Photographer and A.Professor Wayne Quilliam has been exploring the nuances of Indigenous communities for over 30 years. Combining elements of photojournalism, creative artistry and videography, he captures stunning portraits and psychedelic landscapes to reflect true stories and mythical representations of culture and identity.
Wayne Quilliam’s penchant for travel and adventure was first ignited when he joined the Royal Australian Navy at 15. His first sea posting took him far from the loving but insular community of his parents and extended family in Tasmania and all the way to the then “epicentre of duty-free bliss”, otherwise known as Hong Kong. One night his “catalyst to becoming a storyteller” appeared under his hammock in the form of a Yashica FX D Quartz. Never in his wildest dreams did Wayne imagine that that “inanimate black box was in fact his ‘golden ticket’”, but now he fondly views it as such – and with good reason.
Wayne’s diverse output of creative artistry and photojournalism have long been considered outstanding contributions to Australia’s cultural heart and knowledge. Regarded as a pre-eminent Indigenous artist working across photography, videography, curation and more, he has been the recipient of several esteemed awards – notably including the NAIDOC Indigenous Artist of the Year, the Walkley Award for photojournalism and Bowness Art Award.
From connecting with and documenting numerous Indigenous communities and events all over the world to creating and curating more than 140 exhibitions, his honest and respectful expression of heritage and culture are the cornerstone of his creative practise. For Wayne, the “essence of how a photographer embeds their personal ethos into ethnographic photography” has been a driving force behind his storytelling for over 30 years.
“It is painfully obvious to experience a dehumanising portrait of culture that [reduces] our people to the status of scientific specimens,” Wayne says. “My role is to encapsulate the beauty and wonderment of connection. My work emanates from shared values and connection to people and land, to fully understand where I am and how our people want the stories to be told.”
We recently spoke to Wayne about his approach to landscape imagery, how his connection to Country and community contributes to his creative outlook, and what advice he has for aspiring photographers.
“My creations are emotive captures through listening, not necessarily seeing.”
How did you get started doing the somewhat psychedelic landscape images you shoot, such as your saltwater and desert landscapes?
My landscapes are a symbolic combination of true stories and mythical representations that have merged artistic conjecture with a universal need to understand the concept of existence. Each artwork is a foundation to challenge the perception of truth by constructing realities from my subconscious. They represent a believable truth that questions the practicalities of a physical existence compared to one of enlightenment.
Indigenous people have a connection to Country, for instance I am a freshwater man from the central highlands of Tasmania. I am most comfortable in the mountains and around freshwater, my spirit flows from this connection and in turn my artwork reflects this. When I am on someone’s Country I always ask permission to walk their land and ask if they will share their stories, this is a sign of respect to people of the land and to their ancestors.
What shapes and influences your art and creative process? Does connection to Country play a large part?
Our old people share the knowledge of the Songlines. These are stories that connect places and creation stories – living historical accounts of the journeys carried in song cycles. My creations are emotive captures through listening, not necessarily seeing. They are meditative and a reflection of the stories embedded within the land.
My responsibilities as modern-day storyteller sharing culture to a global audience require a high degree of self-awareness and self-reflection. The way I do this is to walk on Country, listen to the land and connect. When you connect it is quite an incredible experience, colours and contrasting hues merge, light and shadow reveal indescribable beauty.
You’ve mentioned previously that you enjoy blurring the lines between documentary photography and creative artistry. Could you expand on that?
Every iteration that evolves from the camera speaks of connection and isolation, of loss and discovering, and of connection of humankind. The photographs are inclusive and exquisitely realised as modern art as much as they are as ethnographic records.
I am creating a space that welcomes people of all nations into the inner sanctum of our culture by using simple, elegant forms and creating a balance between ritualistic documentation and the creation of art. For so long I have been told by curators and art experts that to succeed I needed to choose between being recognised as an artist or social documentary photographer, duplicity was not an option. They were right, excelling in two genres was impractical so I decided to expand my skills and have added drone pilot and cinematographer to the resume and have never been busier.
“My most beautiful work occurs after I have collaborated with the local mob who have shared their stories.”
Why do you choose to photograph certain places? Are you drawn in through connections or stories?
My most beautiful work occurs after I have collaborated with the local mob who have shared their stories, in a sense an initiation of spirit. More often than not I will be leaving the community for home and thunderous rolling clouds will fill the sky diffusing the red desert sun as it paints the harsh landscape. These are the moments to be savoured individually and to be shared globally.
What are you trying to convey with your landscape photography? Do you have any core messages, or does it change and evolve with each landscape?
Have you ever had that sensation of not being here or there, but rather a place that is indescribably serene? Sitting alone atop the dunes in Lake Mungo at 4am listening to the unmistakable sound of Emu’s thump around the undergrowth while freezing your moom (bum) off is an experience. Sanity is questioned as fingers turn a special shade of blue and the mirage of a strong cappuccino invades the nostrils. Then the first Willy Wagtail dances across the corrugated sand bank attempting to coerce his female friend to join him as the first streaks of orange silhouette his tiny body, the sunrise is breathtaking.
“The versatility of my work can be attributed largely to my absolute refusal to adhere to only one style or medium.”
You’re a very versatile photographer but I really love your landscapes as they have a feel that is recognisable and unique. How have you developed your style over time?
The versatility of my work can be attributed largely to my absolute refusal to adhere to only one style or medium. My creations are intuitive, fluid in approach and unmistakably genuine. Genuine because people are experiencing my adventures and are intrinsically entwined with the creation of the works. What gives me the most pleasure is sitting on the top of a cliff in southern Victoria watching the ebb and flow of ‘kelp’ beds through my infrared Nikon then sitting down with a glass of wine later that night listening to Bowie and being fascinated by the beauty of the saltwater spirits.
How have you achieved some of the magnificent overhead shots you have over the years? Are there any images that have a particularly interesting or sentimental story behind them with regards to the process?
I could write an entire book on my favourite moments flying into a community, reuniting with countrymen I haven’t seen for an eternity, sharing the photos taken as we flew over their land. But one of the most memorable was taking my wife to Lake Eyre; in the 20 years together we have travelled extensively overseas but she doesn’t travel for my work.
I was shooting a tourism commercial and thought it an opportune time for her to see what I do firsthand, so we boarded the small plane after taking the door off and began the circumnavigation in less than friendly weather. I’ll never forget her face when I popped my legs outside the door and began shooting – these were the days before worrying about a harness or any safety devices. Let’s say a new set of rules were introduced when we returned to the ground after she reminded me that we had a newborn daughter that would like to see her father.
Do you have any advice for aspiring landscape photographers?
Challenge the tried and true methods of capturing the perfect landscape. Explore the well-worn track in reverse, lay on the ground and listen to the sounds of nature, understand the connection every living organism has to each other. Fundamentally altering the process of how you experience the living moment will recontextualise how your viewers experience the artwork. I have been told many times during my career that people feel a particular connection to the artwork and they can never quite articulate what it is but they have a sense of what it was and what it will become.
My key point is to always remember whose land you’re walking on. We do not own the water, the earth or the air.
Wayne’s latest photography book is set to be published by Hardie Grant in January 2021. ‘Culture is Life’ is a nuanced representation and vibrant celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in Modern Australia. Featuring thousands of images and numerous interviews with Indigenous, both young and Elder, the work focuses on their views around identity, dreams and existence.