On October 31 last year, the Australian Government closed Manus Island, the widely condemned refugee detention centre off the coast of Papua New Guinea. With essential services shut down – no food, water or power – security forces left more than 600 asylum seekers to fend for themselves in a hostile environment. Conditions deteriorated quickly.
Three days later, photojournalist Brian Cassey, and another colleague, were snuck into the camp by boat. Time was limited. At 1.03pm, Cassey’s boat made landfall. By 1.21pm, it was clear the navy and police were aware of his presence, and were on their way to Manus. Cassey and the rest of his expedition left in a hurry. He’d had only 18 minutes inside.
But the photographs pinned to the wall at The Fox Darkroom & Gallery, where Cassey’s exhibition Inside Manus Detention Centre is currently on show, make clear that in spite of the limited timeframe he caught something vital and urgent.
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His photographs are a frantic but focused look at the chaos that ensued after the detention centre’s sudden closure. A makeshift well has been dug within the camp, from which dirty water is drawn. Asylum seekers sleep outdoors, due to the stifling heat of the sleeping quarters. Illness, both physical and mental, is rife.
Fox Gallery has given the space to Cassey pro bono, and he isn’t selling this work – the exhibition is purely an effort to raise awareness around the issue and get these images – and the actions of the government – in front of more people.
While the governments of Australia and Papua New Guinea do what they can to keep Manus Island and its cruelty under wraps, they aren’t terribly good at it. This isn’t the first time images have been snuck out of the area. Last year’s eye-opening documentary Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time remains an essential watch.
It’s fair to say the government wouldn’t want this to be seen.
So you definitely shouldn't go. And you definitely shouldn't talk about it afterwards, or share the photos.
Inside Manus Detention Centre by Brian Cassey is at The Fox Darkroom & Gallery, Kensington, until March 4. Proceeds collected on opening night (February 23) will be donated to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.