Coming Home: a story of survival
Despite hardships endured, the Australian Aboriginal community remain one of the oldest surviving cultures on the planet.
From the mid-19th century, many Aboriginal people were photographed for scientific interest and the images sent to institutions around the world. At the time, the identity of the subjects was not recorded, with the photographs eventually becoming part of archived museum collections.
The aim of this project is to:
- locate and identify these forgotten historical Aboriginal collections
- with cultural sensitivity, inform communities that the photographs are available
- return the photographs to their families as part of cultural heritage
This research is being undertaken by Professor Jane Lydon, Wesfarmers Chair in Australian History, UWA and Ms Donna Oxenham, UWA, who is also a Malgana woman from Shark Bay in the northwest of Western Australia.
This significant social and cultural research is making heritage images accessible to families through global collaboration and partnerships with:
- Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, United Kingdom
- Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
- Musée de Quai Branly, Paris
- Nationaal Museum van Wereldcultren, Leiden
Whilst Australian Copyright Law which protects the rights of ownership of the photographer is taken into consideration, many cultural institutions involved in this project have gone way beyond this in also acknowledging the rights of Aboriginal descendants to access the photographs of their family and traditional country.
Since 2011 the team have collaborated with four international museums regarding their colonial collections. They have subsequently identified some of the photographs across Australia. Since 2013 they have contacted Kimberley and Pilbara communities as well as met with some communities in the southwest region of Western Australia. The team intends to build on existing relationships to include the wider Australian context.
The photographs are also accessible via the website Returning Photos: Australian Aboriginal Photographs from European Collections which was launched in early 2016. Communities can use the tool to find out what family and traditional country photographs are being held in these overseas collections as well as make contact with the museums, get more information and obtain copies.
In some instances, clues such as the image location, dates and writing on the back of the photograph helped the team understand the context or identity of the person and their traditional country.
The team are amazed at being able to return these images back to communities who would not otherwise have had the opportunity to see their ancestors.
“I’ve had people in tears, they are so happy to see ancestors that they’ve never seen before.”
Ms Donna Oxenham
Photographs are also a very important part of our history and using information taken from these images, about Aboriginal people whose cultural information have been left out of historical records, will lead to new historical narratives and more accurate records.
This research has been supported by the Australian Research Council with two Discovery Project grants since 2011 as well as a Future Fellowship being awarded to Professor Jane Lydon. Several publications have also been published including a book, Calling the Shots which tells stories of reuniting families with these images and what this means to community.
There has also been international recognition of this research with Professor Jane Lydon winning an award in February 2016 for contribution to photography and anthropology from The Royal Anthropological Institute, London. In addition, she has been invited to speak at many forums worldwide; another sign that people are interested in this community engaged kind of research.
The processes used in this research are also transferable on an international scale. Institutions in Europe have looked to this Australian project of cultural heritage in how they manage their own indigenous collections. For example, Professor Lydon has been invited to advise and be part of a similar process with Norwegian colleagues in returning images of their indigenous Saami people.
The greatest impact of this significant cultural heritage project will be felt by the Aboriginal people of Australia.
Aboriginal people have sophisticated protocols around images and their use and whilst practices vary, this research has shown that for Aboriginal people, seeing their ancestors brought to life through the photographs is emotional and powerful, and enhances their spiritual connection.
Aboriginal people use these photographs as a way of healing from dispossession, assimilations and stolen generations as well as connecting with ancestors and traditional country they may never have seen. As such, the reaction from community groups has been positive and empowering as well as quite sad.
The scientific feel of the images can be confronting but the team have impressed upon community that it is far more important to look past the reasons for the image being taken and consider the images as family portraits.
That’s our history, that’s where we’ve come from and we’ve survived it. It is also reinforcing our survival as a people.
Ms Donna Oxenham
Colonial collections are often archived because museum curators are afraid of doing the wrong thing. This project has helped international museums realise they hold a major resource in colonial collections and by sharing these; they are sharing a visual heritage. Many have undergone policy change around managing these collections and accessibility is also changing as a result. This is a very concrete, social impact of the research.
The intellectual impact arising from this research is that it may challenge held views of colonialism. The photographs provide evidence that may not otherwise be available and could change our views of the past and lead to more accurate records of the Aboriginal people. The photos contain cultural information, and reveal links between families and country. Where national histories have often marginalised Aboriginal people, the photographs prove a historical presence and anchor Aboriginal stories.
Whilst the photographs might illustrate the atrocities faced by Aboriginal people in Australia since colonialism, this research and collaborative sharing has ultimately led to a fantastic story of survival for Aboriginal people. It educates people world-wide that what was once considered a dying race, is still here and strong in culture.
An outcome of this research is a book published in July 2016 called Photography, Humanitarianism, Empire, a study of the use of photographs to help define humanity as well as argue for human rights.
This project has led the team into this new area of research around the universal language of photography in showing violation of human rights, as well as in presenting an ideal, harmonious, imagined future; the family of man. Today photography continues to be used to highlight abuse such as in the form of ‘light’ graffiti projected onto buildings to remind us of Ms Dhu, a young Aboriginal woman who died in custody.
Impact in Action:
We asked Ms Donna Oxenham about the satisfaction she feels being part of this research. “I get to sit in country with community members and show them these collections. For old people, English may not be their first or second language and to see their faces light up when they see photos of their country and their community members makes it worthwhile and so rewarding. I can’t think of a better job to have.”
Young Aboriginal artist Christian Thompson works with photo media and was commissioned by one of the project partners Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford, UK to respond to their collection of Aboriginal photographs. Responding to this experience, he produced a series of artworks called We Bury Our Own which received international attention and from which a short film was later produced. Christian is one example of the many young indigenous artists who are producing new versions of history based on these old photos.