Made with the Warlpiri of Central Australia
The publication in 1899 of The Native Tribes of Central Australia caused a sensation in Europe. The book’s authors, telegraph-station master Francis J. Gillen and ethnologist W. Baldwin Spencer, had written in depth about the customs and traditions of the Aboriginal groups living near Alice Springs and also illustrated their texts with 119 photographs, many of which captured rituals and ceremonies. While the subject, quality and quantity of the images set a new standard for anthropological photography, the authors were largely oblivious to the impact they would have on the lives of the Aboriginals. The pictures revealed the gap in knowledge between the authors, whose goal was showing the exotic natives “in their natural state”, and the subjects, who were completely unaware of the new medium and how it could invade their privacy or reveal their secrets to a wider audience. Unwittingly or not, the authors also infringed upon Aboriginal cultural protocols by showing sacred sites and the dead. Attitudes have changed since Gillen and Baldwin Spencer first ventured in the Central Desert with a camera and institutions have taken extensive measures to ensure that cultural sensitivity is respected. Today, photography within Aboriginal communities is limited and historical images are often “restricted”. Over the past four years, I have taken photographs in the Yeundumu and Nyirrpi Aboriginal communities, and in the surrounding Warlpiri country. After making prints, I returned to Central Australia to work with artists and other members of those same communities at the Warlukurlangu Art Centre, so they could restrict and amend my photographs through the process of painting.