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'Green Can Dreaming': The REAL story behind the confronting photo of Aboriginal drinkers surrounded by empty VB cans that shocked the world

Daily Mail logo Daily Mail 7/03/2018 Felicity Hetherington

a group of people in a forest: Paul Blackmore took this picture of Aboriginal drinkers surrounded by a circle of crushed Victoria Bitter beer cans which he titled 'Green Can Dreaming' while on assignment for Time Australia at Borroloola, about 1,000km south-east of Darwin © Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited Paul Blackmore took this picture of Aboriginal drinkers surrounded by a circle of crushed Victoria Bitter beer cans which he titled 'Green Can Dreaming' while on assignment for Time Australia at Borroloola, about 1,000km south-east of Darwin The real story behind a confronting photograph showing a group of Aboriginal drinkers surrounded by a ring of hundreds of Victoria Bitter beer cans can be told for the first time. 

Award-winning photographer Paul Blackmore took the picture at Borroloola in the Northern Territory while on assignment for Time Australia magazine.

He titled the shot 'Green Can Dreaming' - a Territory term combining the local phrase for Victoria Bitter with a common contraction of 'dreamtime', which describes Aboriginal existence and spiritual beliefs.

Blackmore could not take the same picture today. Current legislation limits takeaway sales of alcohol in Borroloola to cans of mid-strength beer - 18 per person per day -  so it is no longer possible to buy VB.

The picture first appeared as a two-page spread in an edition of Time on August 14, 2006 with a story titled 'The Demon Drink' and quickly became the basis for distasteful emails about Aborigines and drinking.

It also won the Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Photography Award and its depressing reality shocked those who saw it around the world. Many people who viewed the image refused to believe it could be real.

Blackmore, whose photographic essays have appeared in international titles including L'Express and Le Monde as well as local magazines, told Daily Mail Australia how 'Green Can Dreaming' came to be taken. 

The Sydney-based snapper had long been interested in indigenous affairs and had captured plenty of positive images of Aboriginal people in the past. After a stint living in France he returned to Australia and decided the real story of remote communities was not being told.

'I thought this is the reality and it's got to be shown,' he said. 'It does need to be reported. That was my starting point.'

Blackmore had travelled widely in the Northern Territory but was still disturbed by what he found at Borroloola, a town on the McArthur River about 970km south-east of Darwin, particularly in the local hotel.

At the time Borroloola had a population of 773 residents - 74.9 per cent of them Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders - with only 38 aged over 65, according to the 2016 Census.  

'The amount of alcohol the pub was selling was frightening,' Blackmore said. 

'They were selling something like 70,000 cans of beer a week.'

The pub, which has since closed, already had a long and violent history. In 1998 a man called Peter Fittock shot dead his pregnant ex-girlfriend Debbie Batzler at the hotel.

During his trip Blackmore met mother-of-five Ruth Rory, whose drunk partner had bashed her so severely with a tree branch the previous year her leg had to be amputated.

'It was a wild scene,' Blackmore said. 'Really unbelievable. It was a free-for-all. A Wild West scene.

'Right next to the pub was this huge pile of green cans, as far as the eye could see. Just masses of them.' 

Blackmore got some shots inside the hotel but the licensee was not keen on publicity.

One afternoon an indigenous patron hoisted a case of VB cans on his shoulder and asked Blackmore outside for a drink. They walked about 500m to a clearing where they met five other drinkers, one man and four women. 

The group was surrounded by a circle of crushed VB cans and cardboard cartons. Blackmore instantly knew he had the opportunity to capture a powerful image. 

'It was perfectly circular,' he said. 'It was like a midden. And they're sitting around it in a perfect shape. The circular thing and the fact that it was in that beautiful bush setting.

'I asked if I could take a photo and they said yes. I got permission and started photographing, then felt like that was enough.

'I could have gone in closer and got shots of individuals.

'I walked into this scene. It was offered to me in a way. I thought "take the photo and then move on from it".

'It was one of those shots that just tells the story instantly.'  

For some time after the picture's publication a poor-quality photocopy was circulated in racist emails and it still appears on crude online discussions about Aboriginal drinking.

'It's been one of those images,' Blackmore said. 

'I was aware after it got published people picked it up and it was emailed around.

'It can be used out of context. I was only aware that it was used for a little while after it was published.'

In one such use the picture was captioned 'Who's ready for Friday drinks?'

While 'Green Can Dreaming' depicts a real outback drinking session, Blackmore says it is important to note heavy alcohol consumption is more likely to take place in public in the Northern Territory than in capital cities.

'In Darwin it's hard not to be aware of people drinking in the park,' he said. 'That's the thing about drinking in the Territory - it's done in public. That's why you see it. 

'[In urban Australia] a lot of boozing is hidden, out of sight. 

'Half of Sydney, if you asked them to put their empty wine bottles and beer cans down next to the lawn it'd be a shocking scene. But it's all out in the open in the Territory.'

Blackmore returned to Borroloola in 2016 - 'I braced myself' - but found a different scene.

'People were drinking and stuff but it was nothing like it was before,' he said.  'I was shocked how much it had changed. Just having that pub closed down.

'It felt like a ghost town compared to what it was. It felt like it had cleaned itself up a bit.'  

#borroloola #rodeo #nt #outback #australia

A post shared by Paul Blackmore (@paulblackmorephoto) on

In 2016 there were 871 people living in Borroloola, 76.1 per cent were Aboriginal or Torres Straight Islanders, and only 55 were over the age of 65.

Northern Territory Government Department of Health alcohol restrictions for Borroloola now cover who can drink what and where.

It is legal to drink in the town itself but the nearby Mara Camp, Yanyula Camp, Garawa 1 Camp and Garawa 2 Camp are 'alcohol protected areas', meaning drinking alcohol is strictly banned.

Anyone buying takeaway alcohol in the Northern Territory needs photo identification to prove they are not on the 'banned drinker register'.

Since the closure of the Borroloola Inn, the nearest pub selling takeaway alcohol is the Heartbreak Hotel at Crawford Creek, about 100km south-west of the town.

The Malandari Store in Borroloola also sells takeaway alcohol but only from 2.30pm to 5.30pm, Monday to Saturday. It does not trade on Sundays.

Only mid-strength (not more than 3.5 per cent alcohol) canned beer is available to Borroloola residents with a limit of 18 cans per person per day. That means no VB and no 'green can dreaming'. 

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