The Importance of Preserving Indigenous Stories

Photos by Dom West and Abraham Joffe

Tales by Light, a docuseries that explores the ability of photographs to tell human stories on a variety of topics, has just aired its third season.

Unicef Goodwill ambassador Orlando Bloom joins photographer Simon Lister to explore child labour in Bangladesh. Underwater photographer Shawn Heinrichs aims to document and protect the marine biodiversity of in Indonesia. And closer to home, Dylan River sets about preserving the customs of his Aboriginal heritage. The series features all the slow panning, drawn-out strings, drone-happy cinematography that you’d expect from such a project, but despite the rosy put together, the tales at the core of the series hits at the heart of the power of the image to draw attention to social and environmental issues. In short, they’re just great stories; in particular, the one that features Dylan River, an indigenous filmmaker tracing the roots of his family’s photographic inclination back to his grandmother Freda Glynn.

Dylan River is originally from Alice Springs, although he spent much of his childhood in Sydney. He’s forged a career for himself as a cinematographer, director and photographer, working on films such as Nulla Nulla and Sweet Country. Dylan comes from a rich lineage of filmmakers, including his two parents, but it all stems from his grandmother, the legendary member of the Alice Springs community and one of the co-founders of CAAMA (Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association)—one of the first indigenous media companies in the country. “We are Aboriginal,” Dylan says in the film. “We don’t look it, I don’t look it, but we feel deep connection and roots to Alice Springs.”

“We just thought it would be fabulous to have the opportunity to put black faces and black culture on the television,” Dylan’s grandmother tells him in the film. “At that time most people in the bush were Aboriginal.” Freda then goes on to explain how important it was to her to try and preserve indigenous languages, despite the fact that she was encouraged by her mother not to learn her native dialect, through her work at CAAMA. She describes how much it’s changed, how much has been lost, before her grandson chimes in and invites her to imagine how much more would’ve been lost, if it wasn’t for both her and other’s tireless work. And that theme of preservation is something that has obviously flowed down to Dylan and his work. “With my grandmother, there’s now this urgency to capture what she still does know, in the way that she saw urgency to record other people’s stories,” Dylan says. “Now we’re seeing the urgency to record her story… maybe it’s for us, maybe it’s for the world. The importance is that we capture it now.”

Bill Harney.

Apart from a sweeping reminder of how vast and beautiful this country is, Dylan’s story cleverly portrays a message. That we’re at a pivotal moment where—unless we quickly realise the importance of knowledge and take steps to preserve it—there are things that could be lost forever, to our detriment. Nowhere is this better conveyed than in the heartwarming segment with Bill Harney, the only remaining elder of the Wardaman people from west of Katherine in the Northern Territory. “Well, after today I’m the boss and I look after all the heritage and everything in this country for the people who passed away,” Bill says. “All my mob, all the Wardaman people. I’m training all my mob, all the young ones to take care of this country when we go.” Dylan reiterates when he explains that, “The knowledge that Bill carries with him, can be found nowhere else.”

More than anything, Tales by Light, particularly the episode charting Dylan River’s plight to capture and preserve the tales and customs of his people, succeeds because they place the story in the hands of the protagonists. Documentary filmmaking is supposed to be objective, a reflection of what’s happening rather than a projection of what the filmmaker wants you to see, and that’s why the concept of the image being a tool of preservation works. Instead of talking for them, Dylan finds the stories that he sees worthy of preserving and indulges the storyteller to relay them. A simple, effective formula, that often gets lost along the way.

Tales by Light will be available to watch at the end of 2018.

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