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History of Photography

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‘The Nation is Coming to Life’: Law, Sovereignty,

and Belonging in Ngarrindjeri Photography of the
Mid-Twentieth Century

Karen Hughes & Ellen Trevorrow

To cite this article: Karen Hughes & Ellen Trevorrow (2018) ‘The Nation is Coming to Life’: Law,
Sovereignty, and Belonging in Ngarrindjeri Photography of the Mid-Twentieth Century, History of
Photography, 42:3, 249-268, DOI: 10.1080/03087298.2018.1521571

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‘The Nation is Coming to Life’:
Law, Sovereignty, and Belonging in
Ngarrindjeri Photography of the
Mid-Twentieth Century
Karen Hughes and Ellen Trevorrow

Our deep appreciation to the Ngarrindjeri

Elders who shared their photographs, gui-
dance, and stories: especially to Aunty Alice
Abdulla, Aunty Eunice Aston, Aunty Hilda
From the moment small consumer cameras became available in Australia in the
Day, Uncle Jeffrey Hunter, Aunty Helen
early twentieth century, Ngarrindjeri people embraced photography as a means to
Jackson, Aunty Noreen Kartinyeri, Aunty
record their history, and represent their families, aesthetic traditions, and world-
Yvonne Koolmateri, Aunty Rita Lindsay,
views against the perilous times of attempted assimilation by the state, including the
Aunty Lyn Lovegrove-Niemz, Uncle Billy
rampant forced removal of Aboriginal children that came to be known as the Stolen
Rankine, Aunty Rosslyn Richards, Uncle
Generations. In analysing a collection of rare historical photographs from this
Walter (Wally) Richards, Uncle Donald
period, taken by Ngarrindjeri photographers and retained in Ngarrindjeri families,
(Bluey) Roberts, Aunty Dot Shaw, Uncle
we bring the perspectives of contemporary Ngarrindjeri Elders to bear.
Darrell Sumner, Uncle Major Sumner,
Significantly, the photographs can be observed to operate both as a rich counter
Aunty Polly Sumner, Aunty Muriel Van
archive to colonial representation and settler memory, and as esteemed cultural
Der Byl, and Aunty Sandra Wilson – and to
objects capable of drawing the weight of the ancestral past into the present
Temeika Rankine for digitisation at the
moment, thereby tangibly enlivening cultural and spiritual connections generation-
Camp Coorong gathering. Our gratitude to
ally today. Our exploration in this article provides new theoretical perspectives and
Diane Bell and Spinifex Press for permis-
fresh historical insight into the ways in which photography has been substantially
sion to adapt the location map from
deployed by an Australian Aboriginal nation as a subtle and potent tool to assert
Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin. Grateful thanks
self-determination, document survivance, and enact visual sovereignty.
to Jody Fitzhardinge and Jessica Horton, Keywords: Aboriginal photography, Indigenous family photography, colonialism,
for insightful feedback and editorial com-
mentary at different stages. We thank also survivance, visual sovereignty, Ngarrindjeri, Albert Karloan (1864–1943), Charlotte
the two peer reviewers whose suggestions Richards (ca. 1930–87), Point McLeay Mission Station (1859–74), Poonindie
improved our final draft. We would like to Mission (1842–90), Stolen Generations, Aboriginal fringe camps, counter archive,
acknowledge the important role the Fay mobility, history and memory, deep time, decolonising methodologies, Indigenous
Gale Centre at the University of Adelaide
played in hosting Karen Hughes as a visit- military service, Aboriginal Second World War brides
ing researcher in order to undertake the
fieldwork for this project with Ellen
Trevorrow. In spring 2016, we invited Ngarrindjeri Elders and their families to Camp
Coorong, the Ngarrindjeri Culture and Education Centre near Meningie, South
Email for correspondence: karenhughes@
Australia, for a two-day gathering to collate and interpret a vast collection of rare
historical photographs from their personal archives.1 The occasion marked the
1 – Camp Coorong was established in 1986 first time such a large body of photographs had been shared outside a deeply
through vital access to land via the protective family context. Previously, the photographs were preserved in albums,
Aboriginal Lands Trust Act 1966 (South
picture frames, biscuit tins, and timeworn suitcases across the various locales
Australia), founded by Ellen Trevorrow
with her husband Tom, the late where Ngarrindjeri live, some making their way onto tablets and mobile devices.
Ngarrindjeri leader, and his brother, the Many had survived the ravages of fires and floods and the enforced movements by
late George Trevorrow. See Bindi MacGill, governments over three-quarters of a century. Notably, Ngarrindjeri photogra-
Julie Mathews, Ellen Trevorrow, Alice
phers, and sometimes their non-Indigenous friends, began taking these images as
Abdulla, and Debra Rankine, ‘Ecology,
Ontology, and Pedagogy at Camp soon as small consumer cameras became locally available. Collectively the photo-
Coorong’, M/C Journal, 15:3 (June 2012), 1. graphs remember a powerful story of ‘survivance’ during the perilous period of
History of Photography, Volume 42, Number 3, August 2018
# 2019 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
Karen Hughes and Ellen Trevorrow

attempted Aboriginal assimilation in the mid-twentieth century and beyond. Such

photographs visualised histories wilfully obscured in Australian settler colonial
accounts. Survivance, a concept key to Native American studies, has specific
translatable resonance in apprehending Australian Indigenous practices of self-
determination against the ongoing aftermath of colonisation. Encompassing sover-
eignty and remembrance, survivance claims an ‘incontestable presence’ that is
‘more than survival, more than endurance or mere response’, but rather ‘an active
repudiation of dominance’.2 2 – Gerald Vizenor, ‘Aesthetics of
Foremost, for Ngarrindjeri today, the images palpably project the living Survivance’, in Survivance Narratives of
Native Presence, ed. Gerald Vizenor,
spirit of the recently departed ancestors they portray. Elders speak of the way Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press 2008,
the photographs carry a life-force similar to that of semi-sacred customary 11. Anishinaabe scholar Gerald Vizenor
objects, with an equivalent capacity to draw the weight of the ancestral past first coined the term ‘survivance’ in its
into the present, activating reminiscence. They link not only to the current present usage. See Gerald Vizenor, Manifest
Manners: Narratives on Postindian
generations of Ngarrindjeri families, but also reference the lineages of descent Survivance, Lincoln: University of Nebraska
followed by individuals in tracing their place in the world. In this way they Press 1999.
provide a sense of cultural continuance and belonging, and reinstate
Ngarrindjeri Law.
Attentive to these recuperative powers and the presence of ancestors, Aunty
Rita Lindsay sat down in the Camp Coorong meeting hall near the end of the two-
day event, riveted by all of the images she saw around her. ‘The nation is coming
to life’, she proclaimed. ‘You can see their spirit in them. They’re looking at us’
(emphasis in original).

Undoing Colonial Stereotypes

This article explores the deeply democratising ways in which self-taught but highly
skilled Ngarrindjeri photographers set out to map their cultural experience, and in
doing so produced a rich body of work that creates a counter archive to colonial
records. Our intended contribution in engaging with this historic venture is to add
to an ongoing body of work by contemporary scholars in this area. We seek to
gain a deeper understanding of pioneering Indigenous photographic practice
within a frame of technological innovation and to illuminate the intersection
between Indigenous knowledge and experience and new technologies and aes-
thetics. Our interest is to provide an analysis of these photographic texts and to
highlight the significant role they play in documenting broader contexts of self-
determination and power, while recording, as well, the social relations of the
Ngarrindjeri people.
We write from the intersecting perspectives of a Ngarrindjeri Elder,
cultural weaver, and educator (Ellen Trevorrow), with an unswerving com-
mitment to maintaining, revitalising, and passing on Ngarrindjeri culture to
3 – Jolene Rickard, ‘Indigenous and
the future generations, and from that of a non-Indigenous historian (Karen Iroquoian Art as Knowledge: In the Shadow
Hughes), with a passionate interest in decolonising and participatory meth- of the Eagle’, PhD thesis, Buffalo: State
odologies that recentre Indigenous perspectives through engaged collabora- University of New York 1996, v. See also
tive research. We both have particular interest in the healing dimension such Jolene Rickard, ‘Sovereignty: A Line in the
Sand’, Aperture, 139 (Summer 1995), 50–59;
photographs hold for the present community. We are guided by the work of and Jolene Rickard, ‘Visualizing Sovereignty
the Tuscarora scholar and artist Jolene Rickard, who argues that Indigenous in the Time of Biometric Sensors’, South
art, including photography, must necessarily be ‘contextualized within a Atlantic Quarterly, 110:2 (Spring 2011),
frame that recognizes the significance of oral tradition, spiritual belief, and 465–86. Also useful to this thinking is Faye
Ginsburg’s earlier insightful work on
political formation of sovereignty as central’.3 In exploring the specific and embedded aesthetics – a term she invokes to
localised ways by which Ngarrindjeri photography asserts its incontestable ‘draw attention to a system of evaluation
presence in the context of visual sovereignty, we bring the valuable knowl- that refuses a separation of textual produc-
edge, stories, and memories of the living Elders to bear on a selection of tion and circulation from broader arenas of
social relation’. Faye Ginsburg, ‘Embedded
historical images Ngarrindjeri photographers produced for their own use. Aesthetics: Creating a Discursive Space for
Indigenous photography has emerged as a significant field of scholarship Indigenous Media’, Cultural Anthropology,
in recent decades. Scholars have identified its roots in colonial rule, and also 9:3 (August 1994), 368.

Law, Sovereignty, and Belonging in Ngarrindjeri Photography of the Mid-Twentieth Century

4 – Jane Lydon, Eye Contact: Photographing its ‘recodability’ as a tool of resistance in Indigenous hands, exploring the
Indigenous Australians, Durham, NC: Duke nuanced ways Australian Aboriginal peoples have employed visual technolo-
University Press 2005; Calling the Shots:
Aboriginal Photographies, ed. Jane Lydon,
gies to document their own incontestable presence. Jane Lydon, for example,
Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press 2014; and has led important collaborative work probing new meanings colonial photo-
Jane Lydon, Photography, Humanitarianism, graphs hold once they are returned to Indigenous descendants and enfolded
Empire, London: Bloomsbury 2016. This view back into community, often to be reworked by younger generations of
is shared by Michael Aird, Portraits of our
Elders, South Brisbane: Queensland Museum
photographers and artists. Lydon has placed empirical emphasis on the way
1993. in which Australian Aboriginal people’s relationships with historical photo-
5 – Exceptions include recent work on the
graphs can simultaneously be characterised by agency and cross-cultural
Kiowa Apache photographer Horace collaboration, a view shared by the Indigenous historian of photography,
Poolaw, along with work on Charlotte Michael Aird, as an important step in decolonising these works.4 The role of
Richards by Karen Hughes and Ellen community photography, however, is less understood. To date, relatively
Trevorrow, ‘“It’s that Reflection”:
Ngarrrindjeri Photography as
little scholarly attention has been given to the efforts of Australian
Recuperative Practice’, in Calling the Indigenous photographers who operated from a community, rather than a
Shots, ed. Lydon, 175–204; the ground- professional, base in the early and mid-twentieth century. This is partly
breaking work on Métis photographers in because their work resides, dispersed and uncatalogued, in private collections
Canada by Sherry Farrell Racette,
‘Returning Fire, Pointing the Canon:
that are subject to deterioration and loss. However, this work is significant,
Aboriginal Photography as Resistance’, in because, among other things, it provides a crucial link to the practices of
The Cultural Work of Photography in contemporary Indigenous photographers who grew up with their families’
Canada, ed. Carol Payne and Andrea photographs around them. More commonly, in Australia, as elsewhere, with
Kunard, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s
University Press 2011, 70–92, and else-
a few notable exceptions, attention has focused on the emerging generation
where in this special issue; and Alison of professional Indigenous photographers who have operated commercially
Brown and Laura Peers, Pictures Bring Us or exhibited publicly since the 1970s.5 Among these, in Australia, are Tracey
Messages: Photographs and Histories from Moffatt, Brenda Croft, Polly Sumner, Michael Riley, and Wayne Quilliam.
the Kainai Nation, Toronto: University of
Toronto Press 2006.

6 – The South Australian colony was offi- Ngarrindjeri Engagement with Photography: A History
cially established in 1836 as the fifth British
Australian colony. In 1934, the Letters The Ngarrindjeri are a South Australian Aboriginal nation, whose extensive
Patent drafted by the Colonial Office was lands and waters take in the River Murray, Lakes Alexandrina and Albert,
meant to ensure that Aboriginal people
the vast Coorong wetlands, and parts of the Southern Ocean coast (figure 1).
would not be dispossessed of their lands,
but long before this, unofficial, illegal for- Ngarrindjeri experienced the full cataclysm of British invasion, dispossession,
eign sealing and whaling saw disruptions to and settlement in the South Australian colony from its 1836 foundation, and,
Ngarrindjeri society. For a deeper under- earlier still, when foreign whalers and sealers exploited their waters.6 As
standing of Ngarrindjeri society and history
Europeans coveted their fertile lands, Ngarrindjeri were segregated onto
see Diane Bell, Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin:
A World that Is, Was, and Will Be, 2nd missions that were later converted into government reserves. In 1859, the
edn, Melbourne: Spinifex Press 2014. Aborigines’ Friends’ Association established the Point McLeay Mission at

Figure 1. Area of Study, which includes

Ngarrindjeri Lands and Waters. Map
adapted from Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin,
2014, xii, by Stephen Shaheen, courtesy of
Diane Bell and Spinifex Press.

Karen Hughes and Ellen Trevorrow

Raukkan to Christianise and educate Ngarrindjeri people in the European

manner. Over the years the mission became a self-sufficient community
growing fruit and vegetables, working in the wool washing industry, and
7 – Tom Trevorrow, presentation to
later establishing a boat-building industry. Following Australia’s Federation
Alexandrina Council, Goolwa, South
in 1901, the South Australian government passed the Aborigines Act SA Australia, September 2009.
1911 in order to restrict the movements of Aboriginal peoples and control all 8 – This has been similarly noted on mis-
aspects of their lives. Yet Ngarrindjeri mobility, although constrained, sions in Victoria. See Lydon, Eye Contact.
endured as a crucial survival strategy as people shifted between missions 9 – Frederick Taplin to Samuel Sweet, 31
August 1880, ‘Aborigines’ Friends’
and fringe camps on the edges of rural towns. Association, letter book, Point McLeay,
In the interwar years, the South Australian government sought to advance the 1879–1884’, South Australian Museum
assimilationist project. Along with other Australian states, it increased its power to Archives, AA 676/1/2.
remove and institutionalise Aboriginal children and introduced the divisive 10 – Racette, ‘Returning Fire’, 70.
11 – See, for example, Norman Tindale and
exemption certificate that offered people a choice of limited citizenship at the Joseph Birdsell’s photography of survivors on
cost of relinquishing Indigenous identity. The 1967 Referendum to the Australian missions and reserves in 1938–39, South
constitution allowed the Commonwealth to make laws on behalf of Aboriginal Australian Museum Archives; and the tellingly
people, and saw their inclusion in the census. Although symbolic, the Referendum titled book by Ronald Berndt and Catherine
Berndt, From Black to White in South
began an era of change. That same year, South Australia’s Labor Premier Donald Australia, Chicago: University of Chicago
Dunstan, helped to power by the Aboriginal vote, jettisoned restrictions to Press 1951. Over this period, Aboriginal peo-
Aboriginal people’s freedom, and introduced rights to housing and to land. As a ple’s civil rights diminished, following
nation the Ngarrindjeri have managed to survive, and continue to nurture strong Australia’s Federation in 1901.
12 – For a comparison with Shinnecock in the
cultural connections to their land and waters and to one another. As the late
USA, see Karen Hughes and Cholena Smith,
Ngarrindjeri leader Uncle Tom Trevorrow (1954–2013), husband of the author ‘Un-filtering the Settler Colonial Archive:
Ellen Trevorrow, maintained in 2009, ‘our old people said there was always Indigenous Community-Based
enough to share’.7 Photographers in Australia and the United
States – Ngarrindjeri and Shinnecock
From as early as 1880, many Ngarrindjeri took an avid interest in photo-
Perspectives’, Australian Aboriginal Studies, 1
graphy, some commissioning family portraits from photographers visiting the (2018), 2–18; see also Lydon, Eye Contact;
Point McLeay Mission on official business.8 Indeed, in that year, Point McLeay’s Christopher Pinney, ‘The Parallel Histories of
superintendent, Frederick Taplin, suggested to the prominent colonial photogra- Anthropology and Photography’, in
Anthropology and Photography 1860–1920, ed.
pher Captain Samuel Sweet that when he came to photograph his late father’s
Elizabeth Edwards, New Haven, CT: Yale
tombstone he should also bring portrait apparatus, ‘as you may get plenty of University Press 1992, 74–95; Elizabeth
patronage’.9 But not long after, as the nineteenth century turned, ‘official’ photo- Edwards, ‘Anthropology and Photography: A
graphers became less interested in living Aboriginal peoples of the so-called Long History of Knowledge and Affect’,
Photographies, 8:3 (2015), 235–52; and Jane
‘settled’ rural and urban areas of Australia’s south-east, shifting focus to the
Lydon, ‘Transmuting Australian Aboriginal
seemingly remote centre and far north, in search of the ‘authentic’ subject. As Photographs’, World Art, 6:1 (2016), 45–60.
the Canadian First Nations scholar Sherry Farrell Racette has incisively argued, in See also Sabra G. Thorner, ‘Inside the Frame,
‘relegating us to the past as vanished and vanquished [official] photography was Outside the Box: Bindi Cole’s Photographic
Practice and Production of Aboriginality in
fixated on the colonised subject but lost interest in contemporary Aboriginal
Contemporary Australia’, Visual
people’.10 Thus, Ngarrindjeri representation in the settler colonial world of the Anthropology Review, 31:2 (Fall 2015), 163–76,
early and mid-twentieth century all too often fell between the fictive binaries of for an analysis of pervasive assumptions
tradition and modernity, reflecting outsider-determined measures of indigeneity.11 equating Aboriginality with skin colour.
13 – For greater understanding of the breadth
For Ngarrindjeri, as for other Indigenous peoples living in early invaded densely
and significance of Albert Karloan’s cultural
settled areas, the problem of visual representation has long contributed to a denial knowledge see also Ronald Berndt and
of contemporary identity and to persistent discrimination.12 Representation Catherine Berndt, A World that Was: The
remains a key site of struggle. Yaraldi of the Murray River and the Lakes,
Even before the local availability of personal cameras, Ngarrindjeri aimed to South Australia, Melbourne: Miegunyah Press
1993; and for more on the context of his ven-
deploy photography as a medium for cultural production, performance, and ture see Karen Hughes, ‘Stories My
intercultural diplomacy. Albert Karloan, an esteemed Ngarrindjeri Elder and the Grandmother Never Told Me: Recovering
bearer of an immense body of cultural knowledge, hoped to represent his people Entangled Family Histories Through Ego-
to a wide Australian public through storytelling that employed moving and still Histoire’, in Ngapartji Ngapartji, ed. Vanessa
Castejon, Anna Cole, Oliver Haag, and Karen
photography.13 Supported by the mission superintendent, in 1916 he wrote to the Hughes, Canberra: ANU Press 2014, 73–91;
South Australian Protector of Aborigines (a paternalistic title given to the govern- and Catherine Berndt, ‘Karloan, Albert (1864–
ment position in charge of administering Aboriginal people) requesting to borrow 1943)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography,
£150 to purchase a cinematograph he had located, to be able to ‘travel the country National Centre of Biography, Canberra:
Australian National University 1996.
in company with my Son Clement giving entertainment of illustrated Songs and 14 – Albert Karloan to the Protector of
Recitation by Slide pictures as well as Film Pictures’. He provided an entrepre- Aborigines, 15 March 1916, State Archives of
neurial plan by which to pay back the loan.14 Significantly, this is the earliest South Australia, Adelaide, GRG 52/1/1916/34.

Law, Sovereignty, and Belonging in Ngarrindjeri Photography of the Mid-Twentieth Century

known instance of an Australian Aboriginal nation proposing to document its

15 – Notably, Karloan’s venture, had it been history of photography and colonialism.15 The Protector, however, labelled
supported, would have predated Robert Karloan’s venture ‘ridiculous’ and refused the loan. This crude suppression of
Flaherty’s 1922 film Nanook of the North,
ostensibly considered the world’s first
one of the world’s earliest Indigenous-determined experiments with hybrid media
documentary. reveals the nefarious bond between visual depiction and power under settler
16 – There is a wide body of scholarship on colonialism.16 Moreover, the Protector scoffed that ‘many others’ had written to
the historiography of Indigenous peoples him ‘with similar requests’, suggesting the depth and vitality of Aboriginal
and colonial photography that explores its
Australians’ desire to take up the camera.17 Yet, despite such setbacks,
imbrication in the subjugation and cate-
gorisation of Indigenous people. See, in Ngarrindjeri never lost interest in harnessing photography for their own purposes,
particular, Pinney, ‘Parallel Histories’; to sit within their long-developed visual and performative traditions that predate
Racette, ‘Returning Fire’; and Hughes and colonisation and continue into the present.
Smith, ‘Un-filtering the Settler Colonial
Critically, however, from the 1930s, when Box Brownie and later instamatic
17 – See Christobel Mattingley, Survival in cameras became available and affordable, Ngarrindjeri rapidly grew to be prolific
Our Own Land: Aboriginal Experiences in agents of their own visual narratives, creating counter archives of immense
South Australia since 1836, Melbourne: significance. In Ngarrindjeri hands, and through Ngarrindjeri ways of seeing,
Australian Scholarly Publishing 1998, 155.
photography became a potent tool of memory that displaced and offered a tangible
form of resistance to the settler colonial representations. Pioneering Ngarrindjeri
women and men framed rich alternative narratives that relate community con-
nectivity, passion, resilience, cross-cultural exchange, entrepreneurship, and their
own labour histories.
The noted contemporary Ngarrindjeri photographer Polly Sumner remembers
the heady buzz of the crowds assembled on the ‘big lawn’ at Raukkan on mail-
delivery days in the 1950s, as she and her mother, Charlotte Sumner Dodd, eagerly
18 – Polly Sumner, personal communica- awaited the return of films they had dispatched for processing.18 Simultaneously,
tion, 19 November 2016. Ngarrindjeri began to experiment with aesthetic innovations to assert distinctive
visions. Some trialled methods of film development and hand-printing in make-
shift darkrooms on the government reserves of Raukkan and Gerard, or in the
independent fringe camps edging rural towns, where, in the absence of electricity
19 – Karen Hughes and Whitney Long, or running water, they used ‘candle power’ and well water.19 Fringe camps, as we
interview with Donald Roberts, 6 July 2015; later argue, were important sites of cultural knowledge outside the system of
and Walter Richards, personal communi-
cation, 14 August 2013. For more on fringe
missions and reserves. The rare photographic archives Ngarrindjeri produced for
camps see Hughes and Trevorrow, ‘“It’s their own communities assert a visual sovereignty, and narrate vital histories not
that Reflection”’, 190–99. often known through other means. Such archives now serve in multiple processes
20 – See Calling the Shots, ed. Lydon, for a of reclamation and decolonisation.20
range of perspectives on this. In particular,
on helping members of the Stolen
Generations and other Ngarrindjeri who
have been dissociated from their commu- Assembling the Nation
nities to piece together shattered histories,
see Hughes and Trevorrow, ‘“It’s that In preparation for the two-day Elders’ workshop in October 2016, the large Camp
Reflection”’; and Hughes and Smith, ‘Un-
Coorong dining and meeting hall was transformed into a space of reflection. Over
filtering the Settler Colonial Archive’.
one hundred A4-sized prints of photographs we had gathered were arranged on
the walls in a loose relational display, connected by priorities of kinship, place,
temporality, or event, or by individual photographer. Small seed funding from
Swinburne University, Melbourne, enabled us to hold the meeting and purchase a
portable scanner to preserve the images digitally. Until then it had been a
challenge to bring these photographs into a collective domain due to the acute
and rightful concern Elders exerted over their safety. However, advances in
technology, such as the purchased scanner, meant that as the Elders arrived we
were able to scan their images and immediately return them, as well as print out
copies to add to the display on the walls. Soon their original photographs, safely in
their hands again, were shared confidently around tables, sparking lively over-
lapping conversations that rippled with joy and laughter. Stories of the exploits of
the ancestors were reciprocally exchanged, energising the room. Visual images,
often more than other textual sources, have a power to invoke a sensory experi-
ence of the everyday worlds of the past with an emotional complexity that is not
reliant on a person’s facility with written language yet is intimately linked to

Karen Hughes and Ellen Trevorrow

Figure 2. Aunty Alice Abdulla Looking

Through Photographs at the Elder’s
Workshop, Camp Coorong, Meningie, South
Australia, digital photograph, October
2016. Photograph: Karen Hughes.

memory and oral storytelling. In this way, Aunty Alice Abdulla (figure 2) recalled
the significance of photographs for her father, Joseph Trevorrow (ca. 1907–65),
who was the son of a Ngarrindjeri mother, Alice Walker, and a Cornish minister,
James Trevorrow:

My father had a big album. It was beautiful, covered in red velvet, and we
were never allowed to touch it. In it were all the family photos: photos of his
mother and father when they were young. When Dad died Aunty Belle took
them and the Bible. Dad always had the Bible next to his bed, King James too,
and his saddlery, nets, and fishing gear. He couldn’t read nor write – but
when we’d be sitting outside having a cuppa and talking about the birds or
the muntheries [nutritious berries, known as ‘wild apples’], he’d write my
name in the sand. He practised that because it was his mother’s name: Alice
Walker. Then he brushed the sand over. But he knew the Bible and he could
recite those poems. He knew the front to back of the Bible by heart. He learnt
from his parents because his father Jim Trevorrow was a minister, one of two
brothers who came out from Cornwall. We must be in before dark, do our
homework when we got off the bus, have a bite to eat, damper and golden
syrup.21 21 – Comments from Alice Abdulla, the
day after the meeting.
Aunty Alice’s story raises indelible interconnections between photography
and Ngarrindjeri oral tradition, spirituality, family lineage, and a sense of home,
Country, and belonging.22 The velvet-covered photograph album beside her 22 – Note that Country is spelt in the
father’s bed, in their small hand-built house at the One Mile Meningie fringe Aboriginal English way to mean an animate
and nourishing terrain imbued with sacred
camp, assumes, like the Bible it sits next to, the stature of a sacred cultural text. significance. See, for example, Deborah
Both record the stories of ancestors, genealogies, and the events that came before. Bird Rose, Nourishing Terrains: Australian
In this regard, photographs can be seen to embed oral tradition in visual code, Aboriginal Views of Landscape and
partnering with memory to preserve and continue family histories. And, of course, Wilderness, Canberra: Australian Heritage
Commission 1996.
since Joseph Trevorrow had memorised the whole Bible he also reconfigured it as
an oral document.
By the end of the day, the photographs on the wall had multiplied more than
twofold, while unknown ancestors had been identified, collectively named, and
carefully placed within their rightful context of kinship circles and place, enfolded
within expanding layers of story. Additionally, we had been able to digitise more
than seven hundred photographs to a portable hard drive as the basis for creating
a community repository. Displayed together, the photographs formed a living
system of connection, a weave of shared heritage and shared identity enlivened
through the remembrance they invoked. It seemed that not only were the Elders
speaking to one another, but the ancestors in the photographs were speaking to
each other too, and were a vibrant animated part of the overall conversation. As

Law, Sovereignty, and Belonging in Ngarrindjeri Photography of the Mid-Twentieth Century

Aunty Alice observed: ‘They’re following us here, them Old People, the smile on
their face: sometimes it’s a cheeky grin, sometimes stern, a smile’.

Visualising Mobility and Connection: ‘Making Links, Troddin’ all those Boundaries’
A strikingly recurrent theme that emerged as the Elders were viewing the images
in relation to each other was the many ways in which Ngarrindjeri people
exercised ingenuity and mobility in the face of oppression. Ngarrindjeri use the
evocative phrase ‘making links, troddin’ all those boundaries’ to capture the
concept of both physical travel and the enlivening of recursive social and emo-
tional bonds of people and Country that attends this. A suite of photographs
shared by the Lovegrove family, for instance, reveals Ngarrindjeri kinship forma-
tions across time and place as family members travelled vast distances for work,
kin, new family connections, and adventure, thus defying the bounds imposed on
them by a regressive settler colonial state that aimed to control their movements.
While there were diaspora and displacement resulting from colonial invasion,
many Ngarrindjeri were also consummate travellers.
Born in 1885 at Streaky Bay on the remote west coast of South Australia,
Uncle Frank Lovegrove Snr (ca. 1885–1967) was a Wirungu man (also of Scottish
23 – The Wirungu people are the tradi- ancestry), who came to Ngarrindjeri country as a small child.23 As a baby, Frank
tional owners of part of the west coast of and his mother Dinah Ware were taken from an often-violent frontier to
South Australia; their lands and waters
include western Eyre Peninsula and the
Poonindie, an Anglican Aboriginal mission established in 1852 near Port
eastern Great Australian Bight. Lincoln.24 Following Poonindie’s forced closure in 1894 (the result of settlers
24 – For more on Poonindie and the role of coveting its land), nine-year-old Frank and his mother were moved again – this
photography, see Jane Lydon and Sari time to the Point McLeay Mission in Ngarrindjeri country, some eight hundred
Braithwaite, ‘Photographing “the Nucleus
kilometres south-east. Educated in the Point McLeay dormitory school, Frank later
of the Native Church” at Poonindie
Mission, South Australia’, Photography and married Rose Mack (1891–1945). Together they raised eight children to adult-
Culture, 8:1 (2015), 37–57. hood. Rose was a granddaughter of the esteemed Ngarrindjeri cultural leader
25 – See Karen Hughes, ‘“I’d Grown Up as ‘Queen’ Louisa Karpany and George Ezekiel Mason the first South Australian
a Child Amongst Natives”: Ruth Heathcock sub-Protector of Aborigines at Wellington. This was one of South Australia’s early
(1901–1995), Disrupting Settler-Colonial and foundational cross-cultural relationships.25
Orthodoxy through Friendship and Cross- In one photograph Frank Lovegrove appears elegantly outfitted in a three-
Cultural Literacy in Creolised Spaces of the
Australian Contact Zone’, Outskirts, 28 piece suit, at the centre of a multigenerational family portrait that was taken at
(May 2013), available at http://www.out Raukkan around 1940, most likely by Frank’s son, Albert (Bronco) Lovegrove, a keen photographer (figure 3). Standing beside him is his youngest daughter Vera,
karen-hughes (accessed 10 August 2018). born in 1932, along with three of many grandchildren. The image deftly adapts the
26 – For a fascinating insight into the
popularity of studio portraiture among
formal sitting arrangement of the popular studio portrait genre to convey a
Aboriginal people in south-eastern localised Ngarrindjeri aesthetic, replacing a generic painted landscape backdrop
Queensland in the nineteenth and early with the distinctive hedges of Raukkan.26 Striking about this picture is the loving
twentieth centuries, see Michael Aird, way Frank holds up his grandson, Victor Rigney, and the baby Victor’s visible
Portraits of Our Elders, Queensland: Keaira
Press 1993; and Michael Aird, ‘Aboriginal
delight and comfort in this, reflecting the highly valued supportive and caring role
People and Four Early Brisbane Ngarrindjeri men took in ‘raising up’ families. This contrasts markedly with
Photographers’, in Calling the Shots, ed. expressions of masculinity considered typical of most non-Indigenous Australian
Lydon, 133–56. men of the time, who are rarely publicly depicted in familial caring roles.27 This
27 – For an understanding of the public
face of pre-war Australian masculinity see,
attribute resonates with a number of other images in the Ngarrindjeri collections
for example, Russell Ward, The Australian (see figure 8, for instance).
Legend, Melbourne: Oxford University This set of photographs also charts a deeply hidden story of Indigenous
Press 1958. Nicholas Peterson provides a mobility occasioned by relationships and marriages during the Second World
parallel analysis as to the selective absence
of the father in photographs of Aboriginal
War. In January 1945, Frank and Rose Lovegrove’s daughter, Edith (1925–),
families taken by non-Indigenous photo- married Fredrick Keys – one of more than a million US servicemen stationed in
graphers at the turn of the twentieth cen- Australia over the course of the war. Later that same year, Edith left Australia for
tury: Nicholas Peterson, ‘Early 20th the USA as a war bride on the SS Monterey, to live in Virginia, where their son
Century Photography of Australian
Aboriginal Families: Illustration or
Fred Jnr was born in 1947. Generally, Aboriginal women were prohibited from
Evidence?’, Visual Anthropology Review, marrying US servicemen and immigrating to the USA, under its racialised 1924
21:1–2 (March 2005), 11–26. Immigration Act, which admitted only African or Chinese descended people of

Karen Hughes and Ellen Trevorrow

Figure 3. Photographer unknown, Frank

Lovegrove with his Youngest Daughter Vera
Lovegrove, and Grandchildren (left to right)
Victor Rigney, Cecil Rigney, and Fred Kelly,
gelatin silver print, ca. 1942. Lovegrove
family collection, courtesy of Lyn

colour.28 On the Australian home front, mixed relations were discouraged through 28 – See Karen Hughes, ‘Mobilising Across
new punitive consorting laws, passed in a 1939 amendment to the Aborigines Act Colour Lines, Intimate Encounters between
Indigenous Australian Women and
SA 1911.29 However, Edith, with about a dozen other Aboriginal women, was able American Servicemen on the World War 2
to enter the USA under the official war bride scheme, which required documenta- Homefront’, Aboriginal History, 41 (2017),
tion of Aboriginal ‘exemption’ or certified proof of ‘more than fifty per cent white 47–70.
ancestry’.30 Living in Florida, at age ninety-three, Aunty Edith Lovegrove remains 29 – This forbade Aboriginal and non-
Aboriginal people to mix freely together.
the oldest person in the Ngarrindjeri nation. Her rare photographs make visible
30 – Via a further 1939 Amendment to the
this history (figures 4 and 5). Aboriginal Act, the South Australian gov-
Importantly, transnational marriage was a continuation of precolonial ernment introduced exemption certificates
Ngarrindjeri laws governing exogamous unions. ‘Marrying out’ served to widen in 1943, exempting certain Aboriginal
people from restrictive legislation and
circles of kin and sovereignty, continually strengthening the nation. In the context
entitling them to move freely and work
of overbearing government intervention into marriage and the structure of the amongst non-Aboriginal Australians, but
Aboriginal family, personal photographs like these are explicitly political and in prohibiting them from consorting with
particular draw important attention to the agency of Ngarrindjeri women, and to others who were not exempt, thus causing
many problems. The Aboriginal war brides
the central role of marriage in extending sovereignty, rather than of assimilating
who immigrated to the USA from South
into settler society and adopting its norms. (Indeed, Australia’s assimilation policy Australia and other states either held
is seen by historians as reaching its zenith between the 1930s and the 1950s.31) exemption certificates or were able to pro-
Ngarrindjeri did not consider mixed cultural ancestry or skin colour as factors vide evidence of mainly white ancestry.
determining indigeneity in families. While Aboriginal women across Australia 31 – Katherine Ellinghaus, ‘Regulating
Koori Marriages: The 1886 Victorian
have long acted as ambassadors on the cross-cultural frontier,32 white women Aborigines Protection Act’, Journal of
and men, as we have seen in the cases of Fred Keys and sub-Protector Mason, Australian Studies, 25:67 (2001), 22–29.
permanently entered Aboriginal worlds, rising above the race-thinking of their 32 – See Hughes, ‘“I’d Grown Up as a Child
times. Amongst Natives”’, n.p.; and Hughes and
Trevorrow, ‘“It’s that Reflection”’.
Edith’s younger brother Albert (Bronco) Lovegrove was another who contin-
ued this boundary crossing. Famed for his horsemanship and music, he travelled

Law, Sovereignty, and Belonging in Ngarrindjeri Photography of the Mid-Twentieth Century

Figure 4. Frederick Keys, Edith Keys (nee

Lovegrove), Daughter of Frank Lovegrove
and Rose Mack, on Vacation in the USA,
where she lived from 1946, gelatin silver
print, late 1940s. Lovegrove family collec-
tion, courtesy of Lyn Lovegrove-Niemz.

Figure 5. Attributed to Frederick Keys,

Edith Keys with son Fred Keys Jnr,
Maryland, USA, gelatin silver print, ca.
1947. Lovegrove family collection, courtesy
of Lyn Lovegrove-Niemz.

Karen Hughes and Ellen Trevorrow

around Australia with a circus in the late 1940s (figure 6).33 In Fremantle, Western 33 – Katherine Susannah Pritchard’s 1941
Australia, Bronco fell in love with his future wife June, a young white woman aged novel Haxby’s Circus provides an under-
standing of the life of travelling circuses at
sixteen, who ran away to join him and the circus, in which she performed a snake- this time. For a darker look at the abuse of
woman illusion act. Before the birth of their third child, the couple moved to the a Queensland Aboriginal family performing
Point McLeay Mission. Initially wary of June, the mission residents and Bronco’s in the USA, see Roslyn Poignant,
extended family soon fully embraced her. June had her last two children delivered Professional Savages: Captive Lives and
Western Spectacle, New Haven, CT: Yale
by a skilled Ngarrindjeri midwife, noting there was no comparison between this University Press 2004.
and a hospital birth. She also spoke the Ngarrindjeri language, and could sing
several of the ancient corroboree chants passed on from her grandmother-in-law,
Pinkie Mack, which she eventually tape-recorded for her children.34 34 – Lyn Lovegrove-Niemz, personal com-
Pictured on the day of her marriage in 1964 to the Dutch artist Arthur Van munication, 21 October 2016.
Der Byl (figure 7), as she is about to cut their spectacular three-tiered wedding
cake with a tower on top illuminated by a red light, Aunty Muriel looks ready to
take on the world – which indeed she did and continues to do. A strong advocate
and activist, a fine painter, and a tireless community worker, she laboured hard
over a lifetime with her sister Valmai Power, mentor Ruby Hammond, cousin 35 – Mugshots were portraits taken for
Shirley Peisley, and other Ngarrindjeri women to support the growing number of identification purposes commonly dis-
played on government-issued exemption
families who were moving off the government-run missions and reserves into
cards (referred as dog-tags by the commu-
Adelaide, the South Australian capital, in the 1960s, contributing to policy forma- nity) that Aboriginal people, unlike their
tion in the crucial years of change that followed the 1967 Referendum. non-Aboriginal counterparts, were required
Photographs such as this, like those earlier, defy the limitations of the ‘mug to carry to be able to obtain employment
and live off the missions and reserves and
shots’ featured on the government-issued identity cards and exemption certificates
move about with relative freedom. A simi-
that many Aboriginal people, unlike their non-Indigenous counterparts, were lar style of portraiture was deployed for the
required to carry to obtain employment and to move about with relative freedom well-known visual identification data col-
in the mid-twentieth century.35 Although Aunty Muriel disdained the system, lected by anthropologists Norman Tindale
and Joseph Birdsell in the 1930s to survey
exemption under the Aborigines Act SA 1911 enabled her to take up mainstream
and classify Aboriginal peoples nationally.
employment opportunities that would benefit her people. In protest, Aunty Muriel
Van Der Byl (nee Karpany) made it an explicit goal to challenge the photographic
‘mug-shot’ genre that she noted exercised such a detrimental impact on people’s 36 – On coercive images see Christopher
self-esteem. When she had her photograph taken for her identity card in the late Pinney, ‘Other Peoples’ Bodies, Lives,
1950s, she arrived attired in a formal ball gown with sparkling jewellery, her hair Histories? Ethical Issues in the Use of a
Photographic Archive’, Journal of Museum
elegantly coiffed and makeup fashionably applied, radically taking charge of her Ethnography, 1 (March 1989), 57–69; for an
own representation in defiance of the usual visual labelling, and transforming a understanding of the political uses of gla-
potentially humiliating occasion into a triumphant political moment. Glamour, as mour see Carol Dyhouse, Glamour:
we see in many of these photographs of Ngarrindjeri women and men, was Women, History, Feminism, London: Zed
Books 2010.
certainly not a white pursuit.36 Aunty Muriel felt inspired by the creativity,
strength, and resourcefulness of her mother (Mary Karpany, nee Wilson) and

Figure 6. Attributed to June Lovegrove,

Albert (Bronco) Lovegrove and Frank
Lovegrove Jnr, gelatin silver print, late
1940s. Lovegrove family collection, cour-
tesy of Lyn Lovegrove-Niemz.

Law, Sovereignty, and Belonging in Ngarrindjeri Photography of the Mid-Twentieth Century

Figure 7. Photographer unknown,

Wedding Reception of Muriel and Arthur
Van Der Byl, Adelaide, gelatin silver print,
1964. Courtesy of Aunty Muriel Van Der

her aunties, recalling their gloves, handbags, and ‘nipped-in waists’, and the
snappy hats, breeches, and waistcoats her uncles would don, garments often
carefully stitched by hand, or constructed with the aid of ‘an old Singer sewing-
37 – Muriel Van Der Byl, personal com- machine’.37
munication, 16 October 2016. Many photographs among the Ngarrindjeri collections convey beauty, style,
and cultural pride as important components of a Ngarrindjeri aesthetic. Clothing
was, and continues to be, deployed selectively as a performative weapon in the
struggle for civil rights and equality, and aimed to invert power relations and
assert individual agency and specificity. In front of the camera, subjects frequently
dressed with flair, in part to counter the flow of negative stereotypes of the time
that were linked to punitive policies, such as child removal. In Aunty Muriel’s
case, clothing became part of a self-presentational arsenal, an aesthetic interven-
38 – See Henry Louis Gates, Jnr, ‘Frederick tion, like the photographs themselves, to effect political change.38
Douglass’s Camera Obscura’, Aperture:
Vision and Justice, 223 (Summer 2016),
26–29, for an understanding of the way
Naming Ngarrindjeri War Veterans
Douglass used photography and self-pre-
sentation as part of a multipronged effort to
Amid the clamour of vibrant conversation, Aunty Sandy Wilson brought out a
engage the American public in the struggle
to end slavery. large and beguilingly framed image of five finely dressed Ngarrindjeri men,
sporting elegant suits and hats, which belonged to her late father Uncle Walter
Gollan (1898–1950). A veteran of the First World War who served on Europe’s
western front, Walter Gollan is pictured on the right (figure 8). Aunty Sandy knew
the identity of only two other men in the frame: Howard Sumner, who enlisted in
the Australian Imperial Forces in 1940, and fellow Second World War veteran
Steve (Fuller) Lampard. Within moments, family members present in the room
were able to identify the unnamed men as Proctor Sumner and Wiltshire Sumner

Karen Hughes and Ellen Trevorrow

Figure 8. Photographer unknown,

Gathering of Ngarrindjeri Men: from left to
right, Proctor Sumner (Uncle Nink),
Howard Sumner, Steve (Uncle Fuller)
Lampard, Wiltshire Sumner, seated, Walter
Gollan, gelatin silver print, late 1940s.
Courtesy of Aunty Sandra Wilson.

(1894–1971), also veterans of the First World War, illustrating the value of a
whole-of-community approach to working with and contextualising the photo-
graphs. At first glance, the curtained backdrop suggests the photograph could be a
studio portrait. However, the men’s relaxed disposition and the easy manner in
which they pose for the camera indicates it was more likely taken in a community
setting by a personal friend, as the photographer and subjects appear to be on the
same visual plane. What was the occasion? Was it a gathering of veterans for a
Remembrance Day commemoration? As with the photograph of Frank Lovegrove
(figure 3), we catch sight of the twinned qualities of gentleness and strength in the
men’s demeanour, as well as their conviviality and connectedness to one another,
along with a stylish attention to their appearance.
Aunty Alice Abdulla reflected on Uncle Fuller (pictured also in figure 11 at his
home in Bonney Reserve), the only one of the five men pictured not to have a
direct descendant present to speak his story. Uncle Fuller’s father, Alban Varcoe,
had died fighting on the battlefields of the Somme in 1915, aged nineteen, shortly
before Uncle Fuller’s birth. ‘Uncle Fuller was a darling’, Aunty Alice fondly
recalled. ‘We’d go and sit with him and Aunty Innes Sumner when he was living
in the first house down at Bonney Reserve [the Seven Mile Fringe Camp] on the
Coorong. We’d sit and listen to his yarns, and his singing, or whatever he was
doing. He was a happy-go-lucky guy’.

Underpinning Contemporary Mobility: Law and the Strength of the Old People
Most notable among the collections shared that day was a small, lovingly pre-
served photograph cherished among many families, as the patina of its handling

Law, Sovereignty, and Belonging in Ngarrindjeri Photography of the Mid-Twentieth Century

Figure 9. Photographer unknown,

Gathering of Ngarrindjeri families for
Lutheran fellowship and Sunday school in
the farmland behind Marunggung, East
Wellington, Elizabeth Lampard (Tongerie),
Valda Lampard (Rigney), Uncle Doak
(George Karpany), Kaye Lampard (Roberts),
Grannie Janet Smith (Karpany), Mavis
(Bunny), Aunty Fanny Kernot, Aunty Annie
Koolmatrie (Mason), Nanna May Sumner,
Nanna Ellen Brown, Uncle Hurtle
Kartinyeri, Margaret Rigney (Karpany) with
baby, Aunty Dora Mason, Uncle Sark
(Augustus Webster), Nanna Laura
Kartinyeri, Aunty Sarah Lindsay Lavios,
Old Dardle (Manuel Karpany), Uncle Paddy
Brown, Greg Rigney, Malcolm Domenech,
Ellen Rankine (Trevorrow), David Rankine,
Michelle Gollan, Barry Giles, Sharon Rigney
(holding fruit), Maureen Smith, Christine
(Witty) Rigney (in truck), gelatin silver
print, 1961. Courtesy of Maureen Smith.

reveals (figure 9). The photograph depicts a gathering of four generations of

Ngarrindjeri families near Marunggung, an ancient place of significance on the
River Murray, east of Wellington. Perhaps surprisingly, this photograph was taken
two decades later than many of those already shown, such as the photographs in
the Lovegrove collection, and is synchronic with Aunty Muriel’s wedding album.
Yet it feels far older, visibly referencing a deeper sense of time in its visceral
presentation of many of the Old People on Country.
For Aunty Ellen Trevorrow, who appears in the front row as a five-year-old
child, the photograph projects a culturally privileged childhood, ‘showing how we
were always around Elders, benefitting from their expert knowledge and care’:

It shows the family that always visited, the family that was always around, the
family that was in the region. To look at these Elders there with the young
ones reveals a lovely family connection. It was taken at one of our Sunday
togethernesses. There we are near Marunggung and the old stone house. We
would meet at the Tailem Bend Pines; we would also come down to Meningie
and meet in the park, down at Bonney Reserve, and at the One Mile camp.
There were a lot of times we would come together. There are a lot of
memories with those Old Fellows. We were seen and not heard but you
can imagine the stories that they would be telling each other, just to look at it.
A lot of that was done through the Lutheran church. We’d come down on the
truck, with a big canvas over it, a slow ride. We kids would have our play and
the Elders would just sit and yarn. A lot of Christianity was put into the

Significantly, Marunggung remains an important place for education and the

passing on of cultural generational knowledge, and ways of being Ngarrindjeri.
Crucially, the photograph illuminates how the strength and the mobility of these
generations who travelled Australia, served in two world wars, as well as Korea
and Vietnam, who moved their families to the city, or resided overseas, were
underpinned by the deep cultural values and fortitude of their powerful Elders
born in the nineteenth century who raised and protected them on Country.
Grannie Janet Smith, born in the 1890s, for example, standing on the left at the
rear in the white hat, was a fluent language speaker, and a fine basket weaver and
expert maker of (pelican) feather flowers. The photograph is imbued with an

Karen Hughes and Ellen Trevorrow

enormous span of history and cultural continuity woven into its present 39 – Alice Abdulla, personal communica-
moment. tion, 20 October 2016 (emphasis in
Remembering a childhood visit to Raukkan in the late 1930s, while her original).
40 – See Karen Hughes, ‘Arnhem Land to
father was engaged in repairing the station’s fences, Aunty Alice Abdulla, a
Adelaide: Deep Histories in Aboriginal
granddaughter of another powerful Elder, Grannie Rita Mason, and the daughter Women’s Storytelling and Historical
of Annie Mason (pictured in figure 9) and Joe Trevorrow (like her sister, Aunty Practice, “Irruptions of Dreaming” Across
Rita Lindsay), spoke of the deep respect in which the Old People of that time Contemporary Australia’, in Long History,
Deep Time: Deepening Histories of Place, ed.
were held. She described the generation living both on and off the mission as
Ann McGrath and Mary-Anne Jebb,
‘very powerful’, recalling that ‘they used to all sit on the big lawn and yarn, but Canberra: ANU Press 2015, 83–100.
we weren’t allowed near them; that was their time’.39 41 – Bringing Them Home: Report of the
Most people in the room that day could draw connections to the distin- National Inquiry into the Separation of
guished Ngarrindjeri lineages through this photograph and also that of the five Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children
from their Families, Sydney: Australian
men in figure 8. Photographs can demonstrably help complete the circle of Human Rights Commission 1997.
family, working with reminiscence to sustain connections between ancestors 42 – Henry Reynolds, Nowhere People,
and living generations of Ngarrindjeri through drawing the past into the present Camberwell, Victoria: Penguin 2005.
more tangibly than other means. For members of the Stolen Generations and 43 – As in Canada and the USA, Australian
Aboriginal people were subject to large-
their descendants, and for new generations at risk or for others who have become scale assimilation attempts that took many
dissociated from their culture for a range of reasons, photographs can help legislative and coercive forms.
restitch this connection. As Ellen describes, ‘with the photos there is always 44 – Fringe camps were spaces of activism
this link, going out’ (emphasis in original), expressing a multilayered connectiv- and resistance as well as spaces that celebrate
culture. When the Aboriginal Tent Embassy
ity that can recuperate fractured relations between people and place, bringing a
was established in Canberra in 1972, it bore
sense of belonging that is anchored in a palpably deeper experience of time that some of the features of the fringe camps.
reaches beyond colonial interference.40 ‘You can get that pride and dignity’, Following the referendum, they drew a
Aunty Muriel observed. ‘If you don’t know who you come from, you don’t know younger generation of leaders into activism.
See Tracey Banivanua Mar, ‘Belonging to
who you are and where you’re going. It’s the same as for war veterans’. Indeed,
Country: Racialising Space and Resistance on
most Elders in the room had felt the impact of the government policies of child Queensland’s Transnational Margins,
removal either within their close and immediate or extended families.41 A 1880–1900’, Australian Historical Studies, 43:2
number of the photographs shared were the work of Aunty Charlotte Richards, (2012), 174–90.
45 – See in particular the case of Bruce
who had envisaged the role photographs might play in restoring such
Trevorrow expressed in the legal judgement
connections. ‘Trevorrow v State of South Australia (No 5)
[2007] SASC 285’, 1 August 2007, available at
Photographing Ngarrindjeri Fringe Camps: Aunty Charlotte Richards 0&synonyms=0&query (accessed 10 August
2018). Uncle Walter Richards, personal com-
As Aboriginal people became increasingly excluded from the Australian nation- munication, 4 August 2013; and Uncle Claude
state during the interwar years under contradictory policies of segregation and Love, personal communication, 6 September
assimilation, and as conditions on government reserves declined, living with 2014. Following a mid-1990s national inquiry,
these children became formally known as the
extended kin on fringe camps on the outskirts of towns became a way of main- Stolen Generations; for more on this, see
taining continual, if changing, connections to Country.42 Fringe camps were also a Anna Haebich, Broken Circles: Fragmenting
way of keeping languages alive, of obtaining regular agricultural work, and of Indigenous Families, 1800–2000, Fremantle,
living largely independent lives.43 In these marginal locations Aboriginal people WA: Fremantle Arts Centre Press 2000; and
Bringing Them Home, Australian Human
could remain, albeit to varying degrees, independent of the institutional radar in Rights Commission. In a much-heralded first
contrast to life on missions and government-run reserves. act in office in February 2008, newly installed
Fringe camps were a vital part of a wider struggle to exercise sovereignty, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued the
land, and citizenship rights that intensified in the politically volatile period leading National Apology to the Stolen Generations
and their families.
up to the 1967 Federal Referendum, and for which Ngarrindjeri, along with others 46 – As Charlotte Richards’s birth appears
across Australia, were agitating.44 Importantly, fringe camps were significant sites not to have been formally registered, we
of oppositional knowledge and emergent leadership. Yet within the context of have only an approximation from family
broader Australian historiography, fringe camps signify human rights violations, members, ranging widely from 1926 to
1936. For earlier work on Charlotte
social exclusion, inadequate housing, and deplorable health and life expectancy Richards, see Hughes and Trevorrow, ‘“It’s
outcomes. Furthermore, their independence from state control also made fringe that Reflection”’, 194–99; Hughes and
camps particularly vulnerable as sites targeted by the state for child removal.45 Smith, ‘Un-filtering the Settler Colonial
One of the most notable of the mid-twentieth-century Ngarrindjeri photo- Archive’; and Karen Hughes ‘Reading
Resistant Landscapes in Ngarrindjeri
graphers, Aunty Charlotte Richards (ca. 1930–87), stands out as a prolific and Country: The Photographic Legacy of
remarkable Indigenous pioneering woman photographer whose work is only now Aunty Charlotte Richards’, in Reading the
beginning to attract wider recognition (see figure 15).46 She lived in the fringe Country: 30 Years On, ed. Philip Morrissey

Law, Sovereignty, and Belonging in Ngarrindjeri Photography of the Mid-Twentieth Century

and Chris Healy, Sydney: UTS ePRESS, camps along the River Murray and Coorong, making her extended family and
University of Technology Sydney 2018, community the subjects of a large and important body of work. For Charlotte
254–71. Charlotte Sumner-Dodd and Joyce
Kerswell were other important Ngarrindjeri Richards, more than for the other Ngarrindjeri practitioners, photography was an
women photographers from this era, who enterprise that she passionately pursued and sustained over a lifetime. She set out
form the basis of a forthcoming study. consciously to create a visual record that would later provide vital information for
families piecing together shattered lives, ultimately documenting her version of the
47 – We have considered this collection in ‘Australian’ family.47 As her nephews recall, she was uniquely able to practise her
detail elsewhere. See Hughes, ‘Reading art because she did not have children to support and was exceptionally skilled in
Resistant Landscapes’.
living off the land: hunting, fishing, trapping rabbits, and therefore economically
48 – Walter Richards and Jeffrey Hunter, self-sufficient.48 Her deep, intimate knowledge of Country and survival skills
personal communication, Murray Bridge, 4 underpinned her independence and mobility, and ultimately her photography.
August 2013.
She began taking photographs as a teenager with a Brownie camera, and, although
never formally trained, she studied visual styles in magazines and cinema, experi-
menting with composition and genre as we observe in the evolvement of an
attentive practice encompassing four decades. When she died she left in excess
of five hundred photographs which have since been distributed by her descendants
amongst family and community. As a result, many Elders at the October workshop
had photographs she had given them among their collections.
In one of her earliest known photographs (figure 10), taken while still a
teenager, her subjects pose in a playful tableau: her father, Uncle Walter (Nulla)
Richards, her mother Ruby Koolmatrie (Nanna Tingie), her grandmother’s
brother Joe Walker Jnr, and, next to him, an Aboriginal visitor from Victoria.

Figure 10. Charlotte Richards, Walter

Richards (Uncle Nulla), Ruby Koolmatrie
(Nanna Tingie), and seated, Joe Walker Jnr
(Uncle Poonthie) and an Aboriginal visitor
from Victoria, Meningie One Mile Camp,
gelatin silver print, ca. 1940. Courtesy of
Ellen and Tom Trevorrow collection.

Karen Hughes and Ellen Trevorrow

Charlotte Richards intriguingly subverts the studio portrait genre to configure a

more accurate presentation of mid-twentieth-century localised Ngarrindjeri iden-
tity and Ngarrindjeri-specific ontology. The thick bushland of the Meningie One
Mile Camp references the studio photographer’s faux landscape backdrop in front
of which her subjects wear the coloniser’s clothes with flair and invention, without
need for the constraint of shoes on the soft Coorong sand. In the foreground is a
pet magpie, Charlotte’s ngatji or totem,49 a hallmark of many of her early photo- 49 – Ngatji translates as ‘close relation’.
graphs. Charlotte was legendary for travelling with her pet magpies (which she
taught to talk by splitting the tip of their tongue), along with her cats and dogs in
trail. Chairs are tin flour-drums and, importantly, there is reading material – a
newspaper or magazine – as a marker of Ngarrindjeri people’s avid pursuit of self-
education. The stylised way in which her subjects are posed prefigures Tracey
Moffatt’s work, decades later (see also figure 14).
We can see clearly an emergent Aboriginal photographic practice present that
centres upon the ‘co-authorship between image maker and subject’, and that
embodies the distinctive humour and warm social relations between the subjects
and the photographer.50 Significantly, too, the image projects the contemporary 50 – Lydon, ‘Introduction’, in Calling the
life of this period while simultaneously invoking a deeper sense of time. Much like Shots, ed. Lydon, 1–20. Aunty Charlotte
Richards’s work has parallels with the
the Marunggung photograph (figure 9), generational connectedness and inalien- important, more extensive body of work of
able relationships to Country are present in its frame.51 Many Aboriginal viewers Kiowa photographer Horace Poolow that
note the visual presence of ancestral spirit-figures in the background. This indi- has recently come to wider scholarly and
cates further aspects of an Indigenous aesthetic involving a history of reception public attention in the USA with the
restoration of his negatives. See For a Love
that is inclusive of spirituality and ancestral connections along with other impor- of His People: The Photography of Horace
tant tenants of Indigenous society: sharing, respect, and care. This points also Poolaw, ed. Nancy Marie Mithlo,
towards a way of seeing photographs that encompasses the healing power of Washington, DC: National Museum of the
images of kin and culture, as they are enfolded into living families and worlds.52 American Indian, Smithsonian Institution
Richards’s early work is contemporary with the documentary images of
51 – For an understanding of the way deep
marginalised rural workers taken for the US Farm Security Administration project time permeates Ngarrindjeri worldviews,
in the 1940s, connected by a language of dignity in the face of dispossession and see Hughes, ‘Arnhem Land to Adelaide’.
loss. Yet what distinguishes her work is the purpose for which the photographs 52 – Lydon, ‘Introduction’, in Calling the
Shots, ed. Lydon, 6; see also Gaynor
were taken, and importantly the equality of the ‘intersecting gaze’ in the express
Macdonald, ‘Photos in Wiradjuri Biscuit
relationships between Charlotte Richards, her subjects, and her intended audience, Tins: Negotiating Relatedness and
all of whom are Ngarrindjeri (figure 11).53 However, it is unlikely that Charlotte Validating Colonial Histories’, Oceania,
Richards ever saw the Farm Security photographs. Instead, she may have observed 73:4 (June 2003), 225–42; and Heather
Goodall, ‘“Karoo: Mates” – Communities
their refracted influence in the black-and-white images that she studied in
Reclaim Their Images’, Aboriginal History,
Australian newspapers and magazines and that caused her to think how framing, 30 (2006), 48–66.
composition, and light might be differently deployed, but to do it ‘in her own 53 – See Anna Szorenyi, ‘Distanced
way’.54 These are photographs from the edge, taken by an Aboriginal woman from Suffering: Photographed Suffering and the
the fringe camps depicting an important yet marginalised history at a time of Construction of White In/vulnerability’,
Social Semiotics, 19:2 (2009), 93–109.
intense race-based social exclusion when Aboriginal people were bound by the 54 – Walter Richards, personal communi-
Aborigines Act, and precluded from citizenship rights. cation, 24 November 2017.
Many photographs capture the work undertaken by people from the camps in
order to remain on Country, to support their families, and to stay connected with
one another. Aunty Charlotte’s, along with other cherished Ngarrindjeri photo-
graphs such as figure 12, celebrate the too often invisible work of their kin in
building Australia’s infrastructure: labouring on farms as shearers and cooks, house-
keeping and caring for settler families’ children, harvesting crops and seasonal fruit
and vegetables, felling wood, clearing stumps, stone-picking, sewing wheat-bags,
catching fish, maintaining railways, building roads and churches, providing enter-
tainment, and defending Country, nation, and the British Empire. An image of a
rolling sea of hessian bags, brimming with wheat and standing in rows waiting to be
stitched by Ngarrindjeri families, galvanised the attention of the Elders and elicited
recognition and a rich source of stories about the way families came together to
work, while their children jumped along the rows. Similarly, a photograph of

Law, Sovereignty, and Belonging in Ngarrindjeri Photography of the Mid-Twentieth Century

Figure 11. Charlotte Richards, Uncle Fuller,

Aunty Thora Lampard, and Aunty Ruby
Richards, in the Middle House at the
Meningie Seven-Mile Camp, at Bonney
Reserve on the Coorong, gelatin silver print,
1960s. Courtesy of Ellen and Tom
Trevorrow collection.

shearing brought forth memories of the music and social gatherings around the
shearing camps and the end of shearing celebrations.
Many of Charlotte Richards’s later photographs, from the early 1970s until
her death in 1987, exhibit at times an unflinching gaze and a distinct social realist
turn, reflecting the pervasive documentary aesthetic of the photojournalism tradi-
tion popularly circulated in Australia in magazines such as Life and imitated in the
55 – See Fay Anderson, ‘Chasing the more popular magazines Pix and Post which Charlotte avidly consumed.55
Pictures: Press and Magazine Photography’, Photographs of Land Rights marches and other public protests, the emergent
Media International Australia, 150:1
(February 2014), 47–55.
South Australian Aboriginal rock music scene, Ngarrindjeri family celebrations,
and rural life on farms (figures 13, 14) relay metonymic moments that resonate a
larger story of strength and renaissance, underscoring the activism behind the
practice of photography itself, as part of a long movement of Indigenous cultural
56 – See, for example, Faye Ginsburg, activism and creativity.56
‘Black Screens and Cultural Citizenship’, While it is undeniable that the possibility of a photographic career was
Visual Anthropology Review, 21:1–2 (March
2005), 80–97.
thwarted by the prevalence of the racialised thinking dominating her times
(which limited employment choices for Aboriginal women largely to domestic
service and manual labouring roles), and that her photographs lacked the technical
proficiency enabled by access to professional equipment and resources, Charlotte
Richards’s photographs unassailably surmount these circumstances through their
transmission of a specific Ngarrindjeri visual aesthetic and the lucid unmitigated
intimacy of a world of which she was inextricably part. Although she never worked
as a professional, photography was always her project.
Lastly, a photograph from Charlotte Richards’s collection from the 1970s
brings an Indigenous lens to picturing an emblematic, alternative Australian
family, with herself as a central subject (figure 15). We see Aunty Charlotte with
her ever-present piano accordion – an instrument previously played by her mother
Ruby Richards (née Koolmatrie), her sister Irene Hunter, and more recently by her
sister’s daughter, the acclaimed Australian singer Ruby Hunter. Positioned behind

Karen Hughes and Ellen Trevorrow

Figure 12. Photographer unknown, Trevor Jackson shearing, front of frame, others unidentified, gelatin silver print, ca 1970. Courtesy of Helen Jackson.

Figure 13. Charlotte Richards, ‘Smoko Break’ on a Farm in the South Australian Riverland, gelatin silver print, ca. 1950s. Courtesy of Walter Richards
and Jeffrey Hunter.

Law, Sovereignty, and Belonging in Ngarrindjeri Photography of the Mid-Twentieth Century

Figure 14. Charlotte Richards, untitled,

gelatin silver print, 1970s. Courtesy of
Walter Richards and Jeffrey Hunter.

Figure 15. Photographer unknown, ‘An

Australian Family’, Aunty Charlotte
Richards and Uncle Ron Davis with
extended kin, possibly taken in Victor
Harbour, gelatin silver print, 1970s.
Courtesy of Walter Richards and Jeffrey

her is a ‘Hills Hoist’ clothesline – a symbol that has come to be iconic of Australian
mid-century suburbia. With her is her non-Indigenous partner from about the
1970s onwards, Uncle Ron Davis (1919–98), and their hybrid family. It is an image

Karen Hughes and Ellen Trevorrow

full of optimism in which we see an indigenised world that is, and by extension a
world that could have been, if colonial relations had indeed been different. The
depth of Charlotte’s legacy and her bold experimentation with style and genre,
along with her pursuit of justice, anticipate the generations of prominent
Indigenous Australian photographers who have followed.
Two weeks after the Elders had left, the images were taken down and
temporarily stored in a filing cabinet in the bustling Camp Coorong office, next
to the Ngarrindjeri community museum, where many of them will soon be hung
as part of an Elder’s wing. Over the coming weeks, as community members
dropped by, the photographs were brought out with almost reverential care, and
more stories were told, creating a seemingly endless spiralling circle of stories that
keep on linking people back into the centre. Always they were viewed with
wonder, calling up long-forgotten memories of the resourceful fabulous things
that people did, despite hard times, and the strong communities they created
during a long period of unprecedented state intervention in Aboriginal lives. Most
importantly, they are valued for the enduring legacy and transformative histories
they have left behind for us today and for future generations. In this way they
represent living Law and continuity, strengthening vital links between the past and
the present.

The availability of affordable cameras by the mid-twentieth century allowed
Ngarrindjeri people to be agents of their own narratives both as subjects and
photographers, chronicling the recent past through an Indigenous lens and pro-
ducing a counter archive of immense significance. Within this community, photo-
graphy provides a heightened presence of survivance in several ways: it counters
attempts to break down families; it counters attempts to sever and diminish ties to
Country and to stifle earlier Indigenous pioneering attempts of self-representation
through photography. Albert Karloan’s experience of having his request for a
cinematograph so brutally rejected is testament to this. The photographs
Ngarrindjeri people took themselves, and retain today, tangibly serve to enliven
cultural connections generationally by illuminating new spaces of history and by
demonstrating Ngarrindjeri ontology and sovereignty. Photography offers healing
and recuperation through the imprints the Elders left. These photographs map the
big movements Ngarrindjeri families made over several generations. Activated by
story and memory, it is possible to glimpse in them the profound breadth of this
mobility, and the physical and intellectual networks of connectivity, as people
travelled across social and physical borders and beyond government-imposed
definitions of Aboriginality. More broadly, they offer a vital corrective gaze that
insists on a different reading of colonial and postcolonial Australian history and
that casts Ngarrindjeri people as the actors and central agents of their own history
through the visual records they themselves have created and maintained.