Jane Lydon with Donna Oxenham, 2019 ‘The best day for me, looking at these old photos’: Photography and Australian Indigenous Heritage, Australian Museums and Galleries Association Magazine, 27(2), Winter, 32-34. (from Keynote to AMaGA conference 2019)
A light graffiti image of Ms Dhu is projected on a building in Perth. Ethan Blue
‘Seeing Ms Dhu: How Photographs Argue for Human Rights’ The Conversation 29 November,
A project returning photos of Aboriginal Australia from the mid 1800s back to communities sees Kimberley locals, young and old, searching for familiar faces. Meet them at http://ab.co/2z7hcxz
Posted by ABC Kimberley on Wednesday, 25 October 2017
Credit: ABC Journalist – Emily J Smith
The Returning Photos team recently returned from a successful trip to the KALACC 2017 Kimberley Cultural Festival held at Lombadina, north of Broome. After working closely with the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Centre staff for well over a year prior to the Festival, our team were able to return photographs to community members during the three day event as well as inform people about our project. As part of the event, we were grateful for the additional inclusion of photographic collections from the Berndt Museum at the University of Western Australia who hold one of the largest Aboriginal photographic archives in Australia.
We are grateful to the staff and Board Members of KALACC – in particular Mr. Tom Lawford, the Berndt Museum and of course our overseas partners who helped facilitate this project. Also many thanks to Community members who were able to add information and names to previously unidentified people.
Despite hardships endured, the Australian Aboriginal community remain one of the oldest surviving cultures on the planet.
From the mid-19th century, photographs of Aboriginal people were taken for scientific purposes and were eventually archived in museums around the world.
This culturally significant research reconnects families and country by bringing these lost ancestors home.
(Produced by the Research Impact Office at The Univerity of Western Australia)
At the turn of the twentieth century, we can see from our photographic archives that Aboriginal peoples in Western Australia were in varying stages of transition from their traditional lifestyles into a more regulated westernised existence. As with all archival collections, it is through these surviving images that we begin to understand what life may have been like for those that came before us and the hardships they had to endure to survive in a fast changing world.
As confronting as many of these images can be, it is always important for us as viewers to remember to look past the origins (the purpose of which the photograph was taken) of an image to really “see” the person within it and remember that they were someone’s mother, brother, sister or father.
As an Indigenous person working with these archives, I often wondered about the person behind the camera and what motivated them to take such photographs in the first place. Whether it was taken for scientific purposes, governmental propaganda or personal curiosity – many of these images – often staged – depict a time and space that categorized Aboriginal peoples as objects and research subjects.
One small collection of images in particular that I have been working with recently originated from the Western Australian Museum founded in 1891 but for reasons unknown were copied to the Cambridge Museum’s collections. As with many archival records from this time period, there is a limited amount of data that can be found with these records. However, we are almost certain that the photographer behind these images was John Thomas Tunney (1870-1929).
Tunney was employed by the Western Australian Museum from 1895-1906 and was responsible for adding to the Museum’s natural history collections. As part of his employment, he was required to photograph Indigenous peoples in ‘their natural state’ and collect their cultural materials/objects where possible. Throughout his fieldwork Tunney travelled broadly across Western Australia.
You can see that the majority of his photographs are more scientific in nature, however there are the occasional group images that portray Aboriginal people more informally and in a less staged manner.What Tunney’s images highlight is the fact that even though his photographs were taken here in Australia over a century ago, the fact that they -like the rest of our collections- have found a place within an Institution overseas underscores just how much interest European countries had regarding us as a people and culture. Whether it originally stemmed from a research curiosity or a genuine interest to know more about our people, without their involvement we may never have had this opportunity to give back to families’ and communities’ images of their ancestors.
Visualising Human Rights Conference
5-6 December 2016
Fremantle, Western Australia
We are pleased to announce that the Returning Photos team will be convening the “Visualising Human Rights” conference to be held in December 2016 in Fremantle, Western Australia.
This event explores the powerful role of photography in shaping our understanding of human rights
This event explores the powerful role of photography in shaping our understanding of human rights. Historically images have been a crucial way of disseminating ideas, creating a sense of proximity between peoples across the globe, and notions of a shared humanity.
In recent years scholars have begun to argue for new notions of photography that turn our attention to our responsibilities as viewers. A new interest in the medium’s social effects has displaced analysis of the photo as sign and the photographer as author, and raises compelling questions regarding affect and representation, the limits of empathy across racial, gender and class lines, and the complexity of understanding images of distant suffering. How do these insights help us to understand our own situation, and the varying forces of modern imagery? This conference seeks to explore these and other questions surrounding the historical reception of human rights via imagery and its legacies in the present.
For more information regarding the conference go to: http://www.visualisinghumanrights.com.au/
The process of returning historical photographic collections to Aboriginal communities today is a complicated process. This is why it is fundamental that the process of returning photographic materials is handled in a culturally appropriate manner. Having personally worked with Indigenous visual and audio archival collections previously and been involved with the returing of photographs to communities – some of which contained culturally sensitive materials, it is important to fully understand the significance these compilations represent for Indigenous peoples.
It is often said that a photograph can speak a thousand words, but for Indigenous peoples these archival images represent so much more. Not only do they depict images of people’s ancestors, their country and places of significance, but they become ‘living entities’ in their own right – able to remove themselves from the Western concept of ‘the past’ and place themselves within the ‘here and now’.
By recording our histories within oral traditions, Indigenous peoples were able to keep alive the memories of love ones and the knowledge of country without the necessity of the archival record. Having said that however, with greater access to relevant visual collections, our Indigenous peoples and communities today are able to amalgamate the visual image with their oral stories and histories. As a result, the concept of time becomes somewhat blurred whereby the past, present and future co-exist in the here and now.
Many collections today are welcomed by the majority of Aboriginal peoples who see these records as evidence of their survival and strength, not as depictions of a ‘dying race’ or the colonised. What is more important to community members is the people, places of significance and country that can be found within these images. The photographic archive is a powerful source of information for Aboriginal peoples. In each image we see where we’ve been and in turn what we’ve become. They are ‘living’ proof that Aboriginal people are survivors and that our culture has survived through tremendous adversity.
Visual repatriation is, in many ways, about finding a present for historical photographs, realizing their potential to seed a number of narratives through which to make sense of the past in the present and make it fulfill the needs of the present.
Traditionally, Aboriginal people recorded their history orally and were able to keep alive the memories of loved ones and the knowledge of country without the necessity of the written word or archival record. Since colonisation however, people’s oral histories in many places have become fragmented. With access to relevant photographic collections, Indigenous people/communities today are able to amalgamate the archival image with their oral histories. As a result, the concept of time becomes somewhat blurred whereby the past, present and future co-exist in the here and now. Not only do they depict images of people’s ancestors, their country and places of significance, but they become ‘living entities’ in their own right – able to remove themselves from the spectrum of time and the Western concept of ‘the past’ and place themselves within the ‘here and now’.
In the past, Indigenous interaction with Institutions like museums and state government run libraries and departments have been limited and one sided. In many cases Indigenous peoples had become the object and subject of archival collections –collected and archived through the eyes of the non-Indigenous outsider. However, with greater access to resources that allow Aboriginal communities greater agency, the process of reconciling aspects of the past can begin. With Aboriginal peoples now looking back at these institutions through the looking glass (so to speak), the relationship between institutions and Aboriginal people can be based upon a more equal footing.
Finally, with access to these images, we as Indigenous people are able to come full circle – what was then has become the now. For many today, finding and receiving images of one’s ancestors may be the only link people have to their pasts. It is especially relevant for members of the Stolen Generations who were forcibly removed from their families and cultural heritage. Thus, they are able to begin a healing process and find – for want of a better term – an ‘end in the beginning’. It is also rewarding to be a part of a process that can also bring so much joy to many Indigenous families and communities who are able to view images of their ancestors long since departed. What was once a research tool used to “study” Aboriginal peoples, the photographic archive has now become an amazing window into our pasts.