Re-take Artist's Talk, Alana Harris, National Gallery of Australia, 21 October 1998

I'm good at that [photography] but I'm not good at this, so you will have to bear with me. As this exhibition focuses on the National Gallery's existing photographic collection, my involvement in Re-take is due to my participation in the After 200 Years photographic project. The After 200 Years project was a Bicentennial Authority funded project, which was conceived and undertaken by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, that is also known as the Institute, which I'll refer to. The whole idea behind it was to produce a series of photographic essays from a diverse range of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to depict everyday life in the late 1980s. At the time, there was some negative responses to the Institute taking on this project because of the funding body and the association with 1988 being the Bicentennial year, but it was thought that producing this type of publication was an essential step forward to help educate people about Australia's indigenous people.

Approximately twenty communities were picked and a photographer went and lived in the community for up to two or three months. During this time they collected visual and oral documentation of the day-to-day lives in these communities. Documentary photography, as you can see around the room, is probably one of the most difficult types of photography to do, as everyday life can be pretty mundane, and to be able to catch that one moment that is going to hold the interest of the viewer for any longer than a couple of seconds is a pretty tough assignment.

The project commenced in 1986 with the selection of communities and photographers. It was important that a wide range of communities were picked, so that there was a fair representation across Australia. This was to show the average Australian the diversity within indigenous Australia and the differences between urban and traditional societies. It was also important, as it still is today, to help break down the stereotypes that Aborigines aren't just the people you see doing a corroboree or the drunk, unemployed person you see in the gutter on the news at night. At the time of the project, I was in my second year of my photographic traineeship with the Institute. Being involved in the project was very important to my personal and professional growth. I was twenty at the time and had come from a small country town, and being shy had concentrated on landscapes and abstract work, so that I did not have to really interact too much with people when it came to taking photos.

I was one of a small number of indigenous photographers to be involved in the project, I think there was sort of about eight, and I think five of those photographers actually did their home communities. I travelled to several New South Wales and Victorian towns with the project co-ordinators to do the initial negotiations with communities, who had shown an interest in participating in the project. Leeton in New South Wales was one of those communities that we visited, and after spending a couple of days there, I had established some family links, which is usually how it goes. Having only spent a week there, we were invited to a wedding that weekend, and so from there strong friendships were formed and it was decided that Leeton was probably the community that would best suit me to spend a couple of months in. I guess I was really lucky because I had more input into lots of areas of the project than the other photographers did. I returned to Leeton for two months in January/February of 1987 - I had to fit the time in between semesters as I was still studying part-time. I stayed with a family that I had got to know during that initial visit. I was really lucky because I got to hang out with the community people all the time instead of just having that ‘9 to 5’ job. I think the two months would have dragged on if I had of stayed in a motel or caravan park, and I probably wouldn't have fit into the community so easily. I didn't have to wait long before introducing my camera into the community because most people were comfortable with me in a short time, because I'd been there previously. During my time there I went to a lot of community meetings, barbeques, fruit picking, fishing, field trips with the site officers and camping on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River. I know in some other cases it took photographers sometimes up to a month before people in the community were happy to be photographed.

As you can see from these photographs Leeton is a fairly industrial town with a main focus being fruit picking and the cannery. This is where most of the indigenous population were employed. I was quite surprised to see a large proportion of the community actually finding employment there, which was a big contrast to my home community.

So after my two months, I headed back to Canberra, and got stuck into processing hundreds and hundreds of images. Unlike all the other photographers, who had sent their films back for processing, I was lucky, because I worked for the Institute; I could have total control over the technical aspects of my work. I produced proof sheets of the films and then made an initial selection, which I printed up and returned to the Leeton community with a few months later. I stayed on for another six weeks and I did some follow up work, as well as documenting, and working on captions and oral histories to accompany the images that were selected by the community as the final images to be included in the book. There’s is a copy of the book over there for people who haven't seen it. I mean it's a really beautiful publication, and I mean, you know, it’s eleven years old now, and I still haven't seen one that probably, you know, is a comparison to that.

Last Sunday I came in to have a look at the show before I, so I could get ready for today, and one of my colleagues happened to be here, and she asking me about Brian Higgins and his involvement in the Royal Australasian Order of the Buffaloes [Brian Higgins in his Royal Australasian Order of Buffaloes regalia 1987]. And it's amazing how quickly time flies, and eleven years later and I couldn't actually remember taking that photograph. But when I thought about it and revisited the book because I hadn't looked at it for quite a few years now, it was like it was yesterday. So I thought somebody was bound to ask again about this photograph and how he got involved in it, so I rang him up. And, you know, I said, "Give me the goss on this photo" and he, because I thought well, how come there was no real caption to go with it. All he would let on was that it was a world-wide sacred mens' business society, bit like Fred Flinstone, and all I could get out of him that they actually have a secret doorknock, and they take their wives out to the club for dinner every three or four months for their ladies night out, which would have been something to look forward to.

Even eleven years later the book doesn't seem to be all that dated, well, except for maybe the curtains in this photo - I certainly wouldn't want them in my house. And the Institute has an invaluable collection of over 50,000 images taken by some of Australia's best photographers. I remember clearly at the time when the book was launched in 1988, another book of a particular Aboriginal community, which I haven't been able to find the book and I can't remember what community it was, but it was released at the same time, and it was such a contrast to that publication, because it represented all the stereotypical images that indigenous people have been fighting against forever.

This project was a big stepping stone for me and it has been really wonderful that it was included in the Re-take exhibition, because I had forgotten what an important growing time that period was for me and how much it helped shaped my career. Since working on the After 200 Years project I have been involved in numerous other projects and consultancies. A couple of my favourites are the Peace, Hope and Justice March, which there are some images by Kevin Gilbert and Brenda Croft [in the Re-take exhibition]. It was a real highlight for me as an Aboriginal person and as a photographer. The uniqueness of being surrounded by 50,000 indigenous people and supporters for me could really only be recorded and preserved for future generations through photography; even if it was a tad difficult at the time because I was trying to take photos and change film and change lenses with a broken wrist and a plaster cast up to my elbow. That's what happens when you have too wild a 21st birthday party. But I do now have a collection of images from an event that will, you know, be a significant, you know, historical landmark in the future and I’m sure, you know, from these images as well, that people are going to look back on that particular time. [question from the audience] It was on Australia Day in 1988, yeah the Bicentennial year.

Another would be my involvement in the Queensland Art Gallery's Balance 1990 exhibition, which saw me flying around northern Australia for six weeks in an eight seater plane; which actually could have been my last trip, because as we were taxi-ing along the runway at Papunya we lost the bolt out of the door and the door sprung open so we had to put the breaks on and pull up, and get out and be searching around in the red dirt to look for one bolt for the door before we could leave. So, almost didn't make it out of there; but, on the first night we were out, we were on Palm Island, and we decided to sleep on the beach, and I remember waking up at about five o'clock in the morning and hearing lap, lap, lap, and I looked down and there's this water about this far away from my air bed, so. There were lot's of experiences in that trip which, you know, were you know, very important to me. I was very fortunate to visit lots of remote Aboriginal communities that I probably would never get the chance to visit.

And finally, the black women's calendar, which was produced by the Institute and gave me the opportunity to spend some time with some of Australia's inspirational indigenous women. I had complete technical control over that as well, from, you know, shooting, to the layout, and the fibre printing and stuff for it to be published.

I've been fortunate enough to get paid for doing something that I actually really love doing, and also to be able to travel extensively and visit and meet lots of interesting and unusual Australians. I had my first solo exhibition in 1990, which was a compilation of my travels up to that time, plus some studio work. More recently I have completed an Australia Council Professional Development grant, which I did a set of landscape images of some local national parks in New South Wales.
In the last couple of years I must admit, I've been doing bureaucratic things with being involved in decision making for arts funding bodies, which isn't, wouldn’t be my chosen thing to do, I'd much prefer be out taking photos, but I think it's really important to have an input into that sort of stuff. So, my focus at the moment is black and white landscapes, so in a way I guess I've come full circle from, you know, when I was nineteen and I sometimes wish that I was nineteen or twenty again.