Potent Images: emergent practices and shifting attitudes towards
photographs of the dead in Arnhem Land
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Until recently, Yolngu (along with many other Australian Aboriginal groups) have
insisted that photographs be hidden from sight, or even destroyed, upon the death
of the subject. This is now dramatically changing. New kinds of practices—and
shifting ontological understandings of power and dangers associated with
photographic images—are emerging as Yolngu actively explore the rich possibilities
that photographs offer to evoke, remind and ‘connect’ the living with those who
have ‘passed away’. Such moments of mourning and memorialising enable a
deepening ethnographic appreciation of the place of images and the senses in
John Berger observes that every photograph presents the viewer with a “shock of
discontinuity”.2 These material fragments of the past do more than freeze the flow of
time—they puncture the present, confronting the viewer with the ‘abyss’ that lies
between then and now. As Berger acknowledges, the shock of such an encounter is
rarely consciously registered in our image saturated lives, unless, that is, the subject of
the photograph is known to the viewer—and is either long-absent, or dead.
In these circumstances, photographic presence renders absence visible. Before your
eyes, the brutal inevitability of loss fills the frame, no matter what the pose or
background vista. The oscillations this generates—amplified, perhaps, by the very
stillness of the image itself—shake things loose inside. The wrenching open of heart-
mind unleashes a torrent of feelings, thoughts and memories.
In my culture we generally deal with this upset by turning away from these photos. We
try to not look too long, to let go, move on. To do otherwise is to be maudlin, to become
mired in grief. Instead, looking resolutely forward, we turn to images of the living. We
keep photographs of our children, or, perhaps, our lovers, in our wallets, selecting
images that can be glimpsed with pleasure in the course of a busy day, or pulled out
and shown to admiring friends, even strangers, as occasions arise.
The Aboriginal people with whom I work, as an ethnographer and collaborative
videomaker, have different kinds of relationships with images of the dead. This paper
explores changing attitudes and shifting practices in relation to these potent images in a
small settlement in Arnhem Land.
In the early 1990s, when I first visited the Yolngu community of Gapuwiyak in
Australia’s tropical north, there were clear and definite restrictions surrounding the
display and viewing of images of the deceased. Repeatedly, I was told that when
someone died, every photograph (and every film, video, and audio-recording) should be
destroyed or wrapped up and placed securely out of sight.3 After a set period of time,
as determined by the family, public viewing and display of these images would be once
again permitted allowed.4
Clearly, Yolngu took the indexical relation between image and the imaged as a matter
of serious ontological concern. Photographs of the recently deceased were treated as if
they retained a lingering, and potentially malevolent, trace of the dead person. They
had the power to physically impact on the living. Although the detrimental effects of
viewing such images were only vaguely spelled out—“You might get sick”, was the
most direct answer I received—the message was emphatic. When someone dies
photographic images and video, together with audio recording become dhuyu: they are
restricted, charged with ancestral presence, dangerous to look at. 5
Ten years on, things have changed dramatically. When someone dies one of the first
things people want to do is to view photographs of that person. Even before the funeral,
(and for months, even years, afterwards), photos are collected, copied and exchanged
amongst the extended kin network. Apart from some of the elderly in the community
who do not approve of this new practice, (and in such cases people are extremely
careful keep all images out of their sight), men, women and children all seem to share a
deep desire to have, to keep, to touch, to caress and most of all, to look, long and
repeatedly, at images of the person who has ‘passed away’.
At these times people are largely unconcerned about the technical quality of the image,
or even the physical condition of the photo itself. Nor is the primary interest in the
content of the picture, the lighting, the pose, the surroundings, or the identity of the
photographer. Although these aspects can considerably enhance a viewer’s
appreciation of an image, by adding invisible layers of meaning and triggering a range
of memories and associations, ultimately what matter in such moments is to get hold of
any recognisable image of the person.
As time goes on, these photos are enlarged, framed and hung high on bedroom walls,
out of the reach of dogs and toddlers. They’re carefully kept in wallets and pockets,
even cut out and taped to mobile phones. They’re given as presents; they’re pulled off
the wall and packed for trips away; they’re brought out and shared with visitors who
look intensely, often sitting quietly at the edge of the social, until they’ve been moved to
silent, salty tears.
No other type of photograph generates such interest and activity, except, to a lesser
extent, images of family members living in another community and archival
photographs from anthropological institutes. In these cases Yolngu also deliberately
use photographs to ameliorate the distress of separation and to affirm ties, but never
more so, as with the photos of the recently deceased.
‘New Generation’ Yolngu
So how to figure this apparent reversal in attitude? Have notions about the ‘magical’
effects of photography been completely swept aside by a modern pragmatism or
It’s surely no coincidence that this change has happened at a time when digital
technologies are providing unprecedented access to image reproduction in one of the
most isolated settlements in the country. Up until recently, there were no opportunities
for Yolngu to have their photographs developed or copied locally, they had to rely on
non-Yolngu contacts to take photos or send reproductions. But these days there are
computers, scanners, printers and laminators in the school, the council office, and in
the homes of non-Yolngu staff, which allows (uneven) access to image reproductions.
Furthermore, in Gapuwiyak, as elsewhere, media technologies mediate the modern
even as they mark it. When we discuss such matters, people make a clear distinction
between themselves as ‘modern’ or ‘new generation Yolngu’ and the ‘old people’ whose
concerns and fears in relation to photography are deemed ‘old fashioned’, ‘silly’ even,
and are laughingly likened to ‘voodoo’ (as seen in movies).6
However, Yolngu versions of being modern are not necessarily the same as mine.7
Imprinted on the Heart
Unlike Berger who concludes that these images trigger trauma, the self-proclaimed
‘new generation Yolngu’ (which includes the middle-aged and younger) find these
images to be a source of comfort and connection. This helps ‘to keep that dead fella
close’, they say, always careful not to speak the name of the deceased, which remains
strictly taboo, in the way photos used to be.
Comments like this suggest a lingering sense that the photograph contains a physical
trace of the deceased. Even though they are no longer deemed to be dangerous, it
seems that the invisible umbilicus (to use Barthes’ phrase) between image and imaged,
which has given rise to questions about the ontological status of photographs for
philosophers and Yolngu alike, has not been completely severed. The same people
who describe such views the ‘old people’s’ views as ‘silly’ are equally likely to threaten
to cut up photographs of loved ones in the heat of anger; or to worry about the effects
of slightly trimming down a portrait in order to fit it into a frame; or to press a photo
against the part of their body that corresponds to their kin relationship with the
deceased. For example, a daughter might press a photo of her deceased mother to her
stomach to show, invoke, enliven and affirm the yothu-yindi (mother child) relation.
However, the connections that Yolngu seek and value are also mediated through the
act of looking itself. Cultural ways of seeing inflect their reaction to—and their
experiences of—the visceral and affective jolt that such images generate.
Yolngu tell me that looking at the photos allows them to keep the deceased in their
hearts. When they say this, they’re speaking as perceptual subjects who understand
that the senses mediate between the outside and the inside. The act of looking extends
the corporeal boundaries of the subject outwards to encompass the image and, by
extension, the imaged, in a sensuous embrace. In other words, in this kind of charged
context, vision is haptic, intercorporeal and, ultimately, incorporative. The image enters
the viewer through the portals of the eye, moving through a culturally recognized circuit,
with predictably powerful effect. For as one woman explained to me, “When Yolngu see
something it connects straight to the heart …and after that to the head”. From this
perspective, looking at these photos, long, deeply and repeatedly, can be understood
as an act of, quite literally, imprinting the image of the deceased—and thence a trace of
the deceased themselves—on the viewers’ heart.
As they describe the internal processes of feeling, remembering and imagining
unleashed by the looking, Yolngu also emphasize how the recalling of shared moments
affirms an enduring bond. This is more than keeping a memory strong—this is keeping
the deceased themselves present by making themselves open to the invisible,
underlying presence of the Ancestral. Yolngu use the rupturing effects of these
photographs to look beyond the separations of the everyday, the apparent linearity of
time, and the finality of death, they channel the flood of memories and associations into
the work of reinforcing ties and refiguring relationships.
This kind of viewing can thus be recognized as a type of informal, but nonetheless
ritualised labour which can be carried out on an everyday basis, outside of the
ceremonial settings, power structures and gendered hierarchies of ritual. Like the more
overt and easily recognisable ceremonial activities, this work of looking is a public and
social process. Viewers are discretely watched over, comforted if necessary, the photos
put away if it becomes too much. Just as in other kinds of ritual experience, the effects
of this kind of looking are transformative and cumulative: feelings, images, patterns,
knowledge are intentionally evoked and affirmed, sedimenting the subject in a richly
textured and ever-deepening, lived relationship with the Ancestral through body,
senses, memory and imagination.
Although at this stage the deceased is not yet totally assimilated into the Ancestral, they
will, in time, be absorbed into this more amorphous category with the passing of
generations and the inevitable fading of memory. Yet still their presence and the
possibility of connection remains.
For the Future
It makes a particular kind of sense that this new practice has emerged at a time when
the gaps between generations are widening, leading Yolngu themselves to reflect on
questions of past and present, tradition and modernity, continuity and disjuncture, as
their people die (too many, too young) from ‘modern’ lifestyles, poverty, powerlessness
Indeed, Yolngu also explicitly understand the easing of restrictions around these
images to be an important gesture ‘for the future’. Photos are used to teach children to
recognise their dead relatives even before they can speak. Parents say that this
knowledge will enable the child to know this person when their spirit appears to them—
something common for Yolngu children to experience. But it seems to me that there is
even more to it than that. As time passes, these internalised images become part of a
lived and embodied Ancestral legacy—an intimate and internalised knowledge of the
contours of the face, the shape of the body and other features are an important source
of knowledge that will be assimilated into the ever-broadening and deepening
knowledge of ‘inside’ or restricted clan-based knowledge. These photographs, and the
careful, attentive, receptive kinds of looking they provoke and enable, will provide the
means of recognising the imprint of the past in future generations, facilitating a visible,
tangible, material source for affirming the Ancestral relations that are the source of
Yolngu identity and knowledge.
Postscript: The boundaries of the visual?
This paper has been written as I begin a new phase of research. Although I’ve done my
best to contain it, I’ve found the material spilling out the sides, pulling me in new
directions, towards ideas I haven’t yet thought. I’m aware of the need to elaborate the
large arguments I’ve too quickly moved through, and to substantiate and nuance my
assertions by more fully locating the practices I describe within the broader imperatives,
rhythms, and moods of life in Arnhem Land.
But for the context of this seminar, I hope that the suggestiveness of the things I have
described—and the questions, associations and confusions that may arise—is enough
to make my final point. For, although the power and productivities of vision—“through
the eyes, straight to the heart, then to the mind”—may be a matter of common sense in
Gapuwiyak, it is clear to me that I have to extend my analytic and experiential purview if
I am to adequately apprehend anything approximating a ‘Yolngu point of view’.
Taking a cue from my Yolngu kin and media colleagues I need to attend more closely to
movements from the outside to the inside—from the visible to the invisible—and back
again. I have to deepen my appreciation of the constitutive play between sense,
sensation, sensibility and culture. I have to think and feel into ideas about affect,
synaesthesia, memory, imagination, media, technology and modernity. Most of all, I
need to spend more time with Yolngu, attending ritual, watching TV, making videos,
listening to music, telling stories, hunting, dancing and shopping.
Is this still visual anthropology? Maybe not at first glance, but the more I zoom in on
questions of the visual and the camera’s potential to mediate intercultural
understanding, the more I am convinced of the value of a long-term, sustained and
‘wide-angled’ approach to my subject.
Visual anthropologist, Macquarie University, Australia.
John Berger and Jean Mohr, 1995. Another Way of Telling. New York: Vintage, p. 87.
These restrictions generally last several years, depending on the person’s age and importance.
I have concentrated here on photographs because videos of deceased people are viewed far
less often than photos which are compact, portable, material and still—a quality that many have
suggested makes them a more potent kind of imagery for the work of memory (cf Sontag 1973,
Barthes 1981). The restricted audio recordings are generally of clan manikay (public songs). This
specific case gives rise to a range of issues which I am unable to go into here.
During the 1990s public broadcasters began prefacing indigenous content with warnings that
they the program may contain images of deceased people.
This shift is clearly marked linguistically. Whereas photographs were once referred to as mali or
wungali (shadow, ghost), Yolngu now use the English terms photo or video.
This change is reportedly occurring across the country.