Aboriginal Visual Histories: Background and approach
A local vernacular?
Photograph of Shell Necklace, 24 June 1989, courtesy of Michael Aird.
Rather than seeing the history of photography as the dissemination of a Western technology shaped by talented individuals, this project will seek to re-embed the medium within culture and the everyday, and to examine its local appropriations. Histories of Australian photography continue to utilize an art history framework that views the medium as an aesthetic enterprise shaped by master photographers, and to invoke such images as a genre or theme. AVH will locate photographs and collections within larger cultural frameworks – which will include exploring the processes of representing the nation and the role of Indigenous people within it.
Photography’s emergence within a period of colonial expansion has prompted considerable debate regarding the medium’s role in the invasion, conquest, and management of Indigenous people. Many accounts of colonial photography in Australia have assumed that the Aboriginal subjects were passive victims, bagged by the colonial photographer-hunter. While it is important not to underplay the power of unequal or coercive colonial relations, closer reading of the historical records suggests the active engagement of Aboriginal people with the photographic medium: The AVH Project will explore the range of roles Indigenous people experienced within the picture-making process.
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Mass media is central to modern lives, and recent studies have focused on how cultural, social and political forces influence how we view photography. There is greater awareness of the idea that the way we interpret visual imagery is not a natural process, but is shaped by our historical circumstances. The AVH project will engage with this scholarship, which is increasingly influencing the work of academics in a range of disciplines and institutions across the world.
A new history
The AVH Project will for the first time reveal the different forms and uses of photography of Indigenous people in each of the Australian colonies, generating new local histories, while also drawing comparisons between different parts of the country. Research will examine the circumstances of the images’ production and reception, and the importance of photographs in shaping ideas about the new nation and the role of Aboriginal people within it. Furthermore, the AVH Project will investigate the changing contexts and meanings that images acquired as they circulated through British networks of science and administration.