Posted to the Ethnos Project by on March 17th, 2012


This paper considers the intersection of Aboriginal traditions surrounding photography and the use of new technologies as both a research tool and a community resource. Over recent decades Australian cultural institutions have radically altered their management of photographic archives in response to changing political and intellectual circumstances – especially Indigenous advocacy. A sense of moral obligation has become the arbiter of new cultural protocols that have moved far beyond legal provisions for protecting intellectual property. Experiments with new digital tools attempt to understand and balance the role of photographs of Aboriginal people within Indigenous and Western knowledge systems. However, cultural protocols rely significantly upon representations of “remote” Aboriginal communities in northern Australia that emphasize difference and reify practices that may in fact be fluid, and overlap with Western values. In the aftermath of colonialism, photographs are important to Aboriginal communities, especially in southern Australia, not merely as an extension of tradition, but also in the context of colonial dispossession and loss. As a form of Indigenous memory the photographic archive may address the exclusions and dislocations of the recent past, recovering missing relatives and stories, and revealing a history of photographic engagement between colonial photographers and Indigenous subjects.


In 1992 Roslyn Poignant “repatriated” photographs produced by her husband Axel Poignant four decades earlier, to Indigenous descendants (Burarra, Nakk ra and Kunib dji peoples) at Maningrida in Arnhem Land, northern Australia. She noted that the dominant theme of “almost every photo viewing session: [was] the sense in which the photographs established continuities of self and families and made biographies and genealogies visible” (74. See also Poignant and Poignant). Poignant explored how relatives incorporated photographs into traditional kinship structures such as avoidance relationships – where men may not have any contact with their mothers-in-law, for example. Prohibitions upon naming the deceased for a lengthy mourning period were traditionally observed – and such restrictions were extended to viewing their photographic image. Poignant’s nuanced analysis is one of many studies that have explored the incorporation of photographs into Aboriginal social practices as an extension of Indigenous tradition (see also, for example, Mulvaney, Morphy, and Petch 157). Such accounts have become very influential in shaping popular and “expert” views of Indigenous visual cultures. Here, however, I wish to draw attention to the ways in which colonial images have assumed new meanings in the context of colonial dispossession and loss. Photographs help to constitute technologies of Indigenous memory through a range of practices that construct the past in the present, including by revealing unknown ancestors lost during the displacements of colonialism, and substantiating Indigenous stories and experiences formerly hidden from view.

However, current legal and ethical frameworks that govern the management of photographic archives in Australian cultural institutions have been shaped by Indigenous demands for control over more traditional forms of cultural heritage. These forms are most obviously defined by exoticism – aspects of Indigenous culture that are most clearly defined in terms of difference from mainstream values and practices. The development of policies regarding photographs mirrors the higher profile movement to repatriate human remains and secret-sacred objects, as well as being shaped by the campaign for recognition of Indigenous cultural and intellectual property. In this domain, mainstream ideas about photography rely significantly upon ethnographic studies from “remote” Aboriginal communities that emphasize the incorporation of the medium into traditional social organization. Such assumptions foreground difference and reify practices which may in fact be more fluid and overlap with Western values; in some cases they overlook important differences between Indigenous communities in northern and southern Australia, and collude with essentializing notions of Indigenes as either traditionally “authentic” or altered and “inauthentic”.

In what follows I try to identify and emphasize the current role of the photographic archive as a form of Indigenous memory that is recuperative, intersubjective and intercultural: that is, how such archives are potentially of use in helping to recover family and stories lost through the dislocations of colonialism, so revealing a process of image making, and a history, that is interactive and cross-cultural. As Indigenous intellectual Marcia Langton argued fifteen years ago, “the problem” with analysis of the visual representation of “Aborigines lies in the positioning of us as object, and the person behind the camera as subject” (39). In contradistinction to a substantial literature that defines colonial photography simply as the white photographer’s view, I argue for the importance of acknowledging how the camera served historically as a medium of interaction between white settlers and Indigenous peoples, shaping the social processes of identity formation and cultural exchange. Subsequently, colonial photographs have now become a crucial technology of Indigenous memory – an important means of producing and processing the past in the present. As I explore further, these photos help create memories that are shaped by the material and technological means available to reproduce, archive, and retrieve them: as Pierre Nora famously argued, “modern memory is above all, archival. It relies entirely upon the materiality of the trace, the immediacy of the recording, the visibility of the image” (13).

About the Author

From Dr. Jane Lydon’s Monash University’s researcher profile: Using photographs to reconstruct Australia’s Indigenous and colonial history is revealing a new picture of the past. Historian Dr Jane Lydon says it is a story of varied cultural encounters across the country, which often challenges common views that Indigenous people were exploited by the camera. Jane’s collaboration with the descendants of the Aboriginal people who appear in historic photographs is making new links between the cultural experiences of the past and today’s society.

Jane’s project to assemble a systematic history of Aboriginal culture through photographs began in 2008, when she started examining images from Australian archives. This has since been extended to include images from European collections. The project has been funded to 2015 through a grant from the Australian Research Council.

She has already examined thousands of photographs, dating back to the 1840s. The images reveal a surprising level of cultural exchange rather than exploitation, both in the past and in the present. Members of Aboriginal communities are helping to provide context for the photographs and identifying the people featured. They also contribute an Indigenous perspective on the images.

Jane says it is significant that these communities do not always perceive their ancestors as “victims of the process”. Instead, many Aboriginal people have welcomed the photographs as an important social link to their communities.

The photos have allowed them to fill in historical gaps. “Rather than focusing on the political meaning, there is a much stronger emphasis on family. Many Aboriginal people talk about the photographs as healing,” she says.

Returning the photographs from European and Australian collections to Indigenous communities is a compelling aspect of the project for Jane. She says she is committed to “giving back” the information and cultural heritage contained within the images to Aboriginal people. This often involves identifying the people and places depicted.

“Looking at the European collections, some of the information and a lot of the context are lacking. In some cases these details were never known or have been lost.”

She is challenged by some of the obstacles to her work, such as reconciling new developments in digital technology with the cultural protocols associated with displaying Aboriginal archives. However, she says cultural decision-making within Indigenous communities has also been helping to simplify the process of balancing complex Aboriginal traditions with rapid advances in digital technology. She says a traditional custom that prohibits viewing the deceased during a mourning period, which in some cases extends to photography, has often changed in modern communities.

A highlight of her research career has been winning the 2010 John Mulvaney Book Award for her book Fantastic Dreaming: The Archeology of an Aboriginal Mission (AltaMira 2009), which was awarded by the Australian Archeological Association.

Jane says she has always been fascinated by history. As a teenager she was determined to become an archaeologist, but her career path swerved towards Indigenous culture as she began her PhD. The change of direction has allowed her make history relevant in modern society. “I’m driven by our colonial past and cultural exchange between Indigenous people and settlers and how this continues to shape Australian society now.”

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