Mervyn Bishop exhibition: Looking through a different lens
Warning: This article contains images of deceased Indigenous Australians.
The saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words” is one that emanates throughout Bishop’s photography.
If you haven’t heard of Mervyn Bishop before, I’m sure this picture to the left might ring a bell. He was the talented photographer behind the famous shot of Gough Whitlam pouring soil into traditional land owner, Vincent Lingiari‘s hands.
Ranging from major historical moments to the everyday lives of Indigenous Australians, Bishop’s work has influenced and shaped a different story to how photography represented Indigenous Australians.
Earlier this year, I went to see the Mervyn Bishop exhibition at the National Film and Sound Archive to learn more about the stories he told through photography. Spaced out in a large room, there was a large range of works from Mervyn’s own photographs to documentaries and audio about Indigenous Australia.
Walking around the exhibition, I was extremely interested by his work when he was a photographer for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.
The picture shown below was taken by Bishop in 1988 while documenting the living conditions of Aboriginals for the Department of Housing. It captures a raw and poignant moment in the everyday life of this family.
The black and white contrast of this photograph, alongside others of Bishop’s, ironically stand out more than a coloured photo would. The dull shades create more focus on the actual picture for the viewer which I found enhances its depth and meaning. The simplicity of black and white was echoed throughout most of Bishop’s photos challenging me to think more observantly, taking in its small details and what was happening in the photo.
Bishop’s photos focus heavily on people and the way they hold themselves and their facial expressions. Whether this be intentional or not, it’s a powerful technique in storytelling through pictures and captures stories of the people in them. The below photo, ‘Couple on the veranda’ focusses heavily on the facial expressions and body language of both people and though being a simple photo, it shows a story of this couple and their culture and the life they’ve lived.
The exhibition itself also incorporated different modes of visuals and audio which was highly engaging as it complimented Bishop’s work and the stories behind them.
Audio and documentaries of Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Jimmy Little, Lionel Rose, Lowitja (Lois) O’Donoghue and other significant Indigenous Australians were spread throughout the exhibition next to their respective photos taken of them by Bishop.
This film, alongside Melvyn’s story and quotes written on the walls, provide a personal insight into his life as an Indigenous photographer during a time of social and political change in Australia for Indigenous Australians.
What makes Bishop’s work so incredible is his effort of photographing everyday situations, challenging the idea that photography doesn’t need to be of something major but that everyday people are worthy of a picture. They can still tell a story of something different, it’s just a matter of looking through a different lens.