Framing History: A Handful Of Sand
By Mike BowersJune 28, 2012
Mervyn Bishop framed one of the best-known images of Australian history. He talks about the moment and, as our video shows, Merv deserves recognition, too, for his Gough Whitlam impersonation.
In a small town 800km northwest of Sydney, a young boy would project evening slide shows onto a sheet hanging over the clothesline, entertaining his family gatherings. From there he would grow up to capture an image that marks one of the great waypoints in Aboriginal self-determination.
A Handful of Sand
"Brewarrina," says Mervyn Bishop, a proud Murri who grew up in the NSW country town nestled on the banks of the Barwon river, "has always been a meeting place. People came from all over to use the fish traps". Those rock channel fish traps have survived, like his people, for 40,000 years as some of the oldest surviving man-made structures in the world.
"My family comes from all over the area," Bishop says. "My dad was from Goodooga and mum was from Walgett, [and] there is also some Indian blood way back."
But it was in Brewarrina, a town better know for its love of rugby league, that young Mervyn found his passion was in capturing the images around him.
He first discovered what would become his life's work when he was about 10 years-old. After a time shooting pictures with borrowed gear, he spent 15 pounds on a 35mm Acon rangefinder camera in 1957.
"Mum got quite upset with me," he recalls, "it was a lot of money at the time".
Nevertheless he loaded his new gear with Kodachrome colour film and began creating the body of work that would, just a few years later, secure him a cadetship on a metro newspaper. He attended Dubbo High School and moved to the big smoke in 1963 to take up a position at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
The same year Bishop was offered a cadet position in the photography department of The Sydney Morning Herald. At the time and subsequently, he has been described as Australia's first Aboriginal press photographer. Bishop laments that more have not followed him into the profession, to tell what he calls "our story".
"Back in those days you were in the darkroom for about three years before they let you out," he says. "You also had to learn on large-format cameras."
Bishop earned his stripes on the Herald at a time when competition was running hot. The number of well-known press photographers working at the time, such as George Lipman, Russell McPhedran, John O'Gready and Rick Stevens, meant you had to fight for the right to shoot any plum assignments.
Bishop did, and won the Nikon News Photograph 1971 with a photograph titled Life and Death Dash. It shows a nun with a young child in her arms, running to the hospital because the child had swallowed prescription pills.
"It was a custom in those days for anyone who won an award to receive a promotion," he recalls. "This didn't happen for me."
Bishop's wife Elizabeth felt strongly at the time that this oversight was "bloody racist". Bishop himself took a softer approach.
"I never wanted to rattle the cage at the time, but I was peeved," he admits. "It was a reminder to me that I lived in a white world."
Other senior editors The Global Mail spoke with disputed this but did add, "photography handled their own upgrades".
Soon after, Bishop was on the move again, this time to Canberra, where he had taken a job as photographer for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.
In August 1975, while on assignment in Brisbane, Bishop was diverted to Wattie Creek in the Northern Territory to record an official ceremony. So it was that Bishop found himself standing inside a boughshed with then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, just a little under three months before the sacking of his ill-fated government. The Prime Minister was handing over to Vincent Lingiari, the leader of the Gurindji people, the crown lease documents declaring their ownership of the land.
Whitlam then poured a handful of earth into Lingiari's hands, saying:
"Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people, and I put into your hands part of the earth itself as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever."
Lingiari took the papers and said, "We're all mates now".
Bishop, witnessing this as an indigenous man but also as a photographer, felt that first photograph, inside the dark shed, gave no sense of place. He quietly asked for a repeat performance outside.
"We'll get away with a nice blue sky behind it," he remembers suggesting.
Take two was a completely different photograph.
The blue sky and red earth are indeed the two elements that strongly identify what the ceremony was about, for history.
Bishop is quite humble about the photograph and what it means.
"At the time I just thought that it was a wonderful event; I didn't think about what it might come to represent," he says. "It now fills me with great pride"
As it should, Merv.
The boy from Brewarrina has left a sizable footprint on the photojournalistic landscape of Australia.