Aboriginal History, Volume 38, 2014
Calling the Shots: Aboriginal Photographies by Jane Lydon, 256 pp, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2014, ISBN 9781922059598, $39.95.
Calling the Shots is a compilation of essays telling Aboriginal stories through the lens of photography. It includes both historical and present-day practices, thus asserting the continuity between past and present that is possible through photography. In recent decades, photography has been viewed one-dimensionally as a tool wielded by settler society to objectify and control Aboriginal people throughout the history of settlers encountering them. Although this book does not shy away from telling stories of subjugation and control, it presents a multifaceted picture of Aboriginal empowerment in the face of oppression, emphasising how different Aboriginal groups have appropriated the medium of photography for purposes that are highly relevant and meaningful. The book is structured geographically, with a section for each state/territory (excepting the Australian Capital Territory) and at least one chapter in each section.
A strong theme of Calling the Shots is linking with ancestors through photographs. Identification of who is pictured in a photograph is crucial to this connection. In the section on New South Wales, Barkindji woman Zena Cumpston highlights this important element. In reference to Frederick Bonney,1 who recorded the names and relationships of people he photographed on Momba station in the late 19th century, Cumpston says,
Bonney’s photographs don’t give me a cold, sad feeling like almost all other early photos of Aboriginal people I have seen … these people are not lost, they are not ghosts, or continually passively posing in a way that foregrounds unequal power relationships — we can place them, watch them living in their time, we can know who they are, we can claim them and with them a part of ourselves, our culture and our survival (p. 72).
This crucial connection comes up throughout the book, from multiple stories of people regaining continuity that was broken with the stolen generation, to the indescribable elation of a woman who saw a documentary about photograph repatriation and realised one of the photographs was of her great-great-grand-aunt.
In line with the balanced perspective which is a strong feature of the book, Calling the Shots includes stories on how photographs of Aboriginal people were used for settler political purposes. Two styles of photography with contrasting purposes feature throughout the book. One style of photography shows Aboriginal people looking ‘traditional’; for example, holding spears and not wearing clothes — even in cases where the people pictured were more integrated into the settler lifestyle. This was to capture what was considered a ‘dying race’ for academic purposes and prove the racial inferiority of Aboriginal people, in line with the social Darwinism prevalent at the time. The other common photographic style shows Aboriginal people on mission stations, wearing contemporary clothing. The purpose of this style of photography was to prove the possibility of ‘civilising’ and ‘Christianising’ Aboriginal people. In the first case, photography was used to justify genocide. In the latter, to argue for assimilation.
Calling the Shots tells many stories of photographs being used beyond their original, often oppressive, intent. For example, there is a story from the Ngarrindjeri people in South Australia of two boys who were taken by the state in 1910 under false pretences. They were photographed in Edwardian garb for the purposes of promoting propaganda about ‘civilising’ Aboriginal children away from their family influence. This photograph and others like it are treasured by their descendants, including the daughter of one of the boys, who keeps a poster-sized print of the portrait on her bedroom wall. Stories like these emphasise that though histories of Aboriginal Australia are brutal, they are not the end of the story. Photographs of Aboriginal people reveal more than intended by the photographer, and take on different meanings for their descendents who reclaim them.
Settlers were not the only ones behind the camera. Also from the Ngarrindjeri people is the story from the 1950s of Aunt Charlotte, an independent woman who took photographs of her community that are greatly treasured by her family because they are representative of how her people lived. Today, photography is more accessible and there are many Aboriginal people, especially senior women, featured in the book who incorporate treasured photographic collections into their oral storytelling practices. A whole chapter is dedicated to photographs used by Wiradjuri women in this way.
Calling the Shots is a compelling read, providing a nuanced approach to a sensitive topic. It is an important contribution to combat what the book refers to as ‘colonial amnesia’ — a tendency for settler Australia to forget or ignore the histories of Aboriginal Australia. I recommend it to all readers interested in history, and especially to the ever-growing number of Aboriginal people who are compiling family histories.
The Australian National University
1 For his photographs see a work not cited in Jane Lydon’s book, Jeanette Hope and Robert Lindsay, The People of the Paroo River: Frederic Bonney’s Photographs,.Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water, Sydney, 2011.