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© Chris Rainer

The above title comes from the renowned ethnographic photographer/filmmaker Edward Sheriff Curtis. The North American Indians he worked with called him the “Shadow Catcher”, and grew to love him. Photographers today working with indigenous peoples owe an enormous debt to Curtis. What a legacy he has left us, quite unmatched, in my opinion.

Why are we dipping our lid to Curtis now?

Simply because Head On has invited National Geographic photographer Chris Rainier to Sydney in May to show and talk about his own work, made with many indigenous people the world over and hear his passion for this, his life’s focus.

In Australia we are so blessed to have indigenous peoples, the key to understanding this country. Indigenous peoples have been on this continent for up to 60,000 years, and despite the relentless list of deprivations by our forefathers, they have survived and have still much to teach us. Their wisdom is unique. The Australian Aborigines have continued to forgive, create and celebrate their profound understanding of our homeland. The most recent successful “new” visual arts movement is the renaissance of Aboriginal art.

Let’s look for a moment at photographers who have contributed to our visual understanding of Indigenous Australians.

Charles P. Montford made beautiful photographs of indigenous Australians, mainly peoples from the Centre and Arnhem Land. Yet sadly his name isn’t synonymous with photography today.

A contemporary of Montford was Axel Poignant, whose classic “photo roman” portrays a story of 2 Aboriginal children “lost” in the Arnhem Land bush (“Bush Walkabout “ Angus and Robertson 1957).  I grew up with this book. (One copy for myself and one for my brother, so we wouldn’t fight). This one book of photographs has sustained and nurtured my interest in all things indigenous for the past five decades.

A sideline to this was a story Max Dupain told me of Axel, while camping on Bathurst Island, weeks away from Darwin, lost a spring from his malfunctioning Rollieflex.  After 2 days sifting through the sand in his tent Axel found the spring and managed to get the camera working again! (Oh for more mythologies such as this in the digital age!)

My wish is to one day see the extraordinary archive of TGH Strehlow at the Strehlow Research Foundation in Alice Springs. A much forgotten photographer, filmmaker and writer/documenter, he reminds me so much of the efforts of Curtis a generation or two before.  I understand through Strehlow’s work various cultural rituals and ceremonies have been re-nurtured.

The North American Indians said eloquently of Curtis “He is like us.. he knows about the great mystery.”

Today Australian photographers including Ricky Maynard, Sarah Barker and Lisa Hogben, like Rainier, give us profound insights into contemporary indigenous life and help us understand the diversity, wonders, struggles and successes of the first peoples. They know about the great mystery. It is for us to learn.

Jon Lewis

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Head On Photo Awards 2024

Entries to the Head On Photo Awards 2024 open in May/June.

Image detail: Gary Ramage