NINA HAMILTON: Heart and home
Nina Hamilton captures life one photograph at a time - from her travels abroad, to her life in Uganda, and now as a solo mama to her African-Australian son, William. Nina’s photographs are often up close and personal, a quality in her work she attributes to having had the opportunity to hone her skills in countries where people offered themselves honestly and openly.
The Pin sat down with Nina to discuss what inspires her and what she hopes for as the mother of a biracial child growing up Tasmania, Australia.
THE PIN. Can you tell us a bit about your own childhood, did you grow up in Tasmania?
NINA HAMILTON. I spent the first few years of my life down on the Tasman Peninsula. My parents separated when I was five, so I spent time between Hobart and on the Peninsula. It was a very free range childhood. We lived on a beautiful bush property with a creek running through it. I have two younger brothers so we spent a lot of time together, exploring, making secret hideouts and trying to catch eels and yabbies. We also grew up raising orphaned and injured wildlife, so it wasn’t uncommon to see baby [Tasmanian] devils, wallabies and wombats in the house. My grandparents had a coastal property at Premaydena, about 10 minutes from where we lived, so we also spent a lot of time there – eating fresh flathead and mussels, and oysters straight off the rocks. We often joined them on bushwalks, learning bird calls and the names of the flora. At the time, I took it for granted. Now I realise how amazing it actually was.
Were race and culture ever something discussed in your family home?
N. My mum was of the belief that there is only one race - the human race. So there was never any discussion about division, it wasn’t a topic. We were raised to treat everybody equally, not to judge and to accept people for who they are, no matter their background. As a child, Tasmania wasn’t very multicultural but I don’t recall any racism. I feel that growing up and being involved in my parents’ tourism business helped create a normality around cultural diversity.
I don’t think I became aware of the ugliness of racism until I was much older, which I think is a nice way to grow up and be raised.
Do you recall what it was?
N. I can’t remember the first time that I saw racism first-hand but I think I first became aware toward the end of the South African apartheid. I couldn’t understand why there were divisions between people based on the colour of their skin. I remember when my youngest brother was about six and he told me that it doesn’t matter what people look like on the outside because everybody’s heart is the same colour. Children are wise.
You’ve lived in Uganda, does your identity change when you’re overseas?
N. It does. Each time I have travelled overseas, whether it’s just for a couple of weeks or for an extended period of time, my understanding of my own Tasmanian-ness and my sense of place has become stronger. My identity lies in Tasmania but my heart still lies somewhere in Uganda and I think it always will. Now that I have a son with his roots in East Africa, there will always be a connection to that place.
Living by myself in rural Uganda helped me learn a lot about myself – especially that I was stronger than I gave myself credit for. Sometimes I would spend 2-3 days by myself. I stopped over-thinking things, just went with the flow and took myself out of my comfort zone. And although so many things were out of my control, I had my anxiety under control for the first time in years.
What cultural differences were immediately and later became apparent in Uganda that were different to Australia?
N. Laziness [laughs]. People do a lot of just sitting around. And ‘African time’ is an actual thing. Africans have a different concept of time to Western culture, which became frustrating as a lecturer - especially with deadlines and lecture times. Students also soon realised that I couldn’t be bribed to pass them.
Also, respect over there is earned by your age, not by what skills or knowledge you have to offer. So being an unmarried, white female wasn’t easy. My first six months as a visiting lecturer was fine. However, once I became full time, I did notice subtle racism towards me. I was able to largely ignore it, but I decided to leave and return home before I let it get the better of me. Sadly, racism is a universal issue.
I found the sense of humour was quite similar though, which was really nice. I had lots of laughs.
On your site you speak of honestly documenting the personalities you met on your wanders, can you talk us through the process?
N. My background is in architecture and taking architectural photos of urban environments became second nature to my architecture education. Until a few years ago, I struggled to take photographs of people. However, while I was in Africa, people offered themselves to be photographed. Over time, and particularly through regularly photographing a bunch of children from the villages around the university campus, I was able to hone my skills with portrait photography.
While travelling through the Omo Valley in Ethiopia, I had my camera at my hip a lot, and took so many ninja shots while wandering through the villages and markets. They are some of my favourite photos of my 2 years in Africa.
Did you find it helped connect you with the community there?
N. Yeah, you end up stopping and talking to people you would otherwise not talk to. Children want to see the photos and then you start talking to their parents. If you see somebody who looks really interesting and you ask to take their photo, you might have a five to ten minute conversation before you actually take that photo. Having a bit of an understanding of the person can sometimes helps when photographing them. I just think travel is amazing for photography, and for just learning in general.
You describe yourself as a solo mama, what hopes do you have for your son William in terms of culture and identity?
N. That’s a really tricky question, and I don’t think there is a definitive answer. I think it is something that will evolve as he grows up.
I recall listening to Matt Okine discuss his own identity - whether he identified with being Ghanaian or Australian. He said that physically he was half and half; but that he was about 90% Australian and 10% Ghanaian because he lived in Australia, so he was ‘Aussie’. Our relationship to place, people and stories help to define identity. It will be interesting to see how William’s identity evolves and to what extent he shows interest in his African background, given he’ll grow up in Tasmania. I don’t know how he's going experience the world, and to what extent he will feel connected to his father's culture and place. I know I’ll need to be open and honest with him when he starts asking questions. Being a solo mum to a boy will have its challenges. Add to that the fact that I am (a white) mother to a biracial child in a predominately white culture, and the complexities become greater. It will be an adventure, and I’m sure there will be plenty of mistakes.
Is there a message of encouragement or advice you’d give him on growing up biracial in Australia?
N. Be kind and respectful, and be proud of your background and who you are.
There are a number of biracial and adopted children at William’s child care centre, so diversity and inclusiveness has become part of his everyday.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
NINA HAMILTON. Be confident and believe in yourself – this is something I’ve struggled with for a really long time.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo credit: Cassie Sullivan