Casting shadows

 J.W. Lindt, Family group, Ulmarra tribe, Clarence River, NSW, gelatin silver photograph. Collection: National Gallery of Australia.
J.W. Lindt, Family group, Ulmarra tribe, Clarence River, NSW, gelatin silver photograph. Collection: National Gallery of Australia.

There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.
Walter Benjamin, Illuminations

Walter Benjamin’s observation is relevant in discussions about the photographic and cinematic representations of Indigenous peoples produced by Western anthropologists and ethnographers. The images of barbarity, which are at the same time documents of the civilised culture that produced them, assume authority and ownership of Indigenous identity by virtue of possessing technologies that enabled Westerners to visually capture the Indigenous form. Indigenous peoples, increasingly aware of how anthropological photographs and ethnographic cinema are distributed and used, are informing themselves against the inappropriate use of these images with emphasis on having them repatriated to the relevant communities and appropriate custodians.

To comprehend the impact of colonial representations upon Indigenous peoples, it is necessary to look at how Western metaphysics inheres light with properties that saw the West enter into conflict with the natural environment while simultaneously withdrawing from the lifeworld (light being the property of the human) while at the same time the subjugation of Indigenous peoples was made possible by visualising them as the savage. The point of difference between Indigenous culture and Western culture can be found in how these cultures understand and experience light.

“Light is the ultimate origin” and “the reliance of Western metaphysics on metaphors of light (of self-revelation and self-concealment)” is the quality that is the “founding metaphor of Western philosophy as metaphysics”.[1] It is this perspective of light, possessing an inherent duality of revelation and concealment, that serves as the point of difference between Western writing and Indigenous cultures. Indigenous cosmology expressed through its language system does not employ the West’s metaphorical use of light, nor does it philosophically or linguistically demarcate a boundary between the human and non-human domain. This hypothesis is an important point, as the human is not only a Western expression of being, but is also qualitative: “The existence of those who can be defined as truly human requires the presence of others who are considered less human”.[2]

The possibility of light being metaphorically divergent heralded the West’s ocular-centric arrival into modernity. When Western eyes first fell upon Indigenous peoples in Australia it is easy to begin to understand how the categorisation of Indigenous peoples as savage, barbaric and unhuman all began with a look. The reduction of multiple Indigenous identities into the homogenous Aborigine was possible because the West’s language system was one that believed that exploiting nature is part-and-parcel of being human.

The point of the West’s ongoing alienation from the lifeworld is important in that it highlights the disparity between Western ideas of humanity as distinct from Indigenous culture’s demonstration of civilisation throughout millennia. Indigenous language is earth-centric and is expressed through kinship systems that promote an ongoing connectedness to the lifeworld. An example of this is the Pitjantjatjara people’s belief system called the “Tjukurrpa”, which is a religious philosophy of the land. Donald Fixico reminds us that “The wars fought between Indians and whites were more than just over land – they were wars of the minds. The American mainstream thinks in a linear fashion, which is very different from the circular fashion of traditionalists”.[3] The wars fought on Indigenous soil continues to be about more than land, it is the struggle to retain a worldview where “Seeing involves mentally experiencing the relationships between tangible and nontangible things in the world and in the universe” importantly drawing our attention to the fact that ways of seeing, being and feeling, are culturally distinct.

Still from Samson and Delilah (2009, Dir. Warwick Thornton) with leading actor Rowan McNamara. Photo: Mark Rogers
Still from Samson and Delilah (2009, Dir. Warwick Thornton) with leading actor Rowan McNamara. Photo: Mark Rogers

In the West the written word preceded the “camera obscura” (in Latin: dark chamber), but the interplay of light and darkness was present in the written word, and this metaphor found another form of expression with the invention of the camera. The introduction of Western technology within the Australian landscape not only coincides with the physical death of many Indigenous people through violence and conflict, but also an ecological shift in the landscape itself.

The relativity of Western technology to death has long been recognised by theorists such as Foucault who stated that: “Our culture has metamorphosed this idea of ... writing, as something designed to ward off death. Writing has become linked to sacrifice, even to the sacrifice of life”, and Roland Barthes who took a similar position on photography, acknowledged that: “Photography transformed the subject into … a museum object”, and that “Death is the eidos of the Photograph”. In 1619 Christopher Scheiner, geometer, physicist and astronomer, used the dead eye of a recently deceased body as the lens for a camera obscura.

The association between the photograph and death cannot be overlooked, as the photograph has informed an historical understanding of Indigenous peoples and their culture as a “dying race”, a Western conception still relevant in the present. The camera was perceived to be objective, and therefore the perfect instrument to record data, as it bypassed the ethnographer’s body and subjectivity. But the camera was never objective, its mechanics the consequence of a pre-existing worldview.

The images of Indigenous people, placed before the camera as passive subjects in passive environments, resonate with the mythology of “peaceful settlement” and nationhood established without warfare. This imagery of passivity, imbued with the violence of an ocular-centric culture capable of technologically reproducing its ideology reveals the racialised Other while simultaneously concealing the normative human, since in these circumstance whites did not regard themselves as a particular race, but simply as the human race. Ethnographic images immersed Indigenous peoples in material language and linearity through force, positioning us as fixed, non-variable, less-than-human beings indoctrinated into Time as understood within the Judeo-Christian tradition.

“Anthropology’s claim to power originated at its roots. It belongs to its essence and is not a matter of accidental misuse. Nowhere is this more clearly visible, at least once we look for it, than in the applications of Time which anthropology makes when it strives to constitute its own object – the savage, the primitive, the Other. It is by diagnosing anthropology’s temporal discourse that one rediscovers the obvious, namely that there is no knowledge of the Other which is not also a temporal, historical, a political act.”[4]

In photographs of Indigenous peoples taken by J.W. Lindt, the gaze of the Indigenous individuals confronting the camera lens represents the silent clash of worldviews and temporalities, while at the same time being an act of defiance and resistance which, according to Indigenous photographer Brenda L. Croft, is reflective of the culture of resistance evident in contemporary Indigenous society.[5] It is this world beneath the expression of the subjects with which Indigenous photographer Ricky Maynard wants the viewer to identify: “It is my wish that viewers identify in these pictures the existence of struggle below the surface, to see things that are not immediately visible and to see that what things mean has more to do with you, the observer”.[6]

This profound statement subverts a historicity where only the powerful were infused with the privilege to declare what is light; what is darkness; what is human; and, ultimately, non-human. Nelson Mandela famously quoted Marianne Williamson, saying: “It is our Light, not our Darkness, that most frightens us.”[7] Indigenous peoples are now in a position to interrupt colonial epistemology and historicity by redistributing the sentiment of Williamson’s statement and articulating it to the West as thus: “It is our Light and your Darkness that has always frightened you.”

J.W. Lindt, Young woman seated with a picannini, 1870-73, albumen print. Photo courtesy Grafton Regional Gallery
J.W. Lindt, Young woman seated with a picannini, 1870-73, albumen print. Photo courtesy Grafton Regional Gallery



  1. ^ Melissa Miles, The Burning Mirror, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008, pp. 19–20.
  2. ^ Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Whitening Race: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism, Canberra, Aboriginal Studies Press, 2004, p. 76.
  3. ^ Donald L. Fixico, The American Indian Mind in a Linear World: American Indian Studies and Traditional Knowledge, Routledge, 2003.
  4. ^ Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other, Columbia University Press, 2002, p.1.
  5. ^ Alan Cruickshank, Museum of the Colonial Post Colonial, 1997:
  6. ^ Ricky Maynard, Portrait of a Distant Land, Museum of Contemporary Art, 2008, p. 59.
  7. ^ Marianne Williamson, 2010:

Romaine Moreton is a Research Fellow at Umulliko, The Wollotuka Institute at the University of Newcastle. She is an Indigenous phenomenologist whose research interrogates how Indigenous peoples engage with and negotiate Western media-making practices nationally and internationally, with special focus on representation and Indigenous Cultural Intellectual Property (ICIP).