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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Us being ourselves

by Penelope Grist, 5 July 2022

Yanyuwa young men, The Song Peoples Sessions CD Launch Rehearsals, Yanyuwa Country, 2012 Benjamin Warlngundu Ellis
Yanyuwa young men, The Song Peoples Sessions CD Launch Rehearsals, Yanyuwa Country, 2012 Benjamin Warlngundu Ellis. © Benjamin Warlngundu Ellis

‘My name is Benjamin Warlngundu Ellis. I am a Gudanji/Wambaya man of the northern Barkly Tablelands and inland freshwater Country of the Gulf of Carpentaria. I am a self-taught professional photographer who has been active since around 2012, the body of my work devoted to championing Ngarrinja (Blakfulla) cultures, traditions and spiritual lands across this continent.

Since around June 2021, I have been in conversation on the phone with Penny – initially for an upcoming exhibition. Over the course of time (read: countless hours), through these dialogues I have been able to self-reflect on my profession and share with Penny intimate insights into the multidisciplinary practice of documenting First Nations mob.*

This is (a very small part of) my story.’

*Note: some kin terms differ throughout; the emphasis here is acknowledging the mob to whom one belongs.

Over the last few months, in calls between Benjamin in Burrulula (the traditional name for Borroloola), and me on the lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples in Kamberri (the traditional name for Canberra), we have talked (a lot, as Benjamin says) over a shared drive of image files: 170 portraits from the last decade of Benjamin’s practice that he selected from his archive of more than 128,000 images.

Early in one conversation Benjamin told me: ‘I’m interested in showcasing the beauty in us being ourselves.’ As we made our way through the photographs and the stories, the impact and force of this artistic intention was profoundly realised. He paused over photographs reflecting on the development of his craft and portraits ‘of the many Mob I have been privileged to document during my journey’. Each time I asked about images that struck me, Benjamin generously and tirelessly explained intricacies and nuances in his work. His photographic portraits eloquently embody intensely complex interwoven layers of meaning and an endless movement back and forth in a deep embrace of life and culture.

One of the first images we pause on is a portrait of Benjamin’s Katha-Katha (Son) and his Munyumunyu (Cousin) that evokes imagery redolent of a hip-hop album cover. As it happens, music was the context. In 2012, as part of Song Peoples Sessions, an intangible heritage preservation project, award-winning singer-songwriter Shellie Morris, Benjamin’s Baba (Sister), returned to the Country of her maternal grandmother and reconnected with Yanyuwa, Gudanji, Marra and Garrwa families and Elders. She recorded with the Borroloola Songwomen, releasing a collaborative album, Ngambala Wiji Li-Wunungu / Together We are Strong. As Benjamin remembers: ‘We were doing rehearsals of the dances and songs for the CD launch, painting up, a lot of families were gathered there. It was a really joyous day. Around lunchtime, everyone was sitting under the trees and relaxing. Often kids will ask me – can you take our photo? And this was just one of those moments; it just had this vibe to it.’

‘Rodeo time’ is an intrinsic part of life in the Gulf Country, Benjamin tells me as we scroll past several hair-raising action shots. ‘A lot of family like me to get down there and take photos of them riding the bulls.’ However, the 2013 group portrait we chat about is a quiet pause: ‘The natural light was just sublime; my Barnga (Cousin) is in the front there relaxing between rides. You need to be aware of your surroundings all the time to catch these brief moments. I like the slight slant in the image. It’s one of the images I always come back to.’ Then he unpacks for me the layers of history that accumulate behind this portrait’s strength and meaning: ‘There is this whole history here since the 1870s that maybe people aren’t familiar with centred around the agricultural industry and how that came to be and how many people, ancestral kin had to be killed in its name; and what that meant for Mob in terms of the irreversible destruction of those traditional and spiritual lands having always provided First Nations people from time immemorial. The industry wanted to export cattle, navigating a route from Queensland to Darwin. Mob were slaughtered to such a degree that, for many, it meant carrying out Songlines protocols and care for Country – in the ways we knew, having that relationship with Country – could no longer happen. Vast tracts of land were cordoned off. People couldn’t access food on their traditional hunting grounds, tend to significant sites or hold ceremony. Over time and after repeated massacres and killings, a lot of the old people, through coercion, were forced to work for these industries so they could provide for their families – to survive. The culture of Rodeo in the Gulf Country for many Ngarrinjas is an expression of strength, determination and ultimately, their survival through the brutalities of colonialism.’

‘I want people to understand the sense of entanglement we have with this history,’ he later told me. ‘And how the manifestation of these experiences exists within us, how repressive it has become since colonisation, and how this frames us Ngarrinjas having to now navigate our existence within this new world that is invariably fixed, bounded by the remnants of that history.’ Benjamin, in seeing a way through this, has developed his photographic practice within projects recording language and song, telling stories and keeping culture strong.

In 2013, the making of Gulf Country Musicology in Borroloola was such an opportunity for Benjamin to see a profession emerge from his photographic interest. He documented this Waralungku Arts partnership project that made an album of Yanyuwa, Marra, Garrwa and Gudanji songs, a book and short films. Cinematographer and producer Scott Welsh, who worked on this project and has since become a solid friend and mentor to Benjamin, then recommended him to the Papua New Guinean–Australian musician Airileke as an official photographer for his upcoming WOMADelaide performances. Living in Adelaide for a time, he honed his skills and approach, documenting numerous events including marches, performance and ceremonies. He worked as official photographer for the 2014 and 2015 NAIDOC weeks, the Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival, the Spirit Festival at Tandanya and, when back in Borroloola, for several ArtbackNT-supported festivals in the region. The many cultural gatherings Benjamin’s archive records include DanceSite Borroloola, the Numburindi Festival at Numbulwar on Nunggubuyu Country, and Garrmalang Festival.

Benjamin’s Barngka (Cousin), a Garrwa dancer, gets painted-up with a whole hand embracing his face in preparation for Ngabaya (spirit being) dance; his Baba (Brother), a Marra dancer and now Songman, getting ready for DanceSite Borroloola, paints up in the mirror on the back of the car’s sun visor. In both, the car doors form a frame within the frame of the composition: they are fun and tender portraits. His work ‘invites audiences into these joyous and oftentimes undocumented moments’. For Benjamin, an interest in taking photographs fed itself ‘into culture and dance, and Blakfullas being Black and what is so great about Aboriginal culture in this country’. Traversing the images, he reflects on his personal approach to these events: ‘A lot of my work is about detail. You’ll notice, I’m keen on documenting images of Mob painting up and getting ready. Because that’s an integral part of the process, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum, these events. There’s a lot of beauty in the preparation. You look back through the photography of rock history and the best shots are the backstage shots. That’s the beauty of it for me. Culture is a whole artform unto itself and I see the role of my work as feeding back into that.’

A group of girls, their faces painted up, run towards his camera, smiling and laughing, with flailing limbs. Benjamin explains, two of them are Grandmothers (‘one I call Ngawuji, Father’s side [main subject], the other Kukurni, Mother’s side, Gulinya (Niece), Jawandanya (Daughter) and Balyaginya (Sister)’). ‘What I’m really showing are the lived moments – I don’t like staging images. I’m connecting as if I’m not holding a camera,’ Benjamin notes. ‘There are real moments, inside of those culturally significant times when there is song and dance, and I want to document that also.’ He reflects that just capturing the ‘pretty moment’ in dance or song supresses this layer of identity. ‘I’m trying to say: Take some time out to look into our world – people of the oldest continuous living culture in the world – to see them as I see them.’

I ask about a portrait of an artist and highly respected Elder of the Borroloola community, his A-Jamimi (Grandmother, Mother’s side) among the grasses in a wetland. She is collecting Dumbuyumbu (a bush medicine). The photograph was part of a commission for Waralungku Arts, the arts centre in Borroloola, in 2020. ‘I was able to sit with these bardibardi (old women) that I don’t get to have a lot of time with because of my other work. I documented them collecting materials for their art and of them working at the arts centre. On the drive, they were telling Dreaming stories of the places in the car as we’re driving past; or back at the art centre when you sit with these old girls, that opportunity to have a yarn is what it is all about. Priceless and an absolute honour for me to have that time with them.’

Across these 170 shared images, Benjamin reflects a total life in culture – digging the ground ovens, making staging, unloading the equipment, the dance ground itself, sound-mixing – no element is separable from this experience of culture. Mid-dance, when a toddler takes a tumble, a little foot becomes Benjamin’s focus: ‘When we see little babies being cute we say ‘anyan!’ (literal = cute). When the young ones get involved they tend to take centre stage. It’s about encouraging them to get involved in culture. The leader is reaching down to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself and the little one is just having a ball.’ Later in our conversation, he says: ‘My work, first and foremost – I do it for Mob. Really at the end of the day if it wasn’t for the grandeur and importance of First Nations culture,
I don’t think I’d be doing this.’

One afternoon, we chat about the vital importance of First Nations photographers documenting First Nations culture, stories and people. Across all portraiture, the relationship between artist and subject is crucial, and even more so in photographic portraiture of First Nations people. Benjamin is part of a large and growing network of First Nations photographers, such as the collective Blak Lens, who are reshaping this practice. They are working to build awareness of cultural sensitivities and protocols, mutual respect and exchange, what it means to be on Country, and a consciousness of intent that does not perpetuate a colonial gaze in the documentation of First Nations experience. As a collective of highly accomplished photographers, they are also building their profiles as skilled professionals who bring this knowledge, awareness and consciousness as part of their own identities as First Nations people.

In Benjamin’s words: ‘How a Ngarrinja sees a Ngarrinja is going to be completely different to how a Ngarrwanji (Whitefulla) sees a Ngarrinja.’ Fellow photographer Michael Jalaru Torres is leading projects to assert this presence nationally, most recently with First Sight, an emerging First Nations photographer mentoring program and exhibition at the 2021 Head On Photo Festival. Across all of the images Benjamin shares with me, his deep, lived knowledge of culture illuminates every portrait.

In the last couple of years, Benjamin has been official photographer for Yothu Yindi (2019) and Yilila and Ripple Effect (2020) at the Darwin Festival opening nights, and for the 2019 and 2020 National Indigenous Music Awards.

His portraits radiate a truth of connection to the power, energy and spirit of these gatherings. ‘I’m always moving around; though being fully conscious of the space I’m taking up. I’m trying to capture the essence of the full experience so my audience can get a sense of being there; and yet for me, the layers of that experience are to some extent obstructed by my camera so, perhaps interestingly, I’m not fully experiencing it.’ At times however, while capturing the moment, Benjamin finds that it is the moment that captures him.

This is the case in a mid-song crowd portrait. On a late Friday afternoon phone call Benjamin directs my attention to a night-time shot of The Sandridge Band, a Borroloola group with ‘Legend status through the Gulf region’ according to Triple J Unearthed. ‘I just really love these moments because there’s so much joy. Everyone’s enjoying themselves, being themselves in that moment. As a photographer and looking through the viewfinder, these moments just take you, and you get caught out in these too-fucking-beautiful moments.’ Hearing the strong emotion in Benjamin’s voice over the phone, this image had transported him back there. ‘You see these all the time – these moments – I’m living for that. I want people to see that. For those who struggle to understand our position – who we truly are beyond those images offered throughout the media – and how we might respond, often positively, to a world that has been thrust upon us. To just see it through our own lens and how we see ourselves is so important. For me, it is more than pointing a camera and taking a photo, it is life with all its complexity. As a photographer I take all of that in – awakening to the past, present and future all in one moment.’

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

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