The man behind the photo

Mervyn Bishop holding an old fashioned cameraFew photographers have created iconic, instantly recognisable images like Mervyn Bishop has.

When Mervyn Bishop photographed former prime minister Gough Whitlam pouring a handful of soil into the hands of Gurindji elder Vincent Lingiari at Wattie Creek in the Northern Territory, he had no idea the image would come to symbolise the Aboriginal land rights movement in Australia. “At the time I thought it’d be a good image for the cover of a book or a magazine … so I kept that in mind as I was framing the image,” recalls Bishop.

Taken on 16 August 1975, the photo was actually a re-enactment of the official ceremony that took place minutes earlier under a bough shed. The original shot “looked a bit drab. We were shooting [towards] the bushes around the back and there was nothing distinct,” says the 70-year-old media veteran. “Keith Barlow, the photographer from the Women’s Weekly was there. We both looked at it and said, ‘It’s not looking good.’” That’s when they had the idea of reshooting the ceremony outside.

Bishop is animated as he recollects the ensuing conversation: “I said to Mr Whitlam, ‘Do you mind if we take you outside with Uncle Vincent and reshoot this image again?’ He said, ‘Very well’.” Fittingly, Bishop drops his voice a full octave to impersonate the late Gough Whitlam.

Whitlam and Lingiari were lead into the sun, where Bishop directed them into position. As Whitlam picked up a handful of soil, he turned to Bishop and asked, “Will this do?” (Again, he comically serves up a resonant basso profundo for the moment.)

Barlow, meanwhile, wrangled the growing throng of photographers: “Get back, everybody. Merv’s got this first lot, I’m next, then you can please yourselves.”

Bishop was the first Indigenous photographer at The Sydney Morning Herald, having joined as a cadet in 1963. He was named Australian Press Photographer of the Year in 1971 for the photo known as ‘Life and Death Dash’, and in 1974 he joined the Whitlam government’s newly established Department of Aboriginal Affairs as staff photographer.

If there’s any poignancy to his involvement in the historic Wattie Creek photo, it doesn’t show: “A couple of friends called me the Lone Ranger because I was out there on my own. But I just did it. In a way, I did not want to fail … I just did what everybody else did, I guess.”

Bishop grew up in the New South Wales country town of Brewarrina, where his father ‘Minty’ obtained a certificate of exemption from the Aborigines Welfare Board that effectively made him an ‘honorary white’. It was a rigorous application process; the conditions of one being granted included severing ties with the old culture.

“But you couldn’t,” Bishop explains, “half the population was Aboriginal. Kids at school, mates, girls … we all got on, [it was the] same with the white kids.”

In spite of that, his dad resolved, “Well, I’ll get one [certificate of exemption] anyway.”

His love of photography was first nurtured by his mother’s folding camera. “I’d put a sheet on the clothesline, borrow a projector and put it on the table and just have a little slide night in the backyard. People up the road would come along and sit around, and mum would always make a cake and [we’d] have a bit of a snack.”

A passion for darkroom printing was noticed by friends who worked at The Sydney Morning Herald, which led to a cadetship at the newspaper and a career.

Bishop also had a desire to share his knowledge and experiences. In 1989, he obtained an Associate Diploma in Adult Education (Aboriginal Education) at UTS so that he might branch his career out towards teaching. “If not photography, maybe adult Aboriginal education.”

Mervyn Bishop with his famous photo of Gough WhitlamA further year to obtain a Diploma of Education was required, but tragedy struck when his wife Elizabeth was diagnosed with breast cancer. She succumbed in 1991. With two young children to raise, Bishop had to discontinue his studies.

He has stayed involved in photography and occasionally holds workshops at different art galleries sharing his experiences on, “How I did it, what I did at the time.”

With his work still in demand, he was commissioned by the Australian Museum to take portraits of Aboriginal leaders in its Sydney Elders exhibition.

His work continues to gain recognition. In 2000, he won the Australia Council’s Red Ochre Award, where he met Mr Whitlam again.

“He walked in the door, I met him, and he said, “Great photo, Mervyn. Great photo.” I was pretty pleased with that.”

Story: Kevin Cheung
Photography: Kevin Cheung