Picturing Aborigines: A Review Essay on After Two Hundred Years: Photographic Essays on Aboriginal and Islander Australia Today. Edited by Penny Taylor for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1988

Essay Excerpt

The people photographed here exhibit a vast array of social, cultural, and physical differences: urban and "bush," poor and relatively affluent, dark skinned and light. Some assert their commitment to Christianity, others to Aboriginal ceremony and the Dreaming. Old and young, barefoot and shod, imprisoned and free, they give the lie to the standard "coffee-table" representation of Aboriginal people as colorful desert foragers. The black-and-white format and the deliberate "ordinariness" of most of the settings lead the reader away from an exoticized, romantic view of Aboriginal and Islander people. After Two Hundred Years leaves no doubt that Australia's indigenous people live in contemporary Australia (cf. Fabian 1983).

Of these photographs, only a handful show their subjects in what tourists would recognize as classic "Aboriginal" settings: engaging in corroborees, doing "dot" paintings, throwing boomerangs. Quite the contrary: most often, the photos show people in their homes, in shops, on playing fields. Some are working on their cars or congregating in youth centers. As we have seen, some even play golf. The book does not evade the issue of Aboriginal oppression in white Australia or of Aboriginal conflicts with Australian institutions. This is most starkly represented in the chapter on Cessnock Gaol, where we read the simple fact that "if you're Aboriginal, in Australia as a whole, you are 15 times more likely to spend time in jail than a non-Aboriginal person"(p. 303). Portraits of men sitting on cots suggest their concerns of family, sex, and politics: the walls of their cells are a past iche of family photos, erotic pinups, and versions of the Aboriginal flag. The first two concerns could be seen as common to prisoners everywhere. The last makes the statement that no matter what offense prompted the incarceration, the men see themselves as political prisoners. (Nadel-Klein, 417)

About the Author

Nadel-Klein is a Professor at Trinity College.

She teaches Anthropological Perspective of Women and Gender, Identities in Britain and Ireland, Ethnographic Methods and Writing, History of Anthropological Thought, and Anthropology of Place.  

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