Paper Tigers: Capturing First Nations Australia

Photographs from the 'Paper Tigers' exhibition - an anthology of contemporary Australian photojournalism - showcasing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture

By Head On Foundation

Paper Tigers

Gurindji elder Vincent Lingiari and Prime Minister Gough Whitlam (1975) by Merv BishopHead On Foundation

Photojournalism, a mirror on society

Celebrating the best of Australian photojournalism, the Paper Tigers exhibition presents 60 images from 60 of the best Australian photojournalists. It is through the lens of these photographers that we understand and experience much of the world's events.

"(These photojournalists) have documented the cultural and socio-political issues of Aboriginal people across the nation with understanding and sensitivity." Alan Davies, Emeritus Curator of Photographs at the State Library of New South Wales

Landon and Joey by Justin McManusHead On Foundation

Justin McManus

Landon and Joey

Justin McManus has been a photojournalist since 1996, initially following his passion for travel and photographing social documentary projects. 

Landon Punch (pictured) is Yindjibarndi man who lives in Roebourne, Western Australia. Landon and Joey were part of a story on Life After Death in Custody on the fallout for Aboriginal people who have lost loved ones and community members to police violence or neglect while in police custody. Landon had killed the baby kangaroo's mother for food.

""He said, "I will now hand-rear the joey until it is big enough to survive in the bush." I thought it was an interesting contrast in the duty of care when compared to the way Aboriginal people are treated in police custody.""

Gurindji elder Vincent Lingiari and Prime Minister Gough Whitlam (1975) by Merv BishopHead On Foundation

Merv Bishop

Mervyn Bishop, Australia’s first Aboriginal press photographer started work at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (Canberra, 1974), an important era in Indigenous self-determination. In 2000, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Board of the Australia Australia Council awarded him the Red Ochre Award to recognise his pioneering work and ongoing influence.

Bishop's iconic 1975 image shows then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pouring soil into the hand of Gurindji Elder and traditional land owner, Vincent Lingiari.

Bruce (1999) by Dean SewelHead On Foundation

Dean Sewell

Bruce (1999)

Dean Sewell has made his name as an independent documentary photographer focusing on the social implications of the new globalised world economy and the environmental consequences exerted by climate change.  

In 1972 the Whitlam government handed over The Block (social housing near Sydney’s CBD) to Indigenous self-determination; a political headache for consecutive state governments who wanted to dismantle the place but were reluctant to try.

"I had read about efforts host cities make to clean up 'undesirable' areas before the Olympics. In 1999, the year before the Sydney Games, I started 'The Block'. Attempts to relocate indigenous tenants failed - the confluence of a heroin glut and emptied housing facilitated a thriving drug culture."

"One morning, I attempted to introduce myself to a group preparing a hit. The first response came fast and loud - "fuck off, get the fuck out of here". I didn't argue. Retreating, I heard "no, come on in. This is what whitey needs to see, how we live here in this country" said Bruce, poised to thrust a needle into bulging, bloody flesh. We spent hours talking as they shot up and smoked cones well into their post-euphoric haze."

Daisy Kadibil talks about her escape along the rabbit-proof fence (2009) by Tobias TitzHead On Foundation

Tobias Titz

Daisy Kadibil talks about her escape along the rabbit-proof fence, 2009

Tobias Titz is a multi-award-winning photographer based in Melbourne. He has exhibited his work extensively in Australia and Germany. Tobias has worked with indigenous communities in the Pilbara, Arnhem Land, the Tiwi Islands, and South and Central Australia, for over 15 years.

His subject, Daisy Kadibil, was a small child when she was taken away from her family as part of the Stolen Generations. She and her sisters, Molly and Gracie, used the rabbit-proof fence to find their way back home to Jigalong from Moore River Native Settlement north of Perth, a journey of about 1600 kilometres. 

Molly’s daughter, Doris Pilkington (Nugi Garimara), wrote Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (1996) after several years of interviewing her mother and Aunt Daisy. The book was later made into Phillip Noyce’s award-winning film Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002).

Hell yes it hurts (1991) by Helga SalweHead On Foundation

Helga Salwe

Hell yes it hurts

Helga Salwe (b. Australia 1960) is a freelance photographer based in Melbourne, Australia. Helga has worked for major metropolitan newspapers and magazines including The Age, The Good Weekend and The Times on Sunday

"In 1991 I travelled from Melbourne to Arnhem Land, along the Roper River in the Northern Territory, I met and camped with Bessie and Jacob Riley. They had been living rough for many years in Darwin, before deciding to return to their ancestral country as part of the Homeland movement. Life had improved for Bessie and Jacob and they had no desire to return to a town or city with all the associated problems."

The Homeland movement was initiated by Indigenous Australians to establish small decentralised settlements by reoccupying land traditionally held by their communities. More than 10,000 Indigenous Australians choose to live on 500 outstations in the Northern Territory; usually in small family groups of less than 20 people. 

The Homeland movement is generally considered to be successful and provides much needed social, spiritual, cultural and health benefits and yet government support is virtually non existent. 

Levi and Keneisha by Martine PerretHead On Foundation

Martine Perret

Levi and Keneisha

Martine Perret started as a freelance photographer and editor at The Australian Financial Review. After forming a working relationship with the United Nations (UN) spent the next decade covering UN peacekeeping missions in conflict zones.

In Martine Perret’s project, Ngala Wongga (come and talk): Cultural Significance of Languages in the Western Australian Goldfields, she had the opportunity to meet Martu speakers. 

Glenys Williams took Martine on a bush trip with her family to the steps of her childhood, around the Wiluna Mission and the clay pan. They took ‘roo tails, made dampers, and sat around the fire watching the landscape and the slowly approaching storm, as her grandchildren Levi and Keneisha floated in the clay pan.

Our Dancers: Bangarra in Sydney’s Hyde Park (2015-03-31) by Barbara McGradyHead On Foundation

Barbara McGrady

Our Dancers: Bangarra in Sydney’s Hyde Park 31st March 2015

Barbara is a Gamilaroi Murri Yinah (woman) from North Western NSW and Southern Queensland. A meticulous Sydney-based photographer, her images capture the passion and achievements of contemporary Aboriginal history. 

Her work shows male dancers with shields from Bangarra Dance Theatre at the launch event, in Sydney’s Hyde Park, south of Girramay artist Tony Albert’s Yininmedyemi Thou Didst Let Fall, a monument made in honour of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander servicemen and women.

Explore more iconic imagery from Australia's best photojournalists, in our series of Paper Tigers stories.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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