Matthew Abbott first came to Arnhem Land in 2008 to document the life of Aboriginal communities.
Despite being ambitious and eager to act, in the first year of living there he barely took his camera out – the people he wanted to photograph were shy and mistrustful towards newcomers. Arnhem Land is one of the best preserved and most remote indigenous areas in Australia, with living myths, omnipresent ancestors, countless sacred sites and a strict permit system which keeps strangers at an adequate distance.
It’s a very political kind of area. You need a special permission from the Aboriginal Land Council who are strongly concerned about the images being taken. The only way to successfully photograph there is by knowing people, by forming true, strong relations with them. The camera is so aggressive in this environment.
Over time Matthew won the trust of the local Kunwinjku and Yolgnu People and journeyed deeper into the land, moving from remote communities to the absolute isolation of the Homelands.
“What I am really interested in this project is to look at how community life is different from living in homelands. Aboriginal people tend to live in communities now because of convenience – they have a shop there, it appears like there’s a lot going on, kids roam the streets. It has become so attractive, that some die without visiting and connecting to their native places known as Homelands.
Some people still choose a more traditional life, living with their ancestral clans on homelands. These people are hunting every day, they are totally absorbed with cultural and artistic activities. They seem generally healthier and happier than those living in towns.
Their connection to the land is incredible. They think about it, they dream about it. The land is the ultimate source of their power. This is what fascinates me.
My photographs attempt to follow a series of narratives looking at the rapidly changing, dynamic lifestyle of communities and homelands in Arnhem Land. I am trying to articulate an evident clash of civilizations, by documenting the paradox of the oldest continuing culture in the world and the contemporary globalised world in which it now exists.”
Matthew continues to portray the inhabitants of Arnhem Land, where he has been adopted by a local family and allowed to photograph the intimate moments of their life that is normally private and off limits to non-Aboriginal people. As he often empathizes, that intimacy is necessary for producing honest and respectful images.
My photography is driven by a desire to experience the unfamiliar, participating in the lives of the people I photograph. I am interested in things that I don’t fully comprehend, the things I can’t explain. Relationships are critical to my experience and would never be jeopardized for the sake of a picture. Photography gives me an excuse to be involved and helps me form relationships – the photograph is always secondary.
Documenting the life of the oldest continuing culture in the world is an effort to remind and inform society about the essential connection the Aboriginal people have to their country. Though they have been the traditional landowners for more than 60,000 years in the Australian continent, they now struggle for a voice. A voice unrecognized in government policy and decisions made to directly affect them.
Matthew Abbott is a documentary photographer based in Sydney Australia. He has worked on assignments in East Timor, Papua New Guinea, Bangladesh and Pakistan. In 2011 he completed his Masters of Visual Arts at Sydney College of the Arts. For the ongoing project documenting life of Arnhem Land in the Australia’s Northern Territory he recently has been awarded with The Sydney Morning Herald Emerging Documentary Photography Scholarship.
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