Cultural connection: In indigenous cultures in Bolivia, Mexico, Vietnam, Cambodia, the social structure is very similar to our own.
Down to earth. It’s a phrase that has become the preserve of celebrities gorged on success, trotted out in an attempt to imply a fleeting connection to terra firma before they angle their noses firmly skywards. But, somehow, it’s the only way to describe Wayne Quilliam.
Maybe it’s because he settles down for a chat on the floor of his study, the one room in his house not cheerily carpeted by his daughter’s playthings. Maybe it’s the shorts and T-shirt he’s dressed in, or his voice, low and gravelly.
Or maybe it’s the humility, entirely at odds with his resumé.
A list of Quilliam’s accolades would be longer than this article. His work has been shown in every continent but Antarctica, and he’s racked up more than a century of exhibitions on top of appearances in more than 600 books and magazines, from Marie Claire to the official publication of the United Nations. He’s worked with more celebrities than there are in a checkout-line magazine rack and was the official photographer for, among others, the Australian government’s apology to the stolen generations in 2008.
Quilliam, 48, is a big, bald bulldog of a man, the canine comparison coming courtesy of a countenance that would be menacing were it not so likeable. There is a raw, untamed quality to his photographs, and his anecdotes and opinions are similarly unvarnished. In short, he loves having a yarn, and this trait forms the centrepiece of his photographic technique.
“The camera sits down half the time, and I develop a relationship with my subject,” Quilliam says. He stresses the importance of making a “connection” – it is a word he will return to again and again. “Apparently I’m outside the box on this, immersing myself in whatever I do. Maybe it’s because I never went to photography school. I’m not saying that people who keep themselves away from the story are wrong, but I can’t do it.
“I watch other photographers and see how detached they are from their subjects – I have to be involved. I want to know why I’m there; I want to know who you are. Everyone’s got a story, and the story is everything.”
As a result, you’d be hard-pressed to hear a shutter click through all the chatter. This interview started out with Quilliam asking “What are your favourite kind of articles?” and it was a good while before he started answering questions instead of asking them.
“It wasn’t my photo skills that were the selling point, it was the social interaction. I could work with remote Aboriginal communities out in the Kimberleys and I could sit down and photograph the Prime Minister. It’s all the same to me,” he says.
“Technically I’m inept as a photographer. I do it by feel. I try never to set anything up. It tends to work better because people are more comfortable.”
Quilliam says the taboo of portraying the name or image of a deceased Aboriginal person is fading in urban and some rural communities, but remains prevalent in traditional ones.
“But I go through the right protocols, and 99 per cent of the time I don’t get knocked back. If someone says, ‘I don’t want you to use it’, I would never use it,” he says.
“That’s why I maintain total copyright on all my images. I never sell them outright, I lease them. And I stipulate that at any time I can pull the image. I won’t break any rules. I upset people when they need to be upset, but not my own mob, because there’s nothing worse than getting speared in the leg.”
Quilliam’s work means that he spends most of the year abroad, often spending time with other indigenous cultures and delighting in the similarities he discovers.
“In indigenous cultures in Bolivia, Mexico, Vietnam, Cambodia, the social structure is very similar to our own. There is a kinship system, a family structure, the acknowledgement of our connection to the earth and to
each other that I tend to find very strong,” he says.
“I’m not overly spiritual, but when I’m out there I feel something that makes me gel with the country and the earth. When I’m out bush – in the deserts or in the islands – I feel I’m at home. When I’m in the city, I love it, but I’m not connected to it.”
No matter where he is in the world, the introduction is the same: “My name is Wayne Quilliam and I’m an Aboriginal photographer.” He wields the term with immense pride, like a standard-bearer marching at the head of an army, as if it is just as important for his audience to know his heritage as it is for him.
“I see it that way because my outlook, my vision of this world, is from an indigenous perspective. Photography comes second,” Quilliam says.
This brings to mind recent legal proceedings against Andrew Bolt in which it was alleged that a series of blog posts by the Herald Sun writer intimated that it was politically and occupationally fashionable to insist on a racial identity not readily apparent from pigmentation alone. The posts accused many of adopting this approach. But there was one name that wasn’t mentioned – Wayne Quilliam.
“The thing that offended me most about that piece was that I wasn’t included in it,” Quilliam says. Perhaps he is joking. Perhaps not. This is, after all, a man who had ticked the relevant box upon entering the navy, only to be told by a recruiting officer that he couldn’t possibly be Aboriginal because he was too light.
Growing up in Tasmania, Quilliam had no record of his ancestry other than a photograph of his grandmother, a “full-blood blackfella”. He and his siblings were told they were Aboriginal, but they had no connection. Quilliam uses the word to describe the process of a person embracing their roots. He has made the connection, as has his younger brother, but his sister hasn’t. “My younger sister doesn’t identify. But that’s her personal choice. It’s a very individual thing.”
Then comes clarity. It took years of effort and study at home and abroad, time spent sitting around a campfire “like a wide-eyed schoolgirl” listening to stories of the Dreaming, for Quilliam to come to terms with his heritage. Even now he refuses to make assumptions.
“I can’t just walk into communities in the central desert or the Northern Territory or Queensland and say that I’m Aboriginal and I know what I’m doing. After 20?years I still don’t. You always ask what is the best way to do something. You sit back and listen,” he says.
To be Aboriginal is not a claim he makes lightly, and he does not see the merit of a debate of the genetics of the soul over the genetics of the flesh.
“To me that’s irrelevant. I used to be worried about it, but now if you don’t recognise I’m Aboriginal, that’s your problem, not mine,” Quilliam says.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a pretty good story behind Quilliam’s first encounter with a camera. “I joined the photography class in high school because there was a hot chick in there, and I thought I would get in the darkroom and, well, you never know. I started taking photos and I was absolutely useless,” he says.
But photography was left behind when Quilliam left school as a 15-year-old to join the navy, and remained just a hobby until he returned from the navy and was working as a chimney cleaner in Hobart. One day, he entered a customer’s house and was floored by a series of “stunning” black-and-white photographs. “Her father had passed away and she was going to get rid of all the stuff, so I cleaned her chimney in exchange for her father’s photography equipment,” says Quilliam.
Then it all came into focus. First came a stint at the Koori Mail, where Quilliam reported and snapped pictures. He travelled around Australia for three years, visiting Aboriginal communities, living in a van.
Along the way he met his wife, Jodie. The couple spent seven years living in Canberra, at the dawn of the digital age of cameras, and Jodie decided the time had come to invest in a new one. It was a three-megapixel Kodak, costing a hefty $6000. “She just said, ‘Do you want to take this seriously or not?’,” Quilliam says, with an almost rueful shake of the head. “She’s the rock of the family. She’s an amazing woman. People write articles about what I do, and what I do is fun and colourful, but that woman has a bloody career, looks after about 20 staff, looks after the house, and she looks after our little girl. She’s the backbone of what I do.”
The couple have a young daughter, Tanisha, from whom Quilliam was apart for nine months of last year.
“My wife would say I’m gone far too much sometimes and not enough other times,” he says, grinning, but sobering swiftly. “When I’m away for a week at a time, when I’m lying awake in a hotel in the middle of nowhere, you can speak to your wife and daughter on the phone, but it’s not enough. You’ve got to get home.
“I’ve got two grown-up sons and four grandkids and I love them to death. They live in Tassie, so I don’t get to see them, but being given a chance to have a little girl is wonderful. It’s helped with my photography, too. Everything’s special again.
“The trouble is that I try to work but I end up playing tea parties. I can’t wait until she’s old enough to come with me on trips, but her mother’s not looking forward to it. I go to some very remote, very dangerous places. I’ve been bitten by snakes and spiders, I’ve fallen down cliffs, I’ve done all these ridiculous things. I know when my little girl gets older she’s going to want to come with me, and my wife’s going to go, ‘Oh God’.”
Next up, Quilliam will turn to teaching as an adjunct professor at RMIT, where he says he will be able to help people learn in a more practical manner.
“I’m still in the infancy of my career. I’ve got so much more to do and so much more to offer. I’m trying to share my experiences with my people and other cultures – I could make a fortune with photography, but if I don’t share my knowledge I’m not being true to myself,” he says.
To this end, Quilliam also appears frequently on the global lecture circuit. At the time of this interview, he had just completed a series in Guam, Mexico, Indonesia, Germany and Austria.
“My mouth got dry but I had a ball,” he says. “Every session was packed. If I do it here five people would rock up. It still amazes me that overseas cultures are more interested in Aboriginal culture than Australians.”
This is why Quilliam isn’t worried about overexposure in Australia, despite being as prolific as he is.
“We’ve all got a connection, and my connection hopefully will influence John and Mary Smith from down the road. Most people will only ever see the drunks and the deaths, but if they can see a strong, positive Aboriginal man living among them, they may think differently about who we are,” he says. “And, being totally self-absorbed, it’s very good for business. I’ve never got a cent from government funding in my life, not a grant or a loan. Exposure is everything to me, and to Aboriginal youth. It shows them you can transition from Aboriginal media to the mainstream.”
But don’t tell Quilliam he’s a role model.
“Please don’t model yourself on me. I’d like to influence people to believe they can be bigger and better than what they are, but ‘role model’ is a term I think is overused these days,” he says.
“I have no role models. I appreciate and respect and am in awe of other people’s work, but the reality is you make yourself. I only want to influence my kids, and hopefully to be a better man.”