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Miriam Charlie: No country, no home

Photo essay

Miriam Charlie | Artist Profile

This series explores living conditions in our community of Borroloola in the Gulf of Carpentaria, Northern Territory. I am a Yanyuwa/Garrwa woman. I call it “My country, no home” because we have a Country but no home, people are living in tin shacks, in matchbox-sized houses. Even traditional owners here don’t own houses. I wanted to take these photos to show the world how my people are living. The project is not to shame them.

My history came from teachers and linguists who came down here taking photos of us. We had those box brownie cameras and we had those instant cameras. One day in 2015 I was at my grandmother’s house and she showed me that white ants were eating the ceiling, so I took a photo for evidence to show those people who fix houses. And then I started taking photos of other houses.

There are four Indigenous language groups whose traditional lands are in and around Borroloola – the Yanyuwa, Garrwa, Gudanji and Marra. Each group has a “camp” or residential area within Borroloola and there is a new area called the “sub”, short for subdivision, where people from all four groups live, as well as non-Indigenous residents. My photos represent houses from each of these areas. 

I grew up here and I’ve seen the changes. The government comes, has a look and goes back to their air-conditioned office

Miriam Charlie, Dinah Norman, aged 84
Dinah Norman, aged 84

Dinah Norman, aged 84

This is a portrait of my grandmother, Dinah Norman, 84, who is a Yanyuwa elder. She is a strong woman who still has her cultural knowledge. She is one of the last speakers of Yanyuwa and knows the Law and ceremonies that were handed down by her ancestors.

Dinah has lived in this tiny three bedroom house for over 39 years. The house is overcrowded with her eldest grandson, his wife, six kids and other relatives. There is not enough room to put a lounge chair to watch TV; the kitchen is small and the shower and toilet are outside. The ceiling is being eaten by white ants and sometimes the water pipes leak.

There are lots of big families living in houses just like this around our community. One family I know has 26 people living in one house.

Miriam Charlie Garrwa One Camp
Penny Sing and the Johnson families

Garrwa One Camp

This house is in Garrwa One camp, where 26 people live in this two bedroom, matchbox size house. It has a very small lounge room and a tiny kitchen. They have to take turns to use the bathroom, standing in line to use the toilet and shower. It’s a health hazard this house.

Jacob Riley, Mara Elder
Jacob Riley, Mara Elder

Jacob Riley, Mara Elder

This is a photo of Jacob Riley, a Mara elder. Jacob lives in a small tin shed with no fans, kitchen or electricity. It was built in the early 1970s. There are three other houses like this that other elders live in. He has to walk about 400 metres to go to the toilet, through the rain and at night, because there is no sewerage or water.

Miriam Charlie's photo of Linda Jupiter, Booroloola
Linda Jupiter, Borroloola

Linda Jupiter, Borroloola

Linda Jupiter lives in a tin house as well. These are the oldest houses in Borroloola. She tries to make her house look nice by planting gardens, painting flower pots and recycling things she collects from the dump. She puts tarps up to keep the rain out in the wet season. Her mum, Kathy Jupiter, and her son, Wesley, live there with her too.

Miriam Charlie, Children from the Yanyuwa camp
Children from the Yanyuwa camp

Kids in Borroloola

This photo is of the children from the Yanyuwa Camp. The photo was taken in December and shows the young boys enjoying play wrestling in the blow up pool. Kids in Borroloola have no youth centre to go to so they get bored and have to make up their own games. They were looking forward to Christmas coming up. 

Miriam Charlie, Community Development Program
Borroloola, Community Development Program

Community Development Program, Yanyuwa Camp

Derek Anderson, Damien Noble and Ishmael Charlie work for the Community Development Program (CDP).  These guys and other participants look after the Yanyuwa Camp to make sure the rubbish is collected, the grass is mowed and the playground is raked so the children don’t hurt themselves.

While I was looking for something to take a photo of I saw these guys working. I thought it would make a great photo seeing them keeping the community clean.

Miriam Charlie, house of Derek Anderson, Damien Noble and Ishmael Charlie work for the Community Development Program (CDP).  These guys and other participants look after the Yanyuwa Camp to make sure the rubbish is collected, the grass is mowed and the playground is raked so the children don’t hurt themselves. While I was looking for something to take a photo of I saw these guys working. I thought it would make a great photo seeing them keeping the Kelly Martin

Kelly Martin, Garrwa/Yanyuwa Elder

Kelly Martin is a Garrwa/Yanyuwa elder. He lives in this tin shed with no electricity, water or sewerage. He has been living here for six or seven years. It gets really hot in there, and for an old man like him who has health issues it’s not good. In the wet time, water runs in and goes all over the floor. It’s very hard for him to sit outside at this time because it’s raining so he has to go into the hot little room.

Miriam Charlie is a Yanyuwa/Garrwa woman and Art Centre Liaison Officer at Waralungku Art Centre, Borroloola. Her photographs have been shown at Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne, and exhibited in CCP Declares: On the Social Contract, 27 May – 10 July 2016, Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne.