Thirty years ago Ricky went inside four prisons to capture the faces of Indigenous incarceration. He never forgot them

Thirty years ago documentary photographer Ricky Maynard spent time inside four prisons to capture the faces of Indigenous incarceration.

He can remember the conversations he had with his subjects like it was yesterday.

“It’s a good portrait if I’ve had a good conversation,” Maynard said.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this story may contain images of people who have died.

It was two years after the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report was released and he was angered and frustrated by the continued deaths of First Nations people.

“Not one thing had been done by a multi-million dollar Royal Commission,” he told Joel Rheinberger on ABC Radio Hobart.

“I had to get out and start doing something.

“People don’t go to prison to die.”

A black and white photo of a man in his cell playing cards.

A man plays cards in his cell.(Supplied: Bett Gallery)

The photo series No More Than What You See was exhibited in August 1993 by the South Australian Department of Correctional Services as part of the United Nations International Year for the World’s Indigenous People.

It features powerful portraits of people in prison.

“It was to create awareness and hopefully social change,” Maynard said.

a black and white photo of a young woman showing her pregnancy bump, looking at the camera

A young, pregnant woman.(Supplied: Bett Gallery)

Three decades on the work has not lost its importance, and more than 500 Indigenous people have died in custody since its release.

To mark its anniversary, the series is on display in Hobart’s Bett Gallery.

A black and white photo of a male prisoner in the bottom right, as a guard sits on a milk carton and reads the paper

Maynard hoped his photos would lead to social change.(Supplied: Bett Gallery)

‘The horror of all that’

When taking photos for No More Than What You See, Maynard was granted access to prisoners, resulting in a raw account of their lives behind bars.

He said he was no stranger to the justice system, a topic that fills him with sadness.

a black and white photo of prisoners being checked by a guard.

Prisoners are checked by a guard.(Supplied: Bett Gallery)

“I’ve got a couple of brothers who went to prison, I’ve had nephews and cousins go to prison,” he said.

“Isn’t it a shame that I can say we grew up with incarceration as part of our lives?

“Being in those places, you feel the horror of all that.”

As part of the exhibition, the gallery will host a panel discussion titled “Why jail is failing” in association with the Justice Reform Institute.


Reverting the ‘colonial camera’

Maynard’s fascination with photography started at 16 when he worked as a dark room technician in Melbourne.

He trained as a photographer at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra from 1983.

He felt strongly about the misrepresentation of First Nations people and their negative portrayal in photos.

“I had to revert the process of the colonial camera,” he said.

A man looking into a camera on a tipid in a field

Maynard has been taking photos of Aboriginal Australia for 40 years.(Supplied: Bett Gallery)

Maynard’s photos have been recognised internationally for his powerful documentation of Aboriginal people over the past 40 years.

His works are always a product of his life as an Aboriginal person and his upbringing in Tasmania, including mutton birding.

For the exhibition he had to find his original film canisters stored on the remote truwana/Cape Barren Island to re-birth the photos.

Maynard was born in Launceston, but his parents and wife were born on the Bass Strait island and he has spent many years there.

The Harvard University Collection has just acquired a suite of his work and the National Gallery of America is also negotiating to buy some.

two male prisoners behind wore, one has a cigarette

It’s been 30 years since Maynard first exhibited the series.(Supplied: Bett Gallery)

A portrait requires ‘absolute trust’

Maynard said his portrait work was based on truth and authenticity, and he spent a lot of time with his subjects to win their trust.

“I work on building friendships first,” he said.

“It’s a genuine kind of relationship and that’s what my work is based on.

“A good portrait is the act of absolute trust with people.”

He said the people in his photos all stuck in his mind.

“I look at these works now and I can remember those conversations from 30 years ago,” he said.


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