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Eye Contact: Photographing Indigenous Australians

by Jane Lydon
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2005
336 pp., 88 illus. (including 22 duotones), 1 map. Trade, $84.95; paper, $23.95
ISBN: 0-8223-3559-X; ISBN: 0-8223-3572-7.

Reviewed by Brook Andrew
Independent Artist
Melbourne, Australia


Jane Lydon’s study of the renowned photographic portraits of the people from Corenderrk Station tell a different story to that expected by the usual colonial gaze.

The Corenderrk Aboriginal Station, like other missions, aimed to protect, destroy or civilise Aboriginal people. The photographers’ work documented this colonisation process; picturesquely documenting the landscape and the rapidly ‘civilised’ Kulin within it. In Eye Contact, Lydon is both storyteller and historian. Her telling of stories through these photographs opens up a new journey of the Kulin people and ways at seeing Aboriginal subjects. We are exposed to an in-depth Australian story through photographs during the period of mission control and its concurrent colonisation of the Kulin people.

Lydon re-lights moments of Kulin power through their own proud shaping and influencing of displayed photographs. Through this, the Kulin secured a healthy dialogue with non-Aboriginal people and the world outside the Station. It reveals a Kulin viewpoint for their own lifestyle and the part they themselves played in the colonial process. The Kulin further expressed pride and protest by refusal to bare their bodies for the collection through documentation of anthropometric data. In spite and after all, dominant historical and anthropomorphic perspectives on the fate of the Aboriginal in many colonised countries have been extensively documented and challenged.

Through touching letters and stories Lydon draw us into that world. A world where, like today, human ambition and affection influence and create relationships, a state which today though, still challenges the Aboriginal through representation as a primitive subject. There is the noble report of Baraks’ wedding in the local Lilydale Express, and the popular display of family photographs in the homes of Kulin people. The same photographs used as swap cards between missionary and Kulin, ‘ a kind of currency…and here communicating across racial boundaries’ (p 31). Furthermore, extensive investigation by Lydon includes the Station’s layout, and the corrosive effects of urbanisation, industrialisation, and the collection policies of cultural and anthropological museum exhibits abroad.
Arguably, the people of Corenderrk Station may have suffered similar fate as to other ‘disappeared’ people throughout Australia and the world, and Eye Contact reveals extraordinary stories of cultural identity, persecution, racial discrimination, history, and the human condition. Colonial politics, activism and personal experience in Australia have commonality with shared experiences internationally, extending to America, Canada, South America, Europe and Asia and need to be raised in the public domain. The documentation of writers like Lydon have similarly recovered images to be embraced by inspired artists, Aboriginal communities and members of the public, to keep these histories and memories alive.

Eye Contact will join the very few publications in Australia on Aboriginal subjects that do indeed inspire others. Internationally, similar material is widely accepted, discussed and visible and has inspired artists such as Christian Boltanski’s portraits from Second World War, Marcelo Brodsky’s photographic essays on the disappeared of Argentina and portraits from Columbian artist Oscar Munoz.
Eye Contact reveals the Kulin as active participants in their own depictions of family, cultural dignity and survival, reluctant to be viewed as primitive peoples during repressive colonial times. The images available in the public domain will assuredly lead to further inspired storytelling of other family histories within Australia’s vast history.



Updated 1st October 2007

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