• 30 Indigenous health workers will feature in a new photographic exhibition in Canberra. (Renae Kilmister (NATSIHWA))Source: Renae Kilmister (NATSIHWA)
A new photographic exhibition highlights the important role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workers.
Ella Archibald-Binge

The Point
10 Oct 2016 - 7:05 PM  UPDATED 10 Oct 2016 - 7:15 PM

Yolngu woman Sarah Mariyalawuy was hesitant when asked to pose for a photograph that would feature in a national exhibition.

"I was nervous at first," she says.

"Then they told us to take the photo to show the world, or the nation, how we do our job in our community to help our people."

The exhibition, coordinated by the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workers Association (NATSIHWA), aims to raise awareness of the unique role people like Sarah play in their communities.

For 12 years, Sarah has worked in Aboriginal health, determined to fight the chronic health conditions that have plagued her people at Galiwinku on Elcho Island.

Day to day, she walks the fields, reminding people to have their check-ups. 

"There (has) to be connection between the staff and the clients to get to know each other, have the trust," explains the senior health practitioner.

"Sometimes it’s hard for us to go and talk to them, because sometimes they’re scared, shame, to visit the clinic.

"That’s why it’s best for me to help the people to get into the clinic to have their check ups."

'There's just something in their eyes'

Freelance photographer, and NATSIHWA memberships officer, Renae Kilmister spent six months travelling the country, capturing stories like Sarah's.

She says it was a humbling experience.

"I was meeting these amazing people and these health workers, they were just so interesting, not only their stories, but there’s just something in their eyes and something in their face, I just couldn’t wait to photograph them," Renae says.

Displayed side-by-side for the first time at the NATSIHWA national conference on Thursday, the portraits tell a powerful story, of pain and perseverance. 

'Every single photo we look at, we see the pain in their eyes. That’s no different to all of our people right across the country.'

"It’s the first thing I noticed when I walked into the room, they’re absolutely beautiful," says mental health advocate Joe Williams, one of the first to see the exhibition.

"But every single photo we look at, we see the pain in their eyes. That’s no different to all of our people right across the country.

"We can put on a brave face and we can smile and laugh and be happy, but when you look deep into the eyes of our own Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, First Nations people, we see a real darkness and pain of our past.

"For that to be on show in a national gallery is a huge leap forward." 

It's hoped the exhibition will see Indigenous health workers gain more recognition amongst mainstream health services. 

Set to be displayed in Canberra, it will feature 30 portraits of Indigenous health workers, accompanied by profiles written in English and in the subject's native language.


The full exhibition will be launched at the National Gallery of Australia on November 29.