As the official photographer for the Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures in Arnhem Land, one of photographer Wayne Quilliam’s many tasks each year is to assist non-Indigenous photographers to understand the cultural complexities of ceremony.
Some years ago, while paired with a small posse of photographers, the group found their spots adjacent to the dance ground where the clan groups were preparing to share culture.
The haunting sound of the Yidaki echoed through the scrub as clap sticks welcomed the Yolngu dancers onto the red sands. Shutters clicked. The energy and pace of the dancers increased, as did the clatter of the shutters.
Afterwards, one of the photographers asked him why he had shot fewer frames than the others. He shot, he recalls, 400 to 500, while everyone else had captured 2000 to 3000.
“I said to him that listening to the sound of the music and singing, and sensing the rhythm of the dancers, influenced how I captured the essence of the sharing.”
It’s this idea of sharing that has also influenced Culture is Life, a new book of photographs from across Indigenous Australia that, like so much of Quilliam’s work, offers insights that can bridge cultural and political divides.
For the Indigenous community, Quilliam’s work is about sharing and celebrating culture and country. And for the non-Indigenous community, his work is about an opportunity to appreciate and comprehend it.
Culture is life
Quilliam describes Culture is Life (published by Hardie Grant) as his first book to make it to print. On many occasions, he has attempted to create a book to record the memories, emotions and the complex visions he has drawn from his interactions with people, culture and country.
But it wasn’t until one of his exhibitions at the United Nations in New York, where the ambassador from Antigua urged him to create a book celebrating his culture, that he started to give the idea serious thought. A similar suggestion from an old friend,
activist and academic Marcia Langton, who published her own successful book, Welcome to Country, finally firmed up his decision to start on the project. And luckily, he had plenty of resources to draw on.
Swag of images
Public institutions and libraries may house larger collections of old images, but Quilliam’s library, which he calls “my swag of images from the past 30 years” is possibly the largest individually collected series of Indigenous photographs in Australia.
As he says, there are few photographers who have travelled as extensively and covered as many events as he has.
“I have always maintained the photos belong to community and they have unrestricted access for non-commercial use to them. Every week I have numerous requests from people and organisations to use the photos at a funeral or the celebration of a milestone, and if the photos can be found I’ll share them.”
As a modern-day storyteller who shares culture, the images Quilliam capture help challenge the myths of a culture frozen in time, while also offering a modernising narrative.
In an interview that turned quite philosophical at times, Quilliam explains his photographs do not depict ritual knowledge. Instead, they embody the stories of the people and moments he came to share on his travels, and how Indigenous people connect through the Songlines, which he explains, “are stories that connect places and creation stories, living historical accounts of the journeys carried in song cycles.”
“Indigenous people have a connection to country,” he explains. “For instance, I am a freshwater man from the central highlands of Tasmania. I am most comfortable in the mountains and around freshwater. My spirit flows from this connection, and in turn my artwork reflects this.”
To comprehend culture and share it as he does in his exhibitions requires a high degree of self-awareness and self-reflection.
“The way I do this is to walk on country, listen to the land and connect,” he says.
“When you connect, it is quite an incredible experience. Colours and contrasting hues merge and light and shadow reveal indescribable beauty. My work emanates from shared values and connection to people and land [but to do this work] requires me to fully understand where I am and how our people want their stories to be told.
“Our old people share the knowledge of the Songlines,” he adds. “My creations are emotive captures through listening, and not necessarily seeing. They are meditative, and a reflection of the stories embedded within the land.”
Quilliam acquired his first camera, a Yashica FX-D Quartz, in 1980 when he was a young sailor in the Royal Australian Navy docked in Hong Kong, and he taught himself how to use it.
“Shipmates told me I cuddled it all the way back to the ship like it was my firstborn,” he laughs.
“That was the catalyst to becoming a storyteller, and never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that a camera, an inanimate black box, was in fact the golden ticket to an incredible journey.”
Later, it was his wife, Jodie, who supported him to become a full-time professional photographer and evolve his artistic career. With his background and reputation, he gained a teaching post at RMIT University in the School of Media and Communication, where he works today as an Adjunct Professor.
In a career that has seen him working across various genres of photograph and photo-media, he can claim that more than 1000 media outlets have published his work, from the Koori Mail to fashion magazine Marie Claire. As a photojournalist he has covered international conferences and key events, including The Apology.
He has created solo exhibitions which have been displayed internationally from Berlin to Tokyo, and his awards include a Walkley and the Human Rights Media Award, both won in 2008.
Connection to country
While the award he cherishes most is the 2009 NAIDOC Artist of the Year, Quilliam waves away labels and comparisons. He feels dogged by the descriptions used to define him, titles such as photojournalist, documentary photographer, and the comparisons people make between him and Merv Bishop for his documentary work, Michael Riley for artistic style, and Tracey Moffatt for his digital art.
“International gallerists have strongly suggested that to find greater success and be considered as a top artist, a total disassociation from my documentary style is required, but on the other hand I am ostracised by the Australian art fraternity as ‘just’ a photographer,” he explains.
As a result, he refuses to be pigeonholed.
“My creative spirit, my cultural essence, and my connection to country are inexhaustible, and these attributes will dictate my journey, not the boxes with their titles,” he says.
In the kit
Wayne has shot mainly with Nikon. It is robust equipment that is hard to kill, he says. The D850s are his go-to for stills. Over one shoulder he carries a 70-200mm lens, on the other a 24-70mm. The Nikon D800 converted to IR is his favourite art camera, and he uses the Z7 and Z6 for videography.
But it’s the off-camera flash that is his favourite piece of equipment.
“It creates slight shadows without having to walk around with a light stand, and its cord also doubles as a washing line when you need to dry your socks.”
When he sets out on an assignment, Wayne packs two camera bodies, two lenses, two flashes, numerous cards, a decent laptop with external hard drives, and registered padded post bags. Doubling up equipment for backup was something he learnt early on from the horror stories colleagues told him about loss or damage.
After a shoot, he downloads to the laptop, and backups up to a USB or hard drive which he mails back to the studio at regular intervals in the post bags.
In the old days, he would carry a go-bag always at the ready in the back of the car, fully stocked with colour and black-and-white film, a couple of lenses and a flash. No more.
“These days the almighty phone has become my backup, always at the ready, and although they have become quite handy on many occasions, they will never replace my Nikons.”
In the field
Quilliam is quick to say he never sets out on an assignment with pre-conceived notions.
“I honestly never know what I want to achieve, and I believe the ancestors guide me. The intent of an image is influenced by the situation, and the versatility of my work can be attributed largely to my absolute refusal to adhere to only one style or medium.”
For Quilliam, photography is a multi-sensory and emotional action.
“Creating photographic art can be as polarising and divisive as it is inclusive and embracing,” he says.
“Occasionally [I’ll find that] careful consideration of the overarching experience is reflected in the final work, but the majority of the time, it is reactionary to the moment.”
His ability to embrace many styles means his work displays enormous depth and variety, from portraiture to documentary photography and creative photo manipulation. All styles are featured in Culture is Life.
And although he’s reticent to discuss how he goes about creating his complex images in his capture and postproduction work and claims to only have a basic knowledge of Photoshop, he will talk about a tip that he got from the desert mob.
In the early days, he would “cook everything evenly” including the plastic film cartridges he had rolled before leaving, when he drove to remote areas in vehicles without doors and windows.
“I was shown a trick. Bury rolls in plastic bags under trees or rocks and pick them up on the way back to town. I am sure sometime in the future archaeologists will find the ‘Lost Scrolls of Unprocessed Film’!”
An ongoing project for Quilliam is focusing on how photographers embed their personal ethos into the genre of ethnographic photography, while redefining the conceptualisation of Indigenous people as a part of flora and fauna, and how people can embrace connection through photography.
In recent years, Wayne has achieved significant milestones, including his 300th exhibition, and solo shows in New York and Geneva. Unfortunately, some shows scheduled for 2020 were cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
2021 sees a continuing collaboration in providing art for the label of Aboriginal wine company, Mt Yengo, two major international projects that will steer his career in a new direction, and, of course, the publication of Culture is Life. As well, he says, “I have decided to finally learn how to use Photoshop.” ❂
You can see more of Wayne’s work at aboriginal.photography.