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Tim Hillier Skates, Takes Photos, and Makes Hip Hop With Indigenous Kids

He's a gentle fellow, who doesn't eat meat, but loves going on adventures and staying out late. He skates with a straight-backed, no-fuss finesse, the way that everyone wants to skate these days.

I've known Tim Hillier for about 10 years now. In fact, we used to be housemates. He's a gentle fellow, who doesn't eat meat, but loves going on adventures and staying out late. He skates with a straight-backed no-fuss finesse, the way that everyone wants to skate these days. Tim takes lots of photos and makes films too. We had a talk about all that, then I listened to the recorded conversation and typed all the words down. Then I edited it a bit.

VICE: How long have you been taking photos?
Tim Hillier: I guess I've been taking photos in a serious way for about 10 years. I took photos and made videos of skateboarding throughout high school, but I never took it that seriously.

What turned it into a serious thing?
Rick (McCrank, pro skater) was out here from Canada and he told me I should buy an Olympus mju II, because they're rad to have and you can just take photos of everything. This was pre-digital. So I bought one and realised it was really fun. That was probably the same year that my close friend Sarah Larnach started going to art school, and she brought home photos from that the very first Ryan McGinley book, Nan Goldin books, William Eggleston books and all that sort of snapshot style stuff. Being exposed to photographers who worked like that made me inspired to take photos consistently. I'd drop off three or four rolls a week.

Did you consciously alter the way you took photos at that point?
I think that was the point I found where I fitted in with what I was trying to do, so it more influenced me to actually do what I wanted to do.

And I guess as a skater, the exposure you'd had to that sort of photography was pretty limited before that.
As a skater, you grow up so involved with photography and video that it's in everything about your life. I watched Blind Video Days every day for like five years, to the point where my mum knew the video back to front.

I remember when I lived in Adelaide, I was one of the only guys who skated and took photos, but when I moved to Melbourne and moved in with you and you would always be like, "I'm going to take some photos of some empty carparks," and I realised you were just like me and there were all these other people who were into the same thing.
That was at that particular time as well, because Conor O'Brien had been doing it for a couple of years, then you moved here, and there were all sorts of people who skated with us but we had other interests outside of that. That influenced me a lot as well.

Do you feel like, careful what you wish for, because everybody skates and takes photos now?
Yeah, but it's good, I like it. When you're growing, you're finding a voice for yourself and a camera is such a great way to find that character.

Is your approach to photography changing as you get older?
I find I work more towards making a series these days. I take photos all the time but I'm looking for specific things, whereas back then I'd just take photos of everything.

What have you been up to for the past year or so with that?
For the past nearly two years, my work has been based around the IHHP – Indigenous Hip-Hop Projects. They're mostly weeklong projects where we go to remote Indigenous communities and work with the kids around health promotion stuff, based around breakdancing and hip-hop dancing and making hip-hop songs. On the Monday we'll write a song with the kids, Tuesday we'll record the song, Wednesday to Thursday I'll go out and make a video clip, then Friday edit it and screen it at a big disco on Friday night. It's all based around making the kids feel proud, because youth suicide is a massive issue in these communities. It builds the kids' confidence.

Do you think it's working?
When you go back and see the kids growing up, you realise they're so much more respectful to their elders and to themselves.

So what started off as a cool job has turned into something more?
Our next plan is to make it into a television show or a feature length doco. I'm not sure yet, but I want to help build it so these kids' messages get out to more people.

Has the experience changed the way you look at living here, and what you do?
It's so removed from the rest of Australia. Especially in remote communities where these kids have their one pair of shorts, you know. It's about being happy with what you have. You talk to these kids living in third world conditions and you ask them what they'd change about their communities, and they wouldn't change anything. They love where they live.

The images you've given me for this piece are all portraits and we've been talking a bit about portraiture lately, about the background work that goes into these portraits.
It's a level of engagement the photographer has with the subject and that shows in different people's techniques. We were talking about Terry Richardson, how in his portraits there's so much of his outlandishness in the photos and how the people react to him. You compare him to say, James Nachtwey who has a completely different approach. His is more calm, considered and sympathetic.

They're both very effective.
Yeah. I feel like the great portrait photographers show as much of themselves as they do the subject. Like the kids in my portraits, they're kids I've hung out with for a few weeks. If I had just flown in and out in one day there's no way I could get those portraits. But because I'm playing basketball and football, going dancing and making these video clips with them, they're much more open. Indigenous youth in general are very timid about cameras, so to get these photos takes a lot of respect.

What about the other photos in the series?
They're my close friends. Darren had just hit his head skateboarding at Prahran. He was dazed, and he had to go to hospital, but before he went I took that photo. If I didn't know him I couldn't have got that photo because that would've been nasty.

Do you ever find that people freeze up a bit when you take portraits of them?
I think it's a generational thing. A lot of younger kids know how to pose, whereas our older friends still find it a weird situation.

At this point in the interview, our friend Dave walks past and says hello. Tim comments on his "amazing outfit" and Dave says, "You're feeling that? Thank you." Tim asks if he can take his portrait and Dave happily obliges. It's a good point to end the interview.

Max is a writer, photographer, jeans master, and sometimes skater. Follow him on Instagram: @maxolijnyk