Artist Profile: Michael Jalaru Torres

Artist Profile: Michael Jalaru Torres

Regional Arts WA

Michael Jalaru Torres understands there’s no perfect straight line to follow when chasing your dreams. The journey is more of a zig zag, and that’s perfectly okay.

Michael is an Indigenous man with short hair and a short greying beard. He wears dark clothes, stands against a dark background and does not smile. In his hands is a bouquet of red bottlebrush flowers. Michael Jalaru Torres. Photo by Michael Jalaru Torres.

A graphic designer by trade, Michael spent 18 years working in radio and television before purchasing his first digital camera and trying his hand at photography. But it wasn’t easy to figure out what he wanted to shoot, and the camera sat in its box for six months unused.

Even after picking up the camera, it took Michael two or three years to work out what type of photographer he was. He explored every genre imaginable, reverse-engineering the images he liked, and learned by trial and error.

His work now draws on his own stories and personal history, exploring contemporary social and political issues facing Indigenous people. He tells his stories through abstract landscapes and intimate portraiture photographed on Country. Pulling from his experience in graphic design, he often incorporates etching and drawing into his extraordinary pieces.

Two Indigenous women hugging with their eyes closed in close embrace. Image is very dark in black and white with a black background. Jija. Native exhibition. “The strength in the embrace of a sister heals trauma.” Photo by Michael Jalaru Torres.

Living in Broome as a single father, Michael found his inspiration online. There weren’t many galleries they could get to easily, and not a lot of other photographers doing similar work to connect with. Looking after his young daughter meant his passions had to come second.

In 2000, Michael’s life was rocked by a diagnosis of aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He was told he should consider palliative care rather than treatment. Instead, he pushed for treatment and ultimately became a cancer survivor.

Watching people in similar situations lose their battles took its toll. In the aftermath of his diagnosis, Michael found himself dealing with depression and survivor’s guilt. His rock during this time was his daughter, and he promised her he would one day tell their story.

When his daughter went away to boarding school in 2014, Michael found himself with more time to explore, hone his craft, and network with others in the industry. He made himself some business cards and booked plane tickets for Perth, Melbourne, and Sydney. He went into every gallery he could find that exhibited photography works to introduce himself.

Abstract landscape of the sky and clouds as they blend from bright blue to dark orange. Minyirr. Native exhibition. “The colours of my country, the colours of my Liyan (spirit).” Photo by Michael Jalaru Torres.

In Sydney he found a small gallery called Contact Sheet. They were impressed that he had travelled all way from the Kimberley to see their gallery space and offered him a wall in a group show. Michael knew he needed to mingle with people and came up with a way to get people talking to him.

His idea worked and the pindan became the most popular attraction in the exhibition – even more so than the artworks themselves! Everyone wanted to have a little red dirt of their own to take home.

A person stands against a grey background with an armful of native Australian plants. They have a banskia plant for a head, and a long white line painted across their arms and onto their chest. Empowerment. Native exhibition. “The empowerment of the modern native woman.” Photo by Michael Jalaru Torres.

Michael’s dedication to learning, and networking has proven time and time again to be an asset. Group shows at the Fremantle Art Centres’ Revealed Exhibition, and the Art Gallery of WA’s Desert River Sea allowed him to connect with curators and improve his work from their feedback. He strengthened his technical and storytelling skills, being invited to bigger and bigger group shows until he was finally offered a solo exhibition.

His first solo exhibition Scar looked at the traditional practice of carving or scarring surfaces. He painted the chests of his subjects, photographed them in intimate portraits, then scratched the surfaces of the photos. Each image detailed social issues in his community, such as suicide and oppression.

He sold this work in a series of one-off prints, deleting the digital copies after the exhibition. The only people who can see this work are those that purchased the prints. People called him nuts for deleting the files, but Michael sees it more as giving power back to print photography.

The torso of an Indigenous man against a black background. The man has lines painted up his torso and curved down his upper arm. The line ends in two straight lines around his elbow. Scar One exhibition print. Photo by Michael Jalaru Torres.

In 2018 Michael moved to Melbourne. Now married with a second child, they decided it was time to visit his wife’s hometown and see her family. While there, he decided to pivot towards commercial photography.

Despite the move giving him more freedom to create, Michael found it difficult to crack into the Melbourne scene and struggled to connect with the landscape of his new home. Melbourne’s mushy greens and browns were a far cry from the vibrant reds and blues he was used to.

As a Djugan and Yawuru man with tribal connections to Jabirr Jabbir and Gooniyandi people from Northern Broome and the Fitzroy Valley, the people in Melbourne just looked different from home. He couldn’t physically shoot any of his ideas.

A man stands against a very large tree, he wears a white jumpsuit and a black mask over his mouth and nose. The image has been taken from a distance to show all the leaves and branches of the tree. The image is black and white except for a small patch of orange smoke around the mans feet. Exif 2018. Photo by Michael Jalaru Torres.

Returning to Broome to reconnect with his personal history and share the stories of his Auntie’s and elders, Michael was also able to finally deliver on his promise to his daughter by telling their story.

Tether opens up about surviving cancer and depression while raising his daughter. Visually, the work creates a connection between the sun, moon, earth, and stars to portray the bond between father and daughter.

Michael says Tether is his strongest personal work, taking a deep look at his own personal legacy. Much of his work showcases forgotten black history in WA and Australia. History such as blackbirding, Agent Orange, and the spraying of the Fitzroy River.

His work is not designed to teach people about the history, but rather to empower people to seek out that knowledge for themselves.

An Indigenous man with curly hair around his face bends over with his hands cupped in front of him. He looks to left over his shoulder. The background is a dark blue and an orange light shines from the inside of the man's hands onto his torso. Blood of my Blood. Tether exhibition. “Blood of my blood binds us; her glowing warmth illuminates the void as I give sanctuary to her evolving soul.” Photo by Michael Jalaru Torres.

After struggling to find his own place in the industry, Michael wants to make it easier for others to get their start by creating pathways for emerging Indigenous photographers to follow.

While living in Melbourne, he began a partnership with the AFL to create pathways for emerging photographers.

He also created the First Sight project in partnership with the Head On Foundation, mentoring emerging First Nation photographers on how to exhibit fine art photography. This project meant teaching others how to get their files ready and correct for printing, how to select images, how to write names and descriptions, and what goes into putting on an exhibition with a showcase at the Head On Photo festival in Sydney.

Michael used the Head On project as a resource for connecting with other Indigenous photographers. From there, he formed a group of likeminded people in a new community-led initiative they call Blak Lens.

An Indigenous man is repeated in five different poses against the night sky. The sky is a swirl of black, blue, green and white. The figures are in almost silhouette, and appear to be floating toward the sky with arms outstretched. Curved lines of small white dots are superimposed over the image in circles. Drift. Scar 3 exhibition. “Generations drift silently, history echoing the scars left by the greed of stolen wealth.” Photo by Michael Jalaru Torres.

Launching on January 26 Blak Lens has ambitions to become the peak body for Indigenous photo media, encompassing all forms of photography and videography. Michael hopes the initiative can work towards changing the perspective of black photography in Australia and push the industry to better embrace Indigenous photographers.

Michael explains, he sees a lot of young Indigenous folk getting into photography, but they never know what to do. They get lost and don’t let themselves mature as storytellers. He wants to let them know they don’t need to get it right the first time. It’s not a straight line to the end, it’s more of a zig zag.

An Indigenous man with curly hair around his face stands against a black background. He looks towards the floor with his hands stretched out at his sides. He is shirtless and wears only jeans. Curved lines that look like a snake have been superimposed over his torso and around his arms. Onus. Tether 2.0 Exhbition. Photo by Michael Jalaru Torres.

If you are excited to see more from Michael, he will be showing an exhibition of his work Jurru (snake) from 29 January – 6 June 2022 at the Art Gallery of Western Australia as part of the BlakLight Festival. The show will consist of works from early in his career to present with a focus on his Jurru story.

For more information on Michael Jalaru Torres visit his websites: Jalaru Fine Art Photography or Jalaru Photography. To connect and follow the journey on social media head to Facebook or Instagram – Jalaru Photography and Jalaru Art. To contact Michael, email or phone 0400 569 688.

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