Timor-Leste is not yet on the backpacker circuit. Few international flights touch down there, and travel advisories speak warningly of civil unrest and the risk of disease. The foreigners who do visit are likely to be part of the aid and development community. So when 22-year-old fine arts student Ryan McCauley arrived in Dili in May 2012, he was an anomaly.
McCauley says he was drawn to Timor-Leste by its location within the Asia – Pacific region and its connection to New Zealand. He wanted to see how the country of just over one million people had physically developed 10 years on from independence, and to make what he saw the subject of his Master’s project.
“Very little visual research has been done in Timor-Leste,” he explains.
For someone who had never travelled outside Australasia, landing in Dili was a wake-up. “I just thought, ‘wow, what have I got myself into?’ I tried to think about what I thought it would be like, but I don’t think I expected the poverty.
“Until you do something like that, I think there is a sense of naivety. It was my first intrepid journey.”
McCauley describes his photography-based project, Neo Colonialism and the Built Environment in Post-Conflict Timor-Leste, as an investigation into the nature of post-conflict architecture: what it looks like, who is involved in its creation, how it is being built and used. More broadly, McCauley is interested in the way that Timor-Leste’s architecture expresses the country’s social, cultural and political history.
McCauley has now been to Timor-Leste twice on missions to photograph the Portuguese, Indonesian, Chinese and Western influences on the ‘built environment’.
In Dili, Portuguese colonial buildings in whites and pastels sit side by side with traditional Timorese homes. Sometimes there are revealing crossovers.“You’ll see ramshackle homes painted in beautiful Portuguese pastels – local people aspiring to have the wealth and power associated with the coloniser’s colours,” McCauley explains.
Then there is the imprint of China, one of the first countries to establish diplomatic ties with Timor-Leste, which has sunk its aid money into such highly visible infrastructure projects as the Ministry of Defence headquarters, the foreign affairs office, the presidential palace and the Chinese embassy.
“These structures are the physical and visual outcomes of economic and political negotiations and constructions – they are politics played out through the built environment,” he says.
He believes that one inadvertent effect is a complication and disruption of national identity – an identity that is already complicated enough. McCauley, a monolingual English speaker, speaks wonderingly of the difficulties of dealing with three languages: Tetum and Portuguese, which are the official languages, and Indonesian, which is widely spoken among younger Timorese.
Meanwhile, out in rural areas, where 70 percent of Timorese live, life goes on. Here the overriding concerns are grinding poverty, malnutrition, disease and lack of access to education.
But as the nation increasingly reaps the revenues from offshore oil and natural gas reserves, a brighter future beckons.
“I think there is a strong sense of hope,” McCauley says.
World Bank research has shown that it typically takes 15 to 30 years for countries to rebuild after conflict, and by this yardstick Timor-Leste is doing okay: hospitals and schools are being built, the university plans to double its student numbers, and its people are gradually becoming accustomed to peace and stability.
“For the entire population, war and occupation are all they’ve ever known, it’s not just a switch that can so easily be switched on and off – but as the country moves forward, so too does their way of thinking.”
He remembers Dili on 20 May, the country’s 10th anniversary of independence, when its new, peacefully elected leader, Tau Matan Ruak, a former guerrilla commander and independence hero, was sworn in as President. It was a day of flag-waving school children lining the streets from the airport to the city centre; of welcoming dignitaries lined up outside the presidential palace; and of crowds celebrating along the waterfront.
McCauley’s project is due to be completed in February. But that is unlikely to be the end of the relationship with Timor-Leste. It is a place where he feels at home; one to which he is determined to return.
“There seems to be a sense of community. One of the best things was walking down the street in the morning and saying hello to everyone as you went by. The people are wonderful, really friendly and very proud.”