In a previous post I mentioned that as part of looking at historical photos of the Kimberley region in the Photo Me project we were given access to images from the Tindale collection, in the form of ring binders with photocopies of hundreds of 3 x 5″ portraits. We were encouraged to show them around and see what info we could get on the identities of those shown in the photos.
Jasmine and I did not end up showing the Tindale photocopies beyond the women who gathered regularly at the Jalaris centre and who we knew well. Looking at the faces in the Tindale collection Jasmine immediately started recognizing people. Resemblances were strong and sometimes startling, as family photos can be. Once some of the older people in the community started looking at them with us it was clear that they were very potent and might complicate the main goals of our project (to get Aboriginal people making their own photographs). The senior women felt that to show them without warning to people – in circumstances where people may see faces of family members long dead and long unseen – would be to risk upsetting people. So we gave them back to KLC and carried on with our work.
Interestingly the style of the Tindale photos, which I and many others found sad (see Jo-Ann Driessen writing about the photograph of her great-grandfather in the Tindale archive, in Photographies Other History Pinney & Peterson eds 2003), was not completely rejected by the photographers in the Photo Me and subsequent projects, as I imagined might happen. People liked the way that we could look into peoples faces in those portraits, and participants in Photo Me wanted to use their access to cameras to record their own families in the current time. They talked about the torso framing of the Tindale photos, and how you could see peoples clothing. Ideas were tossed around about making a set of contemporary images of local Aboriginal people that could be displayed with the Tindale images (although such an exhibition was never put together).
Portraits became a primary focus of the Photo Me project and the following Mowanjum TAFE Youth Program in 2006, which produced the Faces of Mowanjum exhibition. As a facilitator of both projects I was initially concerned that this focus was a result of my suggestion, on the 1st day of the Photo Me project, that we make portraits of each other as a way to start working with the cameras, but on reflection its clear that there were stronger influences at play, including peoples response to the Tindale images and other kinds of portraiture that are popular in the Kimberley. For example, the women who got most involved in the early weeks of Photo Me, a small group of friends in their late teens and early twenties, were really keen to do portraits of their friends and families infront of a backdrop, in the style of commercial family portraits. Traveling commercial photographers visit Derby each year, but charge high prices for prints, putting such formal portraits out of reach of many.
In Photo Me we made a couple of backdrops for portraits, first out of painted board which was set up in public places (the youth centre and out the front of Rusties supermarket), and then a more portable one out of fabric which we dyed blue and could roll out in the bush and hang from a tree. Below are some images made with the backdrop at the Gibb River Road Women’s Bush Meeting in 2005.
Click here to see some of the portraits kids took of each other posing in front of backdrops that were exhibited in the Faces of Kimberley exhibition in Derby 2005.
Looking at the mood and tone of the images from the projects we did in Derby and Mowanjum the relationship between the subjects and the photographers, as well as the photographic moment captured in the images, bear little resemblance to the pseudo-scientific style of the Tindale/Birdsell images, although they often are similarly framed. It is interesting, however, to reflect on the role that these historical images, taken in such a different context to how we were working, influenced peoples choices of subject and style.
Of course, these are the photos that were selected to be included in the exhibitions and products made in the projects. There were lots of portraits, often in a more documentary style, of participants friends and family that were not chosen for public display… What was and was not shown in the exhibitions in both projects, and how these decisions came to be made is an interesting topic for a future post.