Re-take Artist's Talk, Brenda L. Croft, National Gallery of Australia, 13 October 1998

I actually always get a little bit embarrassed about these images and I remember, mainly for the quality of the printing, and I spoke to Kelly Gellatly about actually reprinting them for the Gallery because at the time that I was doing these black and white images I was accessing a place called Alexys CYSS, which was a Community Youth Services Scheme place that was in Redfern that was available to unemployed people. And I often talk about that with students 'cause I lecture at the moment; I'm lecturing at Canberra School of Art. The people that I worked with, I realised the kind of facilities that were available to the people like myself in the mid-'80s involved you know, access places like this, and I did a lot of, I used the dark room there, and I did commun..., that's where I got into community radio and community television as well, because there's lots of programs that were run there. Using those dark room facilities, they were very basic, and I remember the show that I actually, the very first show that I was in, the Aboriginal Artists at the Aboriginal Artists Gallery in Sydney, was Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islands photographers for NADIOC week in '86; I'd washed my prints in a bucket, and I didn't realise that fibre-based paper didn't, the wrinkles wouldn't come out once I'd creased it; so I had to show them like that, and it was very much this kind of, you know, going on and learning as you went. I lived in Canberra for quite a number of years, about 9 years from the early '70s through to '84. My parents came down here from northern New South Wales, my dad was working in the Department of Aboriginal Affairs; and so I did the majority of my schooling here, and then I went up to Sydney in '85 to go to the Sydney College of the Arts, and went there for about a year, and then after that I started doing a lot of things like with Radio Skid Row and Radio Redfern, which was Aboriginal radio at that stage. And I was majoring in photography at Sydney College of the Arts and I realised that the reason why I worked in photography always having had an interest in that, in sort of documenting what was happening around me, I wanted to present an Aboriginal perspective of what was going on in the community at that time; and you know mid-'80s and leading up to 1988 with the Bicentennial, which some of the later images are from. It was a really vibrant time in Sydney, and I think it was around that time I met Avril [Quaill, in Michael Riley's photograph of 1990, Avril] for the first time, you were in 3rd year at Sydney College of the Arts, I was in first year, Fiona Foley was in second year, Michael Riley was around at that time too, he had gone there; people like Phemy Bostock. There was lots of things that were happening, and so it was not difficult to take good images, or images of things that were going on at that time, and I guess the desire also to work as a photographer had stemmed from wanting to create something that was my own; being an urban- based indigenous person, I felt kind of uncomfortable sort of following what was being pushed as being Aboriginal art at that time, which was you know, painting with dots, and I thought I needed to do something that expressed who I was, and it was about issues of representation and it was about being an insider photographing what was happening, it wasn't about just sort of coming in and taking images and then going back out.

This one, that was taken here [Koori family in Everleigh Street, Redfern. Stop Black Deaths in Custody rally, 28 September 1985 1985], this was actually taken in 1985 on a Stop Black Deaths in Custody rally in Sydney, and there was a big move at that time to have a Royal Commission into the really high incidences of Aboriginal people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that were dying in custody and also just looking at issues like the incredibly high percentage of indigenous people that were in jail in comparison with the ratio to the rest of the general population. So there was a number of events that happened at that time and it was also focusing on I think, the anniversary of the death of a young Aboriginal guy called Eddie Murray. So I was living in Redfern, I'd moved up there from pristine Canberra, and was living next door actually to Black Theatre and just around the corner from Radio Redfern, so there was always things that were happening, There was stuff that was going on there - we had the settlement down the road on Chippendale - it was always events that were on. And so I’d go on these marches and I’d photograph them, and as you can see, its pretty much a straight kind of social-documentary image - it really just showed what it was like living right in Everleigh Street in Sydney. I still felt removed from them though, and that was the thing, as though I felt quiet conscious of the fact that the people that I was photographing didn't necessarily know me, but I kind of moved on from that later on. We'll walk along to these ones …

Obviously in ‘88 throughout Australia there was a huge number of things that were happening; the Bicentennial, the lead up to the Bicentennial saw a number of meetings to echo what we were going to do. On this day, this was 26 January 1988, there was a huge march called the Long March of Peace, Justice and Hope. And it was probably the largest gathering of indigenous people in Australia ever; a kind of convoy of people from right throughout the country had traveled from everywhere to come to Sydney. And I had kind of two roles on this day; I was working as a journalist with Radio Redfern, and also photographing what was happening in the rally, and so there was, I think four of us; for a community radio station it was incredibly empowering to be able to go out and interview people who had come down for the rally, to photograph what they were doing as well. I think at the time Triple J put their broadcast over onto Radio Redfern so that they just played it for, you know, 24 hours a day I think for the whole month, but on that particular day Triple J just had Radio Redfern broadcasting, and it was about indigenous people being able to put their view point across. It wasn't about slick or professional, it was about sort of the guts and the rawness and the heart of things. And so we were running around, I mean I just remember this incredibly exhilarating feeling on the day. Everywhere you looked, you saw the colours of red, black and yellow; and it really struck me on that day that that was absolutely the symbol that united all indigenous people in Australia regardless of whether they came from traditional communities like these elders here [in Elders from Northern Territory, Chalmers Street, Redfern. Long March of Freedom, Justice and Hope, Invasion Day, 26 January 1988 1988], or people from urban environment; you just were besieged by those three colours. And the March started in Redfern Park in Redfern, and wound its way down through the city and ended up in Hyde Park. And it was just incredible for a lot of people who, a lot of young urban-based people, to see people from traditional communities who felt that it was important enough to be down here and to be sharing what they were feeling about the day too. It was quite, I'm trying to say things that don't sound trite, it was an incredibly emotional day, and in fact the whole of that year was, with things that were going on.

This [Michael Watson in Redfern on the Long March of Freedom, Justice and Hope, Invasion Day, 26 January 1988 1988] was also taken on that same day, and these two are really quite good in terms of comparison. Michael Watson, who I worked with at Radio Redfern, he was one of the other journalists there, and he comes from a strong activist family - his mother is Maureen Watson, who’s a writer and storyteller, and his brother, Tiger Bayles I think, was the head of Radio Redfern at the time; and it just really succinctly encapsulated the particular moment I think. If there's one photo that I'm probably most recognised for, I think it tends to be this one. And its a favourite one of mine because I think you can see the big difference here with the relationship between me, as the photographer, and the person I am photographing. He's absolutely at ease; its not aggression, it’s just he's really happy to have me photograph him. There's a lot humour that's within that, it’s a really strong stance; he's very much an urban young black man, and I love that one, you know it’s actually in the same street, but it's kind of times, the time that captured with that, the difference in kind of you know upbringings and backgrounds.

The thing that was important with me with doing photography as well when I look back at that first one with the fact that I wanted as much as possible to make sure that people felt comfortable with me photographing them; I had their permission to do that, I'd always try and exchange or give photographs to people as well, make sure that they had copies of the images and so that it wasn't just a, I was really aware the whole time of outsiders coming in and taking images, and I think one of the other big things that sort of drove me that year, all that kind of hurt, the political thing that was happening as well, was seeing all these kind of cover stories in magazines like Time and you know, the major national publications, and also international, was you’d only see these two kind of polarising aspects of what indigenous culture was supposed to be about in Australia - you'd have the notion of noble, romanticised, traditional Aboriginal person out in the desert or in the bush, and then you would have the ‘down-and-outs’ in the city, and there was nothing that was allowed to be the in-between. And so for people like myself and Kevin [Gilbert], the other photographers who were in After 200 Years, it was about presenting the multi-faceted sides of indigenous life in Australia at that time. And Kevin was extremely supportive of me and lots of other young photographers, as was people like Merv Bishop, who's just around the corner here. I think these images got shown, certainly the ones from 1988, got shown with the show that Kevin organised called Inside Black Australia, which toured around the country. I think it was first shown here during ‘88 at the opening of Parliament House, as you can see from that image on the right there [Kevin Gilbert’s Raising our sovereign flag, opening New Parliament House, May 1988 1988] - the opening of Parliament House in May 1988 at Albert Hall. And, so to work of people like Kevin, it was very exciting, the fact that he kind of gave space to people like myself because you know, I was, I wasn't sort of working at that time, I didn't consider myself as an artist, it was just about taking images really, as much as being for myself as for anybody else, and to have the opportunity to show them was an added bonus in that.

This is a favourite image of mine [Murri woamn having her say, Anti-Expo rally, 30 April 1988 1988] in that, it's not great, but the mood and the moment that's in that, I can immediately be transported back to what was happening at that time. This is up at the opening of Expo, which was in April in ‘88. And there was a bunch of us who made a real concerted effort to sort of go to these things and I mean, not just a bunch of us, there was huge amounts of people, but the woman that I worked with who helped me going around interviewing people during January for Radio Redfern, we travelled up to Expo as well, and did a whole lot of stuff and interviews up there and bought that back down to the radio station as well. But I just remember we were walking along the road, and we were heading towards the Cultural Centre I think, and there was a whole lot of kind of ironic, ironically placed posters and banners which became ironic when you looked at them, you know you'd have the promotional stuff for Expo and it said, there was one I remember that said, "What's going on here at the Queensland Cultural Centre?", and it was this mass rally of people, and you know, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. But this is a particularly nice image for me in that you've got this stereotypical Queensland policeman there who, he's sort of bemusedly looking at me; I mean, I don't, as I'm sure Avril [Quaill] and people who grew up in Queensland can certainly talk more about what it was like being black up there, but you really had a sense of crossing a border into scary territory when you went up that way; it was a little bit different I felt to, what we were able to do, maybe it was also because I was more familiar with Redfern and more familiar with living down in Sydney. But the animosity that was sort of generated from him, and I love the fact that you know, you've got your sort of, another stereotype, your stereotypical left-wing supporter who's wearing her Aboriginal print shirt and she had a black arm band on, and she had the flag on. And then I loved this woman, who was a woman who was sitting by the side of the road, and she, the thing with Expo and places and events like that, was, it's exactly what's happening in Sydney at the moment with the lead up to the Olympics; there was a kind of white-washing of the central part of the city and around the West End, there was obviously a concerted effort to move out people who were homeless, people who were living around Musgrave Park; the rents went up, they cleared all these people out, there was never any kind of chance for them to come back and reclaim that kind of space; and the same thing's happened in Redfern over the past decade, you know, from the time that I first moved in there and it had obviously been the same for decades and decades and then you suddenly saw this development springing up, places getting knocked down. With Redfern they put a freeway through the middle of Redfern, it's been very much the notion of dividing this nice side of Redfern and then there's scary side, the ‘too-hard-basket’ side of Redfern. There was always these kind underlying kind of things that were happening at the same time, and anyway this young woman who had been drinking that morning, and obviously you could see that, came out and she just started swearing her head off, and killing herself laughing "Arr youse can all go and get ...", and he was ignoring it, and she was ignoring it, and she just, and this was in the midst of her like throwing her head back and just laughing and laughing and laughing. It was just, this kind of sense of vitality even though she didn't come from the best circumstances and you know, I was never going to see her again, I just remember the vibrancy of her participating, she just sort of got up, came in, walked through the crowd, walked along and it was just, it was, her sense of space there as well; you know, and the fact that we had all such different people walking along beside each other, throughout things like this.

So with those four images I was certainly working in a social-documentary kind of way at that time. It was an immediate way of working; I've had the same camera actually the whole time I've worked as a photographer, and it was given to me as a present, it's the best present I've ever had from anybody. It's travelled all around the country with me and I went on after this to photograph the Fifth Festival of the Pacific Arts up in Townsville that same year; and I've used it for you know, all other kinds of work that I've done, except for the image that's around here, I think I hired a larger format camera to do the series from the Big Deal It's Black. But it was it was about the content, it wasn't about the kind of slickness of what you were seeing, I mean I certainly aspired for my prints to look like Ricky Maynard’s, who's someone that I really admire, his, the way that he forms his images and the printing process for his, and so, that kind of came later; it was this whole kind of, teaching myself as I went along, knowing what I wanted to do, and just being able to find a follow on with that.

So I don't know if you want to move around to a …

OK. This is one of a series of five, that was from an exhibition called The Big Deal Is Black, which was five years ago; and it was at the Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney - it was also with Destiny [Deacon] at the same time. Two quite separate shows - she had an exhibition called Cast Offs that I think, the image Welcome to my Island (1994) was in Cast Offs. The Big Deal Is Black, I'll just read out what I've got here, because this was part of the catalogue …

"The Big Deal - is a card game, is the Mabo issue, is a land deal, but it all comes back to being BLACK and living in the city, and all the roads that lead you here. Don’t intend to turn this into any opportunity for any convenient misinformed labelling by any readers. All this BIG DEAL is about letting you see something of us on our terms. This is about being a Black woman - you might be mother, sister, aunt, cousin, daughter, friend - no difference, the DEAL is the same." And, I'd gone from doing these documentary images where I still felt quite removed from who I was photographing, to wanting to work with people, and for them to have a bit more of a collaborative process in what I was doing. And so, I was talking to lots of friends, groups of friends, and I think there was about five different, five or six different groups of people, and I wanted to look at their different experiences and what it was like for them and sort of, you know, growing up in urban backgrounds, or coming from growing up on a mission and then, you know, moving to town, because of circumstances of looking for work etc; and I wanted to photograph them in their own environment, where they felt totally comfortable, where they could get dressed up and sort of look however they wanted to; but it was about capturing, I hoped, a sense of joy, and also just a sense of the everyday. And I was playing around with the idea of it, like being a card, being like a card game, and the actual catalogue for the exhibition was shaped like the Ace of Spades which, sort of followed on from a comment, a quote, from Tim Fischer at the time, he said, something like, "I'm no red neck", ‘cause he was always in the paper around that time, I remember speaking out against the Mabo case and Native Title, and he said something like, "I'm no red neck, but for the issue of …", in the usual catch phrase, "in the interests of all Australians, I'll call a spade a spade"; and so it was all this kind of multi-layered referencing that went on there and he wasn't even aware of what he was saying, and so I happened to just love the, that's my particular card anyway, and there's another sort of story that goes with that, that I'll go into in a minute. So I had this big, this giant card made up, and when I was photographing people I would also take time to interview them, I mean that was the whole process of hearing their stories as well, and so I wanted to give a sense of windows; that you were looking in the windows to peoples’ houses, but not without their knowledge, you know, there was an equal relationship going on there. And with the Ingrams, we've got three sisters here: there's Norma, Sylvia and Millie. And Norma’s actually just become the first Aboriginal woman to head a major Aboriginal Land Council in the country, she's the head of the New South Wales Land Council now. Millie, ah sorry, Sylvia was really instrumental in helping set up Murraweena, which is a child care, an Aboriginal child care centre in Sydney, and Millie has been involved in Aboriginal affairs up there for a long time. They were all from Corwa mission, and you know, grew up. There's books out by Peter Reed, and you'll see some, Down There With Me on Cowra Mission I think is one of the books and there's a wonderful old photograph from the ‘30s I think, of all the people on the mission, and you've got the older women, mother there, with I think Millie? might be being held as a baby. They've lived in you know, Redfern for a very long time. This is Millie's daughter Sue. There's another sister who I couldn't arrange to be there that day and this is her daughter Leanne, so Sue and Leanne are cousins. There's, I always get the kids muddled up, there's Shanae, and Jaden, and they’re Leanne's boy and girl, and then there's Jemiah, the title's a bit wrong here, Jemiah and I can't remember her daughter's name now. But we got together and I did a whole series of different images, it was the kids together, it was the kids with their mum, it was the two younger women by themselves, it was the older sisters by themselves, and so on, so it was a whole set of configurations, and then I ended up with about five. And we also sat around and got out the old photo albums and books and looked through them and they talked about things that they remembered, you know, going to dances; and ‘cause that's always been a real interest for me wherever I am to look at the history of the place. And so I love going past these old buildings, particularly ‘round Redfern and down through Newtown, you see these boarded up old halls that you know used to be dance halls and theatres that people would to go to, and so they would talk about what they used to do, and the kind of things that they’d go out, the dances that they would go out to. And they were playing a game, they were actually playing cards while I was interviewing them, so you had this, you had all this kind of peripheral effect on the audio tape too, you know, somebody's cooking chops in the background so you could hear that, there was kids running through and sort of chasing each other, and then you could hear this money getting thrown on the table and there's sort of in between talking to me it's never take your eyes off the cards, whose sort of just dealt what, and so it was that whole social thing that I wanted to get there as well. And I think with the other images that I had at the same, oh, they also picked music that was they felt sort of talked about them at certain times in their lives - there was other people I photographed, Rosalie Graham and her two sisters Olwyn and Bette and they'd worked at Checkers, I think and worked as hat check girls and playboy bunnies and that at some of the old clubs up in The Cross during the 1950s and 1960s, so it was like looking at all those kind of things that get cut out of an indigenous experience, you know this is not what, this is not the kind of life that you know, Aboriginal people live. So that's what I was trying to do. And also just to show the really strong presence of women and the role models that they have been for me as well, and so that's what this was about.

The funny thing with the Ace of Spades card, which is a kind of an aside, it was one of the last times that my brother actually came along to one of my exhibitions, and he was unfortunately killed in a car accident in a couple of years after this, oh the year after this was taken. And he knew I loved the Ace of Spades as well, and I just remember this really weird situation where we were at, my dad and I went to the accident site, and there was a deck of cards scattered all over the side of the road, and I wanted to pick up what was left there, you know, I didn't want to leave what was there, and the first card I picked up was the Ace of Spades. And then we came back to Australia, ‘cause that happened overseas, and we were going through an old photo album of when he'd been over there, and turned the page over and there he was holding the Ace of Spades up to the camera and smiling. So there's been this really kind of strange little follow on with that which is a kind of an aside. But, I don't work like this anymore either - this is five years ago, so it's really interesting to see. I came in yesterday and I bought some students in from Canberra School of Art and we were looking around at all the images, and they're images that I'm really familiar with too seeing other peoples work, and you look at people like Rea, who when we first saw her work, she was one of the first artists I saw with digital computer-manipulated imagery and Destiny [Deacon]'s fantastic, you know, colour Polaroid, her bubble jet prints, and seeing what people have done from those early days you look at someone like Merv Bishop, who, you know, Uncle Merv, you end up calling him, he's been wonderfully supportive and encouraging in terms of being a role model because he's been around for such a long time; and you look what he was doing and then through to what people are doing now, it's been really exciting. And so now the kind of work that I'm doing is with computer imagery and its been really kind of narrowing; I've been narrowing, narrowing down, so it's much more like a family, like my own family sort of talking about stuff, and being able to layer it, add text and archival imagery etc. And so this sense for me, I think with photography, it’s about trying to put the bits that are missing out of the family album; the bits that we don't see; I mean we all kind of grew up with these images in our own kind of family album, but nobody else kind of got to see them, or in my case with the images I’m doing of my family it’s the things that weren't there in the first place; so I've had to kind of recreate them, and that's why I find the medium of photography so exciting because you can, sort of, you can do that. And they really, you see an image and it’s, it can be so evocative it can be just kind of, it can absolutely transport you back to that time; you know I go around there and I just see what I was doing ten years ago at those various different events, they’re just like, you know, you're right there, which is why I love it I think, it's that kind of immediacy that's with it.