‘Waiting for too long’: Why Miriam Charlie photographs overcrowded Indigenous housing

The Yanyuwa Garrwa artist and Polaroid photographer from Borroloola in the Northern Territory uses her camera to document the state of housing in her home town

The Northern Territory government has spent $2.65bn over the past 15 years to improve the quality of housing in remote Indigenous communities, but overcrowding remains a problem and many houses need repairs.

Under the national partnership for remote housing Northern Territory policy, the government was supposed to improve housing conditions and reduce overcrowding in 73 remote communities and 17 town camps around Alice Springs. But the most recent data on overcrowding in remote communities managed by the national partnership reveals it has only been reduced by 3.2% in five years.

None of this is new to Miriam Charlie. Since 2015, the Yanyuwa Garrwa artist has been capturing the state of housing across all four town camps at Borroloola, with her Polaroid camera.

“All them houses, they’re too small, overcrowded,” she says. “So I went around and took photos of everybody’s houses. What part wasn’t fixed and what part was fixed.”

Miriam Charlie is standing behind a camera on a tripod on a lawn, taking a photo of her family members standing in front of a house, next to a blue ute
Miriam Charlie photographing her eldest daughter, Jade, and other family at Yanyuwa camp Photograph: Isabella Moore/The Guardian
  • Top: Miriam Charlie photographing her eldest daughter, Jade, and other family at Yanyuwa camp
    Bottom: Miriam photographing her grandmother, Dinah Norman, who waited more than 10 years for a new home at Yanyuwa camp

Miriam photographing her grandmother Dinah Norman, who waited over 10 years for a new home at Yanyuwa camp.
Miriam photographing her grandmother Dinah Norman, who waited over 10 years for a new home at Yanyuwa camp. Photograph: Isabella Moore/The Guardian

In February, an Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) report found the national partnership had been only “partly effective” in improving housing conditions and showed “significant weaknesses”.

After a six-year court battle with the NT government, in which the people of Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa) argued inadequate and inhumane housing was due to failures by public housing authorities, the NT court of appeal upheld a ruling in February that state-owned housing must be considered habitable.

And in 2019, Ltyentye Apurte residents won an estimated $350,000 after they sued the state government on the basis their homes were uninhabitable due to neglect.


Borroloola, a town of about 900 people located in Gulf country in the NT, lies within Charlie’s traditional country and is home to Yanyuwa, Mara, Garrwa and Gurdanji people. In 2020, when Charlie had her first solo exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP) in Melbourne she called it My Country No Home, “because we had country, but we didn’t have houses.”

“I went to my grandmother’s house and there was white ants there, on that ceiling,” Charlie says. She says she asked her grandmother: “Has anybody come to fix?” Her grandmother replied: “No, nothing.”

Miriam Charlie with her sister Jeanette and her grandson Elmazri in the back seat of a car
Miriam Charlie pictured with her sister Jeanette and her grandson Elmazri in Borroloola Photograph: Isabella Moore/The Guardian
  • Miriam Charlie pictured with her sister Jeanette and her grandson Elmazri in Borroloola

Charlie’s grandmother, Dinah Norman, was represented in one of her photographic series in 2018, describing the major structural issues and repairs needed in her home at Yanyuwa camp. Norman waited about 10 years before she was given a new house, which was one of the first built since 2006.

In an essay published by Overland in 2020, Charlie said, “it’s that waiting business. You’ve got to wait so long. They’ll build it this year and you get it next year. Old people are getting older; they’ll die soon. A lot of people are going to die waiting for houses. We have been waiting for too long.”

Darwin-based researcher Liam Grealy, who collaborates with Charlie and recently co-authored an Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute report on sustainable housing in regional and remote Indigenous communities, says the lack of maintenance, and lack of clarity over who is responsible for it, “significantly affects the standard of housing and community wellbeing”.

“Miriam Charlie’s photography captures how houses disassemble, or the material outcomes of underfunded and reactive maintenance programs,” he says.

A Polaroid photo of a hole in the ceiling of a house
‘Hole in the ceiling’ at Yanyuwa camp, 2018 Photograph: Miriam Charlie
A Polaroid photo of a double electrical outlet on a wall. The image is tinted flown and the wall is flecked with marks
‘Broken Socket’ at Yanyuwa camp, 2018 Photograph: Miriam Charlie
A Polaroid photo of a single-storey house. There are two cloths hanging down from the roof on one side covering the house. There is a mesh fence in the foreground and a tall tree behind the house
House 14 at Yanyuwa camp, 2018 Photograph: Miriam Charlie
Dinah Norman sits in a chair in front of an old house. She is wearing a blue jumper and patterned pants
Miriam Charlie’s grandmother, Dinah Norman, in front of her old house, a tin humpy, in 2018 Photograph: Miriam Charlie
  • Miriam Charlie’s Polaroid photographs

Angus and Nancy Kidd, one of the families Charlie photographed at Garrwa 1 town camp, had not had repairs on their home since the mid-1980s, waiting about 40 years for one week’s worth of work to be completed.

A view of Nancy Kidd from the waist down as she stands in front of a damaged wall in her house. She is barefoot and wearing a bright red skirt with blue and white flowers on it
Nancy Kidd standing in front of a wall in her house that needed repairing in 2016 at Garrwa 1 camp Photograph: Miriam Charlie
  • Nancy Kidd standing in front of a wall that needed repairing in her house in 2016 at Garrwa 1 camp

“The house hasn’t been renovated since a very long time,” Angus Kidd says. “There was a hole in the wall, the ceiling was coming down, water was leaking in during the rain, and in my room the water was dripping down from the wall.

“Looking at it now, we have a thick wall but there were holes all along here, so now it’s really good. The shower had a concrete floor, but now they put a tiled floor in there. There was a hole in this wall here, there was a crack, it had a very thin layer, see, and they made it thick, and now I’m living like a prince.”

Miriam Charlie standing near a beach holding a camera and looking at it
Miriam Charlie Photograph: Isabella Moore/The Guardian
  • Miriam Charlie

The chief executive of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisation (NACCHO), Pat Turner, said in an interview with the Australian in March the standard of housing in remote communities underpinned several targets in Closing the Gap and outlined that if the targets are not achieved, it would be because governments had not “invested the necessary resources in programs and services to support our people”.

Darilyn Anderson and her family stand in front of a house
Darilyn Anderson, one of Charlie’s nieces, and her family, in front of their old home in 2016 Photograph: Miriam Charlie
  • Darilyn Anderson, one of Charlie’s nieces, and her family, photographed by Charlie in front of their old home in 2016

State and territory governments will be required to ensure all remote Indigenous housing meets minimum standards by 2031.

Darilyn Anderson, one of Charlie’s nieces, used to live in a two-bedroom house with her partner and at least five of their foster children in Garrwa 1 camp. Now they live in a four-bedroom house replaced by the NT government under the program. “It was a two-bedroom house, not enough room they always jammed up and they had nowhere to put the table and chairs,” Charlie says. “Now they’ve got room to sleep in.”

A fraction of the houses Charlie began photographing in 2015 have now been replaced or had necessary repairs made. When Charlie went back to Borroloola for a visit she felt a big relief. “To look at it now just brings joy to my heart, it really makes life much easier for people,” she says.


Isabella Moore

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Remote Indigenous community pioneers 3D-printed homes set to change rural lives
Traditional owners of Mparntwe collaborate with Melbourne company Luyten to combat housing shortages and improve Ilpeye Ilpeye residents’ lifestyle

Maddie Thomas

02, Nov, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
‘Our sites are not to be used for money making’: the row over the Alice Springs light festival
Parrtjima festival is meant to showcase Indigenous culture; instead it has raised the ire of some traditional custodians for infiltrating sacred land and lore

Steve Bunbadgee Hodder Watt

29, Sep, 2017 @10:11 PM

Article image
‘The biggest fight of our lives’: the battle to contain Covid in the Northern Territory’s remote communities
Healthworkers have helped curtail the virus, but longstanding housing problems leave families vulnerable

Lorena Allam and Isabella Moore

04, Jun, 2022 @8:00 PM

Article image
Parrtjima festival: high-tech outback showcase or Aboriginal Disneyland?
Billed as Australia’s largest light installation, the aim of the $2m festival is to attract tourism to the region – but it’s also attracting controversy

Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

29, Sep, 2016 @2:54 AM

Article image
‘Bringing the sun in’: the hardworking weavers of Bula’Bula dig colour from the red earth
On a hot day in eastern Arnhem Land, three women collect pandanus leaves and djundom roots – and offer a priceless masterclass into a rich cultural tradition

Lorena Allam and Isabella Moore

01, Jul, 2022 @8:00 PM

Article image
Too hot for humans? First Nations people fear becoming Australia's first climate refugees
As the big dry bites and temperature records tumble, Aboriginal people in Alice Springs say global heating threatens their culture and very survival

Lorena Allam and Nick Evershed with photographs by Mike Bowers

17, Dec, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
Indigenous residents seeking ‘humane’ housing take fight to supreme court
They are also claiming return of rental payments, saying agreements struck after the intervention were invalid

Calla Wahlquist

02, Nov, 2019 @7:00 PM

Article image
In My Blood It Runs review – quietly masterful portrait of growing up Indigenous
Collaborative, open-hearted documentary of a young Arrernte boy is Gayby Baby director Maya Newell’s best work yet

Luke Buckmaster

20, Feb, 2020 @1:57 AM

Article image
'We are begging for housing': the crisis in Indigenous communities
Overcrowded homes are at the root of Indigenous disadvantage, and communities are crying out for culturally appropriate dwellings

Helen Davidson in Darwin and Anna Livsey

19, Aug, 2017 @11:35 PM

Article image
Getting down with Didg – Queensland’s Deaf Indigenous Dance Group
The Cairns-based troupe provide a safe space for dancers to express their culture and communicate freely

Aishah Kenton and Sean Davey of Oculi

08, Apr, 2022 @8:00 PM