Tour of Duty. Photographs by Matthew Sleeth. Text by Paul James. Hardie Grant, Melbourne, 2004. 112 pp. Small quarto. First printing. Signed on title page. Stiff photo-illustrated wrappers. 96 color reproductions.
Matthew Sleeth's book of photographs, TOUR OF DUTY constitutes a significant and sustained visual investigation into the international presence in East Timor immediately following the Independence ballot. It must primarily be viewed in the context of the plethora of images which have been published and broadcast over the period of Australia's participation and which indeed have contributed to our national understanding of this involvement. What we mostly saw in our press and on TV, was either the genuinely abject plight of the East Timorese on the one hand and on the other, the heroic InterFET peacekeepers coming in to save the day. Media presentation and publicity of the Australian presence was carefully orchestrated and milked for every patriotic possibility. Sleeth uses the visual vocabulary of traditional documentary photography and disturbs and undermines it with techniques and angles borrowed from cinema. His vivid colours and jaunty angles humorously yet incisively track the Australian army and the accompanying media and entertainment caravan in Timor to form an impression quite unlike the one we have received from our mainstream press. A far more complex view emerges, formed of multiple layers of meaning. The East Timorese people are not featured as victims as they often are in traditional photojournalism, nor are they bit players in their own redemptive drama. Instead we are given a challenging body of work which focuses rather on the construction and staging of history. The photographs are accompanied by a five-part essay by political commentator Paul James, which discusses Australia's national identity through the prism of past and present military engagements.