Navy photographer remembers Timor deployment two decades on

Published on Department of Defence (author)

Location(s): Dili, Timor-Leste

Topic(s): Operations, Commemoration

Chief Petty Officer Damian Pawlenko during the INTERFET deployment. (photo: )
Chief Petty Officer Damian Pawlenko during the INTERFET deployment.

As the Australian Defence Force participates in activities to mark the anniversary of the INTERFET (International Force East Timor) deployment 20 years ago, one Navy photographer still receives requests for the imagery he captured on the deployment.

The Officer in Charge of Navy Imagery Unit - West, Chief Petty Officer Damian Pawlenko, said one of his photos was displayed in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

“I deployed at short notice from Darwin to Dili, as part of a two-person team with Public Affairs Officer Lieutenant Emma Williams, on the catamaran HMAS Jervis Bay,” Chief Petty Officer Pawlenko said.

“We worked mainly from HMA Ships Success, Jervis Bay and Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Protecteur, and also from the Hotel Turismo in Dili.

“The streets were in disarray at the time, with lots of rubbish and debris on the side, including faeces, and there wasn’t any order to the place.

“There was also burning fires and smoke everywhere along the streets, with a real third-world country smell in the air.”

Chief Petty Officer Pawlenko said high temperatures and humidity in Timor-Leste were a challenge for processing his film.

“I had a Jobo portable colour film processor that I used both on Success and in the Hotel Turismo,” he said.

“I couldn’t keep the temperature of the processing chemicals down and had to process the film at a higher temperature.

“Most of the time the film ended up okay, but on some occasions they were slightly magenta in colour, caused by high temperatures.  

“I had to dry the wet film in a portable film dryer with soft collapsible sides that was hung up, which allowed the film to hang all the way down and dry, and I also had a portable 35 millimetre film scanner.”

Chief Petty Officer Pawlenko said taskings were decided on a day-to-day basis and nothing was really forecasted.

“We kept our ear to the ground and heard from various people what was happening in the coming days,” he said.

“While in East Timor, I worked mainly with the Clearance Diving Teams and Hydrographic Teams from HMA Ships Brunei and Balikpapan in various locations around the country.”

According to the imagery specialist, it was a challenge to be a photographer in and around Dili at that time.

“But I met some great people along the way and had great experiences, and it’s a period in my life I will never forget,” he said.

“I thought the work was invaluable and extremely important at the time, to capture the Australian Defence Force’s involvement in the operation for immediate use and for historical purposes.

“Looking back, I think it was an important time for the ADF to be involved in stabilising a neighbouring country and I feel proud to have played a role in East Timor.”