'Blood of My Blood' by Michael Torres is part of the First Sight exhibition at the Head On Photo Festival.
'Blood of My Blood' by Michael Torres is part of the First Sight exhibition at the Head On Photo Festival.
6 min read

The stories behind these stunning images by First Nations photographers

An exhibition showcasing the work of First Nations photographers is now on in Sydney. Here, some of the artists tell SBS News about the stories and inspirations behind their work.

Published Friday 19 November 2021
By Akash Arora
Source: SBS News
The 12th Head On Photo Festival is now underway in Sydney.

Six large-scale photo boxes and more than 60 outdoor exhibitions at Paddington Reservoir Gardens and Bondi Beach are part of the program, along with a series of virtual workshops expected to attract a national audience.

One of the highlights of the festival, which began on Friday, is the First Sight exhibition.

Taking place at Paddington Reservoir Gardens, the 15-piece exhibition is the culmination of a five-month-long eponymous program between six Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and their three mentors.

“The idea behind the program was to encourage emerging Indigenous photographers and give them the skills that allows them to become professional photographers,” says Gomeroi woman and renowned photographer Barbara McGrady, who was one of the mentors.

Check out photos from the exhibition below, and read some of the stories and inspirations behind them.

'Saltwater Cleansing' by Lowell Hunter

Saltwater Cleansing
Source: Supplied: Head On Photo Festival

A Nyul Nyul and Bardi man from the Kimberley in Western Australia, Lowell Hunter dances on sand using the same foot movements his people have followed for millenia, then captures the footprints left behind with a drone.

“'Saltwater Cleansing' for me is about my relationship to the ocean and being a saltwater man,” says Hunter.

“When faced with challenges or when things are not going my way, I know the ocean is one constant thing that I can rely on, where I could go down and just let go of negativity or stress.

“Some people use a smoking ceremony as a cleaning process. I like to think of going down to the beach and having the water wash over my skin as a cleansing process.”

Hunter created 'Saltwater Cleansing' on Thirteenth Beach in Barwon Heads, Victoria.

“The day I went down there, it was a bit overcast,” he says. “The tide was coming in and the rocks, which you can see in the artwork, were a bit of a barrier to the waves, but the swell from time to time was quite large. I didn’t think the image would be great because of the overcast condition, but when I put the drone up, it just turned out to be perfect.”

'Keeper Spirit' by Luke Barrowcliffe

Source: Supplied: Head On Photo Festival

“The cracks on the landscape are similar to the lines on the palm of your hands,” says Butchulla man Luke Barrowcliffe.

Just like a palmist can tell the story of someone’s life by looking at their hands, Barrowcliffe feels he can tell the story of a landscape by looking at its cracks.

“[And in this image, it’s] saying that the connection that Indigenous people have to land is so crucial and important to our being,” he says.

Barrowcliffe took 'Keeper Spirit' in the Whitsundays region of Northern Queensland.

“Sometimes you really have to earn the image that you capture and this is definitely one of those because I was following an Elder walking along a river, fishing for barramundi,” he says.

“When I captured this image, we had been walking for several hours. We had done like seven or eight kilometres. It was hot and we were on the point of dehydration. So a lot of work went into just being in that place.”

'Grandma and Grandkids' by Tamati Smith

Source: Supplied: Head On Photo Festival

Tamati Smith's photography has been splashed across most major news websites recently, with the Yamatji and Maori man having taken a raft of images around the Cleo Smith case in WA.

But his work in the First Sight exhibition is a picture much closer to his heart.

“The woman in the middle is my mother and those kids that are around her are my nieces and nephews - her grandchildren,” Smith says.

The image was taken in the town of Mullewa in Western Australia, where Smith’s mum grew up.

“As a young kid, she would walk around the street with her parents,” says Smith.

“For her to be [now] walking around those same streets with these younger kids is like reliving her own history.”

'Blood of My Blood' by Michael Torres

Source: Supplied: Head On Photo Festival

Djugun and Yawuru man Michael Torres - one of the mentors of the First Sight program - shot 'Blood of My Blood' the week Melbourne went into its first COVID-19 lockdown last year.

The image's eye-catching empty dark blue backdrop is a vivid representation of the moods that many people were going through at the time.

“It was part of a series I was doing that I had to change drastically because of the lockdown,” Torres remembers.

“I changed the whole theme around colour and negative space, just using that blue to portray depression in that dark, cold space,

“Limitations can make you more creative.”

'At the Centre' by Tace Stevens

Source: Supplied: Head On Photo Festival

Noongar and Spinifex woman Tace Stevens is exhibiting this candid photo of her father on the side of a dusty outback road.

“I don’t see my dad too often,” she posted on her Instagram. “So the time I got to spend with him at Uluru last year, before driving to Pukatja, was really special.” 

“My dad’s a bush man, who knows the desert like the back of his hand.” 

'Hope' by Melinda Hooper

Source: Supplied: Head On Photo Festival

It is important to document memory in order to preserve it, believes Melinda Hooper, a Ngyiampaa woman from Broken Hill, New South Wales.

No wonder she likes taking family portraits, particularly of her daughters - Kealeigh (left), 14, and Nahvee (right), 10.

'Hope', in stunning black and white, shows the girls in their new party dresses.

'Settled' by Brendan Blacklock

Source: Supplied: Head On Photo Festival

A Koori man, descendant of the Ngarabal and Biripi people, Blacklock likes to play with light and colour.

And that's more than evident in 'Settled', depicting a run-down farm on a frosty morning in Armidale, in New South Wales’ Northern Tablelands.

The First Sight exhibition runs at the  from 19-28 November in Sydney.