Life through a Noongar lens 

[by Michelle White]


Image: supplied

An exhibition of rare photographs taken by one of Australia’s earliest Aboriginal photographers gives an insight into rural life, pre-Citizenship, from a Noongar perspective.


But for the woman who gifted this unique collection to the state of Western Australia, it’s what happened after those photos were taken that has led to a lifetime of pain, heartache and a fight for justice…



In 2015, Dallas Phillips walked into a CAN Bush Babies photo sharing workshop in Goomalling clutching a Pascall’s chocolate tin full of hundreds of negatives.


The photos had been taken by her late mother Mavis Phillips (nee Walley) between the 30’s and 70’s, capturing daily life in the Wheatbelt, from a Noongar perspective.


“My mother was a remarkable woman by any standard. She brought 11 children into the world, provided us with food, shelter, wisdom and love. Somehow she also managed to become an enthusiastic amateur photographer - at a time when it was almost unheard of for an Aboriginal person to own a camera, let alone use it to record the everyday family and community life.” Said Dallas.


When her mother passed, the photos were bequeathed to Dallas who then carted them all over Western Australia for a couple of decades.


Little did she realise she was carrying a rare collection of photographs, taken by one of Australia’s earliest Aboriginal photographers. Thousands of images, taken by her mother.



Mavis’s photos show farm life, football, communions, Sunday-best, gardening, bush tucker trips, family. The subjects are natural and relaxed. A stark contrast to the sombre staged photos often taken by missionaries and authorities.


Upon realising their historical and cultural value, Dallas generously donated her Mother’s photo collection to the State Library of Western Australia (SLWA), where they have been digitised and stored in the Storylines database for future generations.


Mavis Phillips took these photos with a Box Brownie camera. Dallas is not quite sure how she came about it, nor where she learnt to take photographs. From her account, her mother would simply hold the camera up, point and shoot without even looking in the viewfinder.


“Mum never learned how to read or write, but she could take pictures.Her technique was to just walk around with her Box Brownie and just click away,” she remembers fondly.

While Dallas was content to give the photos to the State, she always hoped that they would one day be featured in a professional exhibition.


CAN, Perth Centre for Photography and the SLWA are delighted to be able to partner to make this dream happen. The photos contained in the exhibition have all been selected by Dallas Phillips herself.


Each image is steeped in memory and meaning - a tribute to the rich life she shared with her family before they were moved from the farm to the Goomalling Native Reserve.


“Life was so simple and so good when we lived on the farm. We were rich, rich with happiness. We used to visit the reserve every now and then, but we never thought we would end up there.”



The photos also show the children before they were sent to New Norcia Mission, where instead of a promised education and better life, they were subjected to immeasurable cruelty and sexual abuse at the hands of their keepers.


“I think it’s important to show and tell the wider community that the Government and Native Welfare act did back then was disgusting. The Government did great harm to indigenous lives and the trauma is still ongoing.” Said Dallas.


It’s a story that Dallas says needs to be told… and this exhibition gives her an opportunity to show the innocence and happiness of all the children -  before Native Welfare coerced their parents into sending them away to institutions.


“We need to get all this out, I don’t want to take this to the grave with me. We need to hold them to account, all the missions. The truth needs to be out what they did to us and to the wadjella kids as well.”


It was while she was in New Norcia mission that Dallas says she was sexually abused by the men and women of God, who were meant to protect her. Some of the abused children, later became abusers themselves. It’s an incredibly difficult history to tell, but one she needs to share.


Dallas broke her silence when she gave evidence at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.


“It is cathartic. Since going to the royal commission 2017, it was the biggest burden that got off my shoulders.”


Now free of the shackles of shame, Dallas wants people to know what really happened in the missions and and native reserves. She wants them held to be held to account,  because what happened in the past is still impacting lives to this very day.


The photos on display in the Mavis Phillips (nee Walley) collection share the happiest times of her life when her family lived and worked on a farm owned by a white family, protected from Native Welfare.


The exhibition is at the Perth Centre for Photography from May 15th to July 31st. A smaller installation of the exhibition will also be on display in the Nook at the State Library of WA.


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