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.
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