The Institute Times

First Aboriginal Trainees at AIAS

Former AIAS trainee and current Manager of AIATSIS Access and Client Services, Alana Harris, at the After 200 Years exhibition at Parliament House, May 2014.
Former AIAS trainee and current Manager of AIATSIS Access and Client Services, Alana Harris, at the After 200 Years exhibition at Parliament House, May 2014.

For over a decade to the early 1970s, in communities across Australia, many Aboriginal people worked out in the field with Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS) researchers but their role was limited to that of Aboriginal ‘informant.’

In December 1972, the Institute launched a national program to record sites of significance to Aboriginal people. What was significant about this program was that it enabled the Institute to fund the training and employment of Aboriginal people for the first time.

Some of the very first Aboriginal trainees in the program subsequently became AIAS Members and went on to become community and national leaders making major contributions to Aboriginal political, social and cultural life. These early pioneers included Peter Yu, who became a national leader for Aboriginal rights and many years later, directed the Kimberley Land Council and Ted Wilkes, who achieved prominence locally and nationally in the area of Aboriginal health.

In 1975, the AIAS Steering Committee reviewed Institute activity and reiterated the need for greater Aboriginal participation in membership and staff numbers. On June 1976, the Institute finally appointed its first permanent Aboriginal staff member, Rex Murray, a young man from rural NSW who took up the position of office assistant.

Alana Harris who is now the Manager of AIATSIS’ Access and Client Service began as a trainee in photography in November 1984. Alana recalls her time as an AIATSIS trainee:

"I'd just basically finished high school and moved to Canberra and got a traineeship here in the first three weeks of being in Canberra. I actually studied part time and worked full time so it was pretty full on. I went through the TAFE system and became a trained photographer so it was beneficial for me and it was also beneficial for the Institute at the time.  My role was obviously as a photographic trainee but I did a lot of dark room work. So tray processing, you know, hand processing rolls of film so there was always a joke that I was a mushroom because I was always in the dark room!

There were two photographic trainees, myself and Ricky Maynard who has gone on to be a very well-known documentary photographer, and there were a couple of trainees in audio and apprentices in electronics. So we actually had quite a few trainees come through, it was very successful."

Alana was also tasked with documenting significant events and projects for the Institute. Her first professional photographic assignment was for the bicentennial project, “After 200 Years”. At the time, it was a large undertaking for AIATSIS, with over 20 Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal photographers living and working with selected members in their communities. Over a period of 24 months, 50,000 images were taken, documenting the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life in Australia 200 years after European colonisation. The photographers and community members’ work culminated in the publication After 200 years Photographic Essay which was published in Australia’s Bicentenary year - 1988. Alana says:

"It was an unusual publication because the words in it are really from the community. So Penny Taylor, who’s the editor of the book, and I went back several times and interviewed people and let people talk about the photos. We went back there in March 2013, as part of a community access visit, but it was sad because that generation of people that I’d worked with had all passed away so it was really me interacting with their children. There were a lot of tears and things, but people were just so happy for me to go back and to see the material. We make large proof sheet books and we’ve left those there so the community can come in to the Land Council, look at them and place orders.

The outreach process is so important because if people can’t get here (to AIATSIS), we can still get the material to them in ways that are culturally appropriate. That’s one of the reasons I stay, because of the impact it has on giving material back to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Seeing people for the first time, seeing photographs or hearing audio recordings or moving image of family members that either they’ve never ever seen or met or haven’t seen for a very long time is very emotional and very touching."

Anbarra lady preparing for Rom ceremony with traditional paint, Canberra, 5th January 1995. Photo by Alana Harris.
Anbarra lady preparing for Rom ceremony with traditional paint, Canberra, 5th January 1995. Photo by Alana Harris.
Anbarra people performing the Rom ceremony, Canberra, 5th January 1995. Photo by Alana Harris.
Anbarra people performing the Rom ceremony, Canberra, 5th January 1995. Photo by Alana Harris.
Anbarra people performing the Rom ceremony, Canberra, 5th January 1995. Photo by Alana Harris.
Anbarra people performing the Rom ceremony, Canberra, 5th January 1995. Photo by Alana Harris.
Arthur
Arthur "Hookey" Watts, Leeton Swimming Pool, 1987. From the "After 200 Years" publication. Photo by Alana Harris.