Learning to See “Diamonds in the Rough” Among Us

People thought there was no film in the camera so they usually humored the odd little man who showed up at every wedding in the town of Maryborough, Australia for nearly 50 years.

Wal Richards, an illiterate, mentally and physically disabled man, rode his bicycle to weddings and photographed them for decades, amassing 20,000 photographs that no one had ever seen until after his death in 1967. Here is a bit of his story (and be sure and see/hear the audio slide show).

The Maryborough-Midlands Historical Society has exhibited the photographs to the delight of the townspeople who had not taken Wal too seriously as he’d randomly showed up, uninvited, at weddings. But it turns out that in many cases his were the only photographic records of a particular wedding. They also serve to document a town’s marriages, relationships and social occasions as well as the fashion history of five decades.

Wal is the sort of man who would have been referred to, before it became (thankfully) politically incorrect to do so, as “the village idiot.” Our towns and cities still have such people, of course, whom we ignore, walk around, avoid, and even belittle. And we certainly don’t ascribe artistic gifts or merit to them, much less figure that they just may be providing a vital service.

Professional jobs, titles, status and prestige wow and awe us, when there are plenty of less-impressive-seeming people among us with incredible talent or simply critical jobs that really impact our lives. 

I was with a friend once, homeless at the time. We were talking about work and whether various jobs are redemptive, bringing order out of chaos, beauty out of mess. My friend said, “Well, I clean the toilets in one of the city parks, and I can tell you that if you show up before I do my work and then again after, you will feel that those toilets have been redeemed. There’s nothing like cleaning shit off of things to redeem it.” That conversation flipped the switch in my brain, making me take another look at which people and what work I instinctively elevate or value (erroneously).

And Wal Richards’ story challenged me too. An easily ignorable man with a bike, assumed to be humoring himself with a camera without film, turned out to be chronicling a place and time. He’s he sort of person I could easily overlook or misjudge. He’s now posthumously a town hero.

Who’s among us now, and how could we be open to having eyes to see them while they’re still around? And maybe even celebrating their talents or contributions, even (or especially) if packaged in ways that we usually ignore or denigrate?


PHOTO of Wal Richards from Maryborough-Midlands History Society website


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