Victoria Cooper+Doug Spowart Blog

UP CLOSE: Gemes, Driessens & Aird and their photographs of Aboriginal people

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"Up Close" exhibition invitation

“Up Close” exhibition invitation


Doug Spowart opens "Up Close" exhibition @ Fireworks Gallery PHOTO: Victoria Cooper

Doug Spowart opens the “Up Close” exhibition @ Fireworks Gallery PHOTO: Victoria Cooper



Juno Gemes - "Up Close" @ Fireworks Gallery PHOTO: Doug Spowart

Juno Gemes – “Up Close” @ Fireworks Gallery PHOTO: Doug Spowart


Juno Gemes is one of Australia’s most significant photographers. For over 40 years, she has advocated for justice, recognition and respect for Aboriginal Australians through her photographic documentation. While her photographic mode could most accurately described as ‘photo-activism’ her artworks are resolved using a range of techniques that enhance the communicative qualities of the work. These include gelatine silver prints, type C prints, photogravure, photomontage, artists books and hand-colouring.

Gemes’ works have been shown in exhibitions world-wide and a solo exhibition of her Aboriginal portraits was shown in the National Portrait Gallery exhibition Proof in 2003. Photographs by Gemes have been published in all forms of media from national and Aboriginal newspapers to academic journals and publications.


PHOTO Juno Gemes. "Lindsay (Spider) Roughsey on the Bora Ground with women of his clan, Mornington Island, 1978"

PHOTO Juno Gemes. Lindsay (Spider) Roughsey on the Bora Ground with women of his clan, Mornington Island, 1978

PHOTO: Juno Gemes. "Marcia Langton backstage at the Deadleys, Sydney Opera House, 2013"

PHOTO: Juno Gemes. Marcia Langton backstage at the Deadleys, Sydney Opera House, 2013



In a 1995 edition of the Photofile Juno Gemes poses the question: “What can a woman do with a camera?”[i] 20 years on we can now reflect upon her question, particularly as the exhibition Up Close opens at Fireworks Gallery in Brisbane, December 2015.


How does one describe Juno Gemes? For me she is some kind of a rhizomic individual, a chameleon, and a shape-shifter. She is everywhere for everyone and watch out if you are on the wrong side her – particularly if it is to do with injustice. There is more to Juno Gemes. The manifesto that drives her is deeply and often quite vocally expressed, is rooted in social justice. Central to her personal crusade are concepts relating to humanity, culture/s and communication.

In 2003 she posed the following observations and questions in relation to what motivates her work:

“If cultural difference is the true wealth of humanity … why is it that people from one culture find it so difficult to recognise the cultures of others? If our sense of culture–our value system–is fragmented and broken, how can we heal it? How does mythic thought function for different peoples?”[ii]

Her strategy in responding to these questions are: “… to be curious and ask the difficult questions is the crucible of art.”[iii]

And the art of the camera and the photograph became her way of dealing with the difficult questions of the times – Australia and its treatment and recognition of its first peoples. But Gemes’ approach to photography may not have been the traditionally accepted ‘impartial’ documentary style but rather more inclusive, active and interactive motivated by her, and her subject’s desire for authenticity in the story that is told through her photographs.

In 1978 when photographing on Mornington Island Juno was to ask: “What images should I make? What do you want your fellow Australian to see?” The answer from the Aboriginal community was: “Show them that we are still here, we been here all along. Show them that our culture is still strong. Show them that, my girl.”[iv] Juno made photographs then, and ever since, as an advocate of this simple request.

Rather than calling herself a documentary photographer, Gemes’ considers her work photo-activism. This stance is based on advice given to her by many of her mentors and teachers including Jo Spence and David Hurn. In 1979 at a workshop in Venice Lisette Model counselled Juno advising that: You do not photograph with your camera but with your eyes, your head and your heart…

In the years that followed Gemes was a constant photographer of The Movement its activities, meetings and people. Her photographs became powerful statements, authentic, respectful bearing witness and giving voice to issues of Aboriginal identity and presence on the land. Gemes’ photographs were distributed in all kinds of media, not only those of the Movement itself but also in political and academic papers and mainstream newspapers like the Sydney Morning Herald.

Due to her photo-activism approach to photography she was not always successful in getting what she wanted published. In 1982 she documented the land rights marches associated with the Commonwealth Games Action Protests in Brisbane. When she offered her images to the Sydney Morning Herald the pictorial editor said: “Juno, I can’t publish this, it’s clear what side you’re on. What about your objectivity?”[v]

She replied: “Objectivity is fiction. It’s a refusal to take a conscious position. There can be no fence–sitting on this issue. Pictures you are publishing also have a clear position. A negative position not informed by what this action is really about.”[vi]

Over time Juno Gemes’ photographs have become a comprehensive record of the times, and with camera in hand, she continues to amass and archive of critical and sublime moments of Aboriginal culture, life and those who and connect with it. What cannot be left out in this story is the significant support that Juno Gemes’ has given to an entourage of Aboriginal photographers in all fields of practice from personal documentation to the highest levels of art photography. Her methods, ideals and integrity continues on through the work of photographers like Jo-Anne Driessens who is also in this show.

In reflection on Juno’s approach to her work, one looks for defining moments in her life that underpin and inspire her dedication, empathy, respect and creativity. She references being born in Hungary and coming, as a child, to Australia. As a child she talks of questioning the history of this country that was taught in her classroom. She has spoken about how her life was disrupted by dispossession from her homeland. In a Photofile journal in 1995 she recounted one of her earliest childhood memories that shaped her life: “… carried out of my homeland, Hungary, on my father’s shoulders; he was walking in knee-deep snow, gunfire rang out in the distance.”[vii]

In closing I’d like to read you Juno’s words from the catalogue of the National Portrait Gallery’s 2003 exhibition Proof: Portraits from the Movement 1978-2003, Juno Gemes was to say:

I have eyes that see in a particular way.
My eyes are informed by everything I have experienced, by all that I am.
I saw powerful beauty, strength, resilience, ingenuity, and hope at a time where others mostly saw only despair, their own discomfort and shame.
I saw what had been hidden, kept invisible.
I tried to communicate from within one culture to another.
It was sometimes a lonely place to be.
I had many great teachers who taught me so much along the way.
I understood how important it is never to forget what has been.
For we are also — what we have lost.[viii]

I say again: “What can a woman do with a camera!”

Congratulations Juno Gemes on your work in the Up Close exhibition and thank you for sharing the stories that you tell in the photographs before us….


Dr Doug Spowart


[i] Juno Gemes, “Profile: Juno Gemes,” Photofile, no. 46 (1995).

[ii] “The Political and the Personal Process in Portraiture: Juno Gemes in Conversation,” Australian Aboriginal Studies (The Journal of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal & Torres Straight Islander Studies)


[iii] Ibid.

[iv] “Up Close,” ed. Fireworks Gallery (Brisbane: Keeaira Press, Southport, Queensland, Australia, 2015).

[v] “The Political and the Personal Process in Portraiture: Juno Gemes in Conversation.”

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] “Profile: Juno Gemes.”

[viii] “Proof: Portraits from the Movement 1978-2003,” ed. National Portrait Gallery (Canberra2003).






Michael Aird - "Up Close" @ Fireworks Gallery PHOTO: Doug Spowart

Michael Aird – “Up Close” @ Fireworks Gallery PHOTO: Doug Spowart


Michael Aird is a photographer anthropologist and curator of Aboriginal cultural heritage since 1985. Aird has produced numerous exhibitions and publications focused on photographs of Aboriginal people, including Portraits of our Elders, Brisbane Blacks, Transforming Tindale, Object of the Story and Captured: Early Brisbane Photographers and their Aboriginal Subjects. Michael Aird established Keeaira Press in 1996 and this year was awarded a University of Queensland Alumni Indigenous Community Impact Award. He is also the President of the Gold Coast Historical Society.

Michael Aird’s photographs deal with photographs of the everyday – He is interested in ordinary people and their lives. Although his work includes portraits of the leaders and elders he turns the interest of his camera lens on those not usually photographed as part of a community record. All his photographs are carefully catalogued and archived creating a significant record of the subjects and localities he has photographed.


PHOTO: Michael Aird. "Paul Wright casting net South Stradbroke Island 2007"

PHOTO: Michael Aird. Paul Wright casting net South Stradbroke Island 2007

OLYMPA selection of Michael Aird's portrait images

A selection of Michael Aird’s portrait images



Jo-Anne Driessens - "Up Close" @ Fireworks Gallery PHOTO: Doug Spowart

Jo-Anne Driessens – “Up Close” @ Fireworks Gallery PHOTO: Doug Spowart


Completed a Diploma of Photography and a cadetship at the State Library of Queensland working as a photographer and later as an Indigenous Research Officer. She has worked as an assistant to Juno who has also been her mentor and supporter. Over a 15 year period she has had an extensive photography documentary and exhibition practice. Jo-Anne has acted in a number of roles and positions including her current one as a Senior Arts and Culture Officer and exhibition curator for the City of the Gold Coast. She was recently selected to participate in the Wesfarmers Indigenous Arts Leadership Program in Canberra.

Jo-Anne Driessen’s work centers on community and family. Her images can at times be a record of major activities and events – yet on other occasions they may be personal expressions and exchanges between friends and family.


PHOTO: Jo-Anne Driessens. "William Sandy, Paddy Carroll, Dicky Brown, Alice Eather, Michael Nelson, and Two Bob Jungari at the Dar Festival King George Square, Brisbane, 1998"

PHOTO: Jo-Anne Driessens. William Sandy, Paddy Carroll, Dicky Brown, Alice Eather, Michael Nelson, and Two Bob Jungari at the Dar Festival King George Square, Brisbane, 1998


PHOTO: Jo-Anne Driessens - "Reconcilliation Bridge Walk, Bisbane 2000"

PHOTO: Jo-Anne Driessens – Reconcilliation Bridge Walk, Bisbane 2000



Beth Jackson - Calatlogue essayist for "Up Close" PHOTO: Doug Spowart

Beth Jackson – Calatlogue essayist for “Up Close” PHOTO: Doug Spowart

Beth Jackson is a multi-discipline arts professional, curator and consultant of contemporary art.


"Up Close" Artist Talk invitation

“Up Close” Artist Talk invitation


"Up Close" Artist Talk chaired by Doug Spowart PHOTO: Victoria Cooper

“Up Close” Artist Talk chaired by Doug Spowart PHOTO: Victoria Cooper


"Up Close" Artist Talk panel PHOTO: Victoria Cooper

“Up Close” Artist Talk panel PHOTO: Victoria Cooper


A sound recording of the hour-long talk is available by ‘Clicking’ the link below. The file size is 15mb and will be available to download via a link to Dropbox.

Please note that simple recording systems were used – the sound quality is variable…







The copyright of all photographs of artworks is maintained by the photographers.  All other photographs ©2015 Doug Spowart + Victoria Cooper.





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