black + white, Indigenous, roadtrip

The Lumen Seed: Adelaide book launch

March 10, 2017

I will be  helping  Paul Atkins to launch  Judith Crispin’s  recent  book,  The Lumen Seed, at Atkins Photo Lab  gallery on Friday, the 17th March at 6pm. The launch will consist of an exhibition of some of Judith’s prints from the book, some background images made whilst we were at Lajamanu in the Tanami Desert in 2016,  and a conversation between Judith and myself about the book. The conversation will link photography in the form of a book  to contemporary  issues in the Humanities.Some of my snaps from the 2016 trip to Lajamanu will be amongst  the  background images.

The Lumen Seed raises  issues  for me about taking photography within remote Indigenous communities.  I only took  a few photos whilst at Lajamanu on this  trip,  as I felt like a cultural tourist,  and I was uncomfortable in that role. I  also wanted to avoid  viewing Warlpirri people at Lajamanu through the eyes of both  colonial anthropology and the eyes of 21st century ecology.

Tin, Lajamanu

Classical Anthropology  used photography as visual evidence for scientific (anthropological and ethnographic) research, and it historically worked with a  colonial gaze that had its  roots in the  evolutionary conception of primitivism (lowly race compared to western culture as the  pinnacle of civilisation ) in the  Darwinism of the colonial past. This colonial gaze viewed  indigenous people as objects,  whilst modern ecology, faced with  the massive loss of life-support systems, reverses the evolutionary model and constructs  Aboriginal primitivism  by seeing  indigenous people as close to Nature in  contrast to the present white Australian (corrupted) civilisation that is hostile to nature. Indigenous people are constructed as iving peacefully in tune with the nature  and preserving their ancient, “natural” wisdom.

The  photographs I  had in  the back of my mind  were those in  Spencer and Gillen’s early work in central Australia –ie., their photographs of ritual  performances (ceremonies) of   the Arrernte people of the McDonnell Ranges. These were done  the late 19th century and they  formed the basis for their Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899) book.

Aboriginal people, in this text, were  seen as dehumanized “survivals” from an early stage of social development. The inference was that Aboriginal traditions will not adapt and survive in changed forms, but rather will be misunderstood, trampled on and destined to disappear.  Since survival was believed impossible, it was  important to document  the ‘dying race’ of the ‘childhood of man’. A close study of Aborigines, whose demise was only a matter of time,   could provide an insight into the very origins of humankind.

This early work  of Francis Gillen, the post and telegraph stationmaster in Alice Springs, had both a strong documentary and landscape  photographic component. This work in the field, as it were, stands in marked contrast to the pictures of  commercial photographers such as  Douglas Kilburn,  J.W. Lindt, Charles Kerry, Henry King, Harold Cazneaux and Frederick Joyner  who were city photographers, and whose encounters with the bush were short and relatively superficial. They depicted  indigenous people as “noble savages” often with studio backdrops, and the pictures   were  tragic set-ups of a people who are losing their way of life.

The discrepancy between representation and reality was reconciled in colonial discourse by viewing the  photo of aboriginal person as portraying as a racial   type, rather than an individual person. Throughout the nineteenth century Australian Aboriginal people were considered a crucial piece of the global jigsaw, playing a significant part in Western conceptions of progress and civilization by supplying evidence for ‘humanity’s childhood’. Many of these studio photos were globally circulated and collected by key European museums, who have  significant museum collections of  photographs of Australian Aboriginal people.


Francis Gillen, Arrernte elders, Alice Springs, Central Australia, 1896.

One  of the more significant outcome of the Horn  Expedition was the meeting of Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen, the Postmaster and Special Magistrate at Alice Springs Telegraph Station, during the last weeks of the Expedition. Gillen’s work was a more sympathetic documentary-style images of Aborigine people  in their environment.

Gillen and Spencer’s chief concern was to record the secret-sacred practices of Indigenous people. Their photographs in their Native Tribes of Central Australia can also be contrasted to the explorer photographers, such as  Dr. Elliott  associated with the 1891-2  Elder Scientific Exploring Expedition,   Baldwin Spence’s photography on the Horn Scientific Expedition of 1894,  and the photographs taken by Herbert Basedow on the 1903 government funded South Australian North West Expedition.  Gillen and Baldwin’s 120 photographs is a substantial corpus of ceremonial photographs of the Arrernte people, and it shows the  ‘other’ (primitive man or savage races) against which white colonial Australia sought to construct itself  as mediated by external representations of the Aboriginal, produced or constructed primarily in Europe.

Judith avoided both the colonial gaze (the dying race’, or ‘the most backward and wretched’ race on earth,  or the ‘evolutionary relic’ ) and the ecological gaze  (eternal pristine primitivity and permanent opposition to civilisation) by becoming a part of  the present day Warlpirri community at Lajamanu,  and by working with the Warlpirri elders. So her photos were of human subjects who were  her friends and acquaintances. That approach, which involves a lot of trips and extended stays  to Lajamanu in order  to develop relationships within the Warlpirri community, is at odds with the influential death and despair narrative of the negative depiction of powerless, vulnerable people in  remote aboriginal communities.

My own attempts were  very tentative and quite minimal:

Ursula, Emu Waterhole, Lajamanu

The  problem that I struggle with  is that the traditional photography of Indigenous people  by white photographers   positions the person behind the camera as subject and Indigenous people as objects. This overlooks the way that Indigenous people were not passive victims,  and how the camera may  be used to communicate or express Indigenous views though collaboration with Indigenous people. An example is the Warlpiri people’s aspiration to continue living close to their customary lands and to pursue a life that differs in many ways from mainstream Australia.

This includes making Aboriginal Australians visible,  photographing their experiences from an explicitly Indigenous perspective   and  countering the degrading historical imagery of the colonial documentary tradition.   From this emerges the politicalised and self-reflective Indigenous photography movement in the 1980s—Mervyn Bishop, Tracy Moffat, Brenda L Croft,  Michael Riley and Ricky Maynard.

My  response to the above issues was to wear the hat of a photographer on a road trip.

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