I am fortunate to currently have this portrait of the Indigenous Australian singer Archie Roach on display at the Monash Gallery of Art in Melbourne, Australia. It was shot on a 1949 Rolleiflex camera, on Ilford Delta 100.
Although photography is not my full-time vocation, I have a number of freelance photojournalism gigs which keep me very busy. One of those is writing for the national Indigenous newspaper in Australia, the Koori Mail which is distributed in print every fortnight.
Although I myself am not an Indigenous Australian, I worked with Indigenous people and lived in Indigenous communities throughout the country for many years. I am also very passionate about social justice issues impacting Indigenous people in Australia – which like all communities who have experienced colonisation, is a pretty traumatic history.
In January 2020, I was fortunate to interview the legendary Indigenous singer Archie Roach for the Koori Mail about his new book Tell Me Why. Archie is part of the Stolen Generations – Indigenous children who were removed from their families and placed into institutions and foster homes to be taught to be ‘white.’
This policy of assimilation impacted thousands of Indigenous children and destroyed many families, who often never saw each other again. Many also lost their connection to their Indigenous heritage, such as the ability to speak their original language and their sacred connection to the land.
Archie Roach is famous for writing music that reflects his stolen childhood and the trauma he and his Indigenous family endured. He became a homeless alcoholic before meeting his life partner Ruby Hunter and beginning his career as a singer.
I decided that along with the interview, I would take his portrait using my 1949 Rolleiflex camera.
Although generally for photojournalism I will shoot in digital – as that is what the editors prefer – from time to time I will shoot in film just for something different.
Those who use a Rolleiflex will know that one roll of film will only take 12 shots, and in this case, I only had time to shoot one roll of film. Given Archie Roach’s legendary status, I was nervous taking his photo, and our of respect, did not want to start directing him straight away. So I had to be careful about my process knowing the restraints only 12 shots would bring, and the time restrictions I had.
So here is my process in four steps…
1. We step outside his hotel room to take the photo on the balcony. It’s the middle of the day, and the light is harsh. I ask Archie to stand where he feels comfortable, in order to give him some agency in the shoot and to be respectful. But as you can see, the background light is terrible.
2. After a couple of ‘warm up’ shots I politely ask Archie to remove his cap, which is casting a shadow over his face. I don’t ask him to move just yet as I don’t want to be giving too many instructions at once – not only is Archie a legendary musician but he is also an Elder in the Indigenous community and I have to be mindful to show him due respect.
3. I finally ask him to start to move around into the better light, and get in a bit closer to concentrate the lens on his face. During this time I am constantly taking light readings off my hand held metre, as the harsh light is constantly changing due to the cloud cover. This photo reveals I was too close to the subject for the Rolleiflex which has a 70cm distance minimum.
4. Finally, he moves into much more even light and with a solid, textural background. On this occasion – photograph number 12, the last of the roll – I capture the image that I want. I edited the contrast of image slightly in Lightroom but overall not a great deal has changed from the original negative.
To me, shooting someone’s portrait is not just about capturing a likeness of a person, or simply taking a technically a good photograph.
I believe a good portrait needs to tell the viewer something about the person.
In this case, while interviewing Archie, I found he had this way of closing his eyes while he spoke, like a blind seer or a prophet.
He is also an incredibly wise man and the conversation shed so much light not only on the true history of Australia, but also on how the country can heal from the trauma inflicted by colonisation on Indigenous people.
I hope that this photograph represents even a fraction of what this legendary man is about.
Thanks for reading
You can listen to Archie Roach’s music at his website.
And please follow my Instagram and Youtube, or head to my website for more information www.alimc.com.au
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18 thoughts on “Portrait Photography on a Rolleiflex: Archie Roach and the Stolen Generations – By Ali MC”
there is a lot of sadness in this tale, of lives removed from their natural and happy destiny. Great photos.
Thanks for stopping by to have a read Joseph.
Great piece. I just listened to the song “Took the Children Away” on his page and what a great voice and moving song.
Here in Canada–especially in my province of British Columbia which is unceded territory–we have the same story line with a different name. It’s so great that awareness of social injustice can be stretched across the world on even the unlikeliest of places such as this photography site.
Also, I enjoyed your process of obtaining your final image. Well done!
Thanks Kevin. I was doing a legal internship for an Indigenous Law firm in Toronto in 2017 and learnt about the Residential Schools. I also managed to get to a few reservations and saw the conditions, in particular in Pikangikum. Very sad to see the same history of colonisation play out on opposite sides of the world.
Excellent portraits and thanks for the backstory.
Thanks for having a read Huss.
I like that last one!
Thanks Peter 🙂
These are wonderful! I’m trying to pluck up the courage to try some proper portraiture- with my Rollei. It’s such an abstract machine in today’s world that I think it disarms people a bit. Did you go back to Archie Roach with the photos, and if so what did he make of them?
I love using the Rolleiflex for portraits, it does take a bit of getting used to though. I sent the photos and article to Archie’s management but didn’t hear back. And then Covid came along. I might try and follow up though this year, thanks for the reminder!
An elderly face is a map of a life journey.
A beautiful portrait. A terrible treatment of people. Every nation carries the shame of cruel treatment of people. Photography can help us recognize past wrongs and maybe, just maybe try and make things right. One can hope.
Thanks for your comment, and yes, hopefully photography (and other arts) can make a difference. Certainly the music and stories of Archie Roach have been instrumental in Australian’s becoming more aware of the history here.
Fantastic yarn…I sold my Rolleis a couple of years ago and you’ve just made me miss them dearly! Wonderful shots!
Thanks for taking a look, glad you enjoyed the story. Love shooting with the Rolleiflex.
Great article, I enjoy reading about what goes on in the mind of the photographer, and it’s very interesting to get this insight into your approach (quite literally, I notice that you get closer with each shot). This is one of the things I love about the Magnum Contact Sheets book, which Holly Gilman and I recently reviewed for this site.
Thanks for taking a look Sroyon, glad you enjoyed the article. The Magnum Contact book is great 🙂