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Charles Perkins on bus to Tranby Aboriginal College, Glebe
, c.1964 (printed 2003)

by Robert McFarlane

gelatin silver photograph (sheet: 35.0 x 27.7 cm, image: 30.0 x 20.1 cm)

Charles Perkins AO (1936–2000) was an Indigenous rights campaigner and bureaucrat. Son of a Kalkadoon father and Arrernte mother, as a youth in Adelaide Perkins was a talented and sought-after soccer player. After completing an apprenticeship as a fitter and turner, he played professionally in England, and on his return to Australia in 1959 he played for clubs in Adelaide and Sydney. Widely credited as the first Aboriginal person to graduate from an Australian university, he gained a BA from the University of Sydney in 1966. That year, he was a prominent organiser of and participant in the anti-discrimination ‘freedom rides’ through country New South Wales, foregrounding educational and health issues amongst rural Indigenous people and exposing entrenched racism by demanding entry to venues such as clubs and swimming pools that denied access to Aborigines. Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s he was involved in a great number of bodies promoting Aboriginal rights, welfare and advancement. In 1972, in which year he received a kidney transplant, he appeared at the Tent Embassy; five years later, having weathered a suspension from the Commonwealth public service and published his autobiography, A Bastard Like Me (1975), he became an assistant secretary in the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. His public service career culminated in his serving as Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs from 1984 to 1989. Vice- President of the Australian Soccer Federation from 1986, Perkins continued his involvement in various sports organisations until he died. He was accorded a State funeral, held in Sydney.

Robert McFarlane was born in South Australia. Leaving school at 16, he worked in a variety of jobs before he moved to Sydney in 1963 to work as a freelance photographer, seeing his photographs published in Walkabout, Flair and Vogue. Between 1970 and 1973 he was in London, freelancing for the Daily Telegraph Magazine, Nova and the Sunday Times Magazine. Since then he has worked a great deal in films and theatre, taking stills and portraits, and has written on photography for the Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald. His famous photograph of Perkins has, at times, been titled Charles Perkins on his way to Sydney University. However, this print is inscribed on the reverse with the title given above. McFarlane recalls that he took the shot at night as Perkins was going to, or returning from, Tranby Aboriginal Co-operative College, an independent learning environment for adult Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Gift of Patrick Corrigan AM 2013
Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program
Accession number: 2013.61