Review: Vale Kwementyaye Ryder — a photo essay
Bob Gosford, The Northern Myth
Driving into Alice Springs for the first time, you could be forgiven for feeling you’ve arrived at something of an oasis in the desert. Depending on the season, you may have driven for hours through dry red dirt country, before passing through the stunning MacDonnell Ranges and into the green valley therein, where leafy green Alice nestles among rocky outcrops and straddles the usually dry Todd River.
For the Central and Eastern Arrernte people, the town is dotted with geographic reminders of the Dreamtime. The sites aren’t hard to pick out and appreciate if you take the time to ask about them.
A photo story on the Crikey.com blog, The Northern Myth, written by Yuendumu-based writer and photographer Bob Gosford, features some iconic Alice Springs views such as waterholes and sandy riverbeds.
But this photo story is no celebration of the town’s natural beauty, no “wish you were here” on the back of a postcard. The photos are beautiful, but the accompanying words remind us that Alice is a far cry from the oasis it is portrayed as by the lucrative tourism industry.
On July 25, 2009, Kwementyaye Ryder was beaten to death by five young white men. The men had spent hours taunting homeless Aboriginal people camped in the Todd River — driving their 4WD right through camps, narrowly missing sleeping elderly people.
The story goes that Kwementyaye saw their atrocious behaviour and threw a bottle at the car as it sped past him.
The five caught up with him. The rest is history. But it’s important history — the past and present of racist violence in this country.
If it’s a story you don’t know, google “Kwementyaye Ryder Chris Graham” for Chris Graham’s powerful writings on the case, or follow the links provided by Gosford.
“What I want to do”, writes Gosford on his blog, “is present, a year to the day later, my photos of some of the places around Alice Springs that were relevant to this matter”.
A photo of the famous, if not somewhat tacky, Bojangles Saloon is captioned: “Bojangles is where several of the boys that put up their hands to the killing of Kwementyaye Ryder started — or continued — what was to be a long weekend of drinking.”
The Northern Territory intervention has perpetuated many harmful, racist myths about Aboriginal people. The blanket bans on alcohol throughout Aboriginal communities and town camps relates to one myth: Aboriginal people are out-of-control drunks.
Maybe it’s their genetic make-up and they just can’t handle the booze like “we” can, or maybe they just don’t have self-control. Either way, alcohol must be banned in Aboriginal communities because it is leading to child abuse and domestic violence.
Of course, the alcohol bans don’t apply to the ubiquitous pubs and bars in Alice: what would happen to tourism without the licensed venues? Where would the hardworking whitefellas unwind if not at the pub.
Gosford’s photos of the Todd River reminded me of an Alice Springs by-law, introduced last year, outlawing camping in the riverbed. Police can now remove blankets of campers, by way of “moving them on”.
The NT intervention led to an increase in people coming into Alice Springs from outlying communities. “Income management” has limited how much cash people have. Some people come to town for medical visits or shopping and then don’t have money to get home. The Alice Springs town camps are chronically under-funded and over-crowded. The bridges over the river have long served as free accommodation in the absence of anything else.
Gosford uses photographic techniques to blur images of people in the river and explains: “For many people living in Alice Springs the homeless campers in the Todd riverbed are little more than shadows on the landscape.”
Those “shadows” are literal in the photos but Gosford means it metaphorically: anybody who lives in Alice Springs knows just how probable it is that there be people camped in the river on any given night.
And that applies also to the five whitefellas who got it into their heads last year to drive up the river in the early hours aimed straight at camps. People scattered in fright and one elderly man — who remained wrapped up in his bedding because he was too frail to move — was narrowly missed.
In April, the five men involved were sentenced to between just four and six years for the manslaughter of Kwementyaye Ryder, with non-parole periods of 12 months to four years. Friends of one of the convicted celebrated the lenient sentences late into the night.
The Alice Springs Council’s website says: “Year round blue skies, stunning landscapes and a vibrant, diverse community — that's Alice Springs!”
If you happen to be Indigenous, however, be warned.