing sort of beauty in them.

Like with the Sacrifice series and the film and cloud I don’t try to put down the Christian religion or the Catholic religion at all. I just try to reflect on it, you know. Yes. What I don’t like about religion, I suppose, those types of religion, is the hypocrisy. Not so much the religion itself, the way people use it in hypocritical ways. You know, there’s a piece at the end of the film and it’s a sermon from a Lutheran missionary from Hermannsburg. It’s from an ABC radio program in the 1940s and what it does is it just conjures up the attitude of the people, like government of the day and the missionaries of the day and the fact that Aboriginal people were quite patronised, almost treated as children, to be assimilated.

Michael Riley, unpublished interview with David Burnett on his inclusion in the Asia–Pacific triennial of contemporary art 2002, Queensland Art Gallery. Courtesy of the Queensland Art Gallery

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