As I look out on the unutterable beauty of the snowcapped mountains of the Ngarigo country that I live in, I can only marvel at the conversation I just had with my friend who is enjoying the humidity of 35 degree heat in Larrakia country.
Most Australians, much less the rest of the “white” world would even know where I was located. Most probably think, given my background as a photojournalist, that I was off somewhere in an exotic part of the globe, subjugating exotic people to my extraordinary “white” photojournalistic gaze.
Not the case. I will translate. I live in Australia in the Snowy Mountains and was speaking to my friend in Darwin.
Since Berger’s “Ways of Seeing” was first published and became “de rigueur” for all first-year art students to carry in their bags, discussion of the “gaze” has also become fodder for all those who participate in the discussion of photographs. While Berger’s empathy and sensitivity translated through his book to deliver a greater understanding of the process by which visual communication helps shape and mystify the message of photographs and how we receive them, the “gaze” now represents an almost cliched aspect of the ritual of approaching photography.
So what does Berger’s book have to do with the landscape I am immersing myself in? Well I am in fact gazing at it, but hopefully now, with many years of learning and just the sheer joy of appreciation, I am seeing this landscape as it should be, as Ngarigo country.
Long before the use of the term “storyteller” became voguish to describe photojournalism, Indigenous cultures around the world were telling their own stories. When I use the word Indigenous, I don’t just think of Aboriginal people (for which the word Indigenous has been co-opted in its usage to imply) I think of Gaelic and Spanish and Viking stories as well as Black Tribal cultures across the world.
I think of the stories of Scheherazade and the fables of Aesop and “Wind in The Willows” as well as Bible and Creation stories. The telling of these stories are done freely and their interpretations are fairly direct, yet they can be told in a million different voices as the time and the telling dictate.
Storytelling is about being open to communicating the human condition. We are all different and we are all affected by our upbringing, cultures and environment but we can all acknowledge our differences and accept that and have joy in that. The thing is that’s us trying to tell the story of life, all life… and humans are not mutually exclusive of each other. Except of course when they believe they are more powerful or smarter or better.
And this is where the “gaze” becomes a problem. John Edwin Mason, who I much admire, was quoted in an article citing the “white gaze” as saying that the Taylor Wessing Photographic Awards which had been awarded to four white photographers for photos of black and brown people were “fucked up” and had given the audience “permission to stare”.
I can empathise with his viewpoint, for he, as a black photographer, has seen centuries of the objectification of black and brown people by “white” photographers who consistently reap the rewards of that objectification. White photographers win prizes for taking photos of “black” people.
While some “white” photographers have now been catapulted into the status of “world’s greatest” (note the moniker assigned to white South African photographer David Goldblatt whose exhibition is currently showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney) it would seem that only “white” photographers are being recognised for their contribution to the story of humanity in photographs. This sets up a dangerous precedent whereby “white” photographers completely control the message that their photographs imply.
These messages, such as Berger postulated, create a “political otherness” (Indian academic Rashmi Doraiswamy) that in turn creates a power imbalance and negates the voice of the original teller of the story. The black or brown person, rather than being consulted as to the tone or accent of how to tell their story are lumped with whatever the current ideology of the power elite has become.
Gomeroi Murri Yinah photojournalist, Barbara McGrady, points out that Australian Aboriginal people have been the most studied and poked at people in the world. And the photographic lenses that have been turned on her people have “gazed” in wonder, sometimes, but mostly with “white discoverer/explorer/saviour/exploiter/observer” complexes deeply involved. From the inside of herself, she photographs her “mob” as an extension of herself. Her photographs do not create “white” memes from which to placate the judges of photographic awards for their brilliance at telling a story that she is not familiar with.
It is also in the exclusive “ownership” of photographs, by awards panels and some insensitive and unintelligent photographers who make their mistake in believing that the photographs they make or promote somehow give them “rights” over their subjects. So much so that one self-professed “hardcore” photographer went to the extent of making a jumpsuit to wear out of an Aboriginal flag, seemly displaying ownership and disrespect of Aboriginal people all in the one go.
Stories are to be told. But it is in the telling of them that the messages we sense are received. The voices that tell the stories will change and merge and disappear and reappear. They will come from many cultures and backgrounds and perceptions of the world. They, I hope, will, without prejudice tell the story of humanity and its greater beauty. Those photographs that we see and remember for their extraordinary power are not photos of the “other” they are images of us, all of us and the limits of our sight…
Today’s image is of Ngarigo country, which tells a story all of its own…