Great, Great, Great was a proposed portrait project exploring frontier conflict embedded in the ancestries of present-day Australians. The subject in each portrait has a ‘great, great, great’ ancestor directly involved in accounts of the violence that underpinned the colonisation of Australia.

Each photograph is presented with a text panel featuring a narrative exploring the family histories in question, and how I came to meet the subjects. These employ the first person and immediately place my connection to the subjects as the lead. This is intended to explicitly announce my subjectivity, agency and inevitable compromise of perspective – rather than invoking the anonymous naturalism typically associated with documentary.

This is a conscious attempt at assuming no more authority than my own single voice – which is important because of the sensitivity of the subject matter. A large element of the labour and gesture in this work is building relationships that allow access or ‘social license’ to take photographs in intimate spaces and to recount personal stories. 

Dorothy, 2016

My girlfriend Tazi works as a palliative care nurse in south-eastern Melbourne and is rarely able to become close with her patients. But in 2012 she developed a friendship with 90-year-old Dorothy Buntine. When Dorothy changed care facilities in 2013, Tazi decided to keep visiting her outside of work hours.

I went with Tazi several times between 2013 and 2014 and each time Dorothy made jokes (usually at my expense) about our relationship. During my second-last visit we realised that Dorothy and I both grew up in Gippsland, the south-eastern most region of mainland Australia. She was raised on a dairy farm during the Great Depression near Seapspray, which is right near Warrigal Creek – a place I had just visited. It’s one of Gippsland’s largest known frontier massacre sites.

In 1843 an armed party of mounted, Scottish frontiersmen who called themselves the ‘Highland Brigade,’ encircled a group of Gunai/Kurnai people there at a bend in the creek. Led by the ‘Discoverer of Gippsland,’ Angus McMillan, they drove men, women and children into the water, shooting them “as fast as they put their heads up for breath.”

After killing potentially hundreds of people, McMillan and the brigade pulled a 12-year-old boy from the creek. He had been shot in the eye, but was still alive. They forced him to lead the way to other campsites in the area, where they committed a further series of murders.

Folk histories tell of human bones from these events lying around for years – some places are even named after them.

I asked Dorothy if she had learned anything about Warrigal Creek while she was growing up. She said she hadn’t, but that it upset her when she heard people swearing at Gunai/Kurnai people in the nearby town of Sale.

“I’m against any form of cruelty to anyone.” She said.

Dorothy moved away from Seaspray when she was 14 and didn’t recollect much about social issues there - but one memory stood out:

“Sometimes Aboriginal people would come to the hill over the back of our farm. We never knew what they were doing there, but my father used to go out and shoot at them.”

Dorothy died at 2.30am on Saturday morning the 23rd August, 2014 – two days before her 93rd birthday.

In April 2016 I met for the first time with Dorothy’s daughter, Carol Buntine Hall, and connected the dots to an account that a Mr Hatcher gave to William Thomas (the ‘Assistant Protector of Aborigines’ in Gippsland) in 1845. Hatcher said that ‘a great slaughter’ had taken place, and that ‘a cartload’ of bones could be gathered up on a station owned by the Buntines near Dirty Water Holes (now Bruthen Creek). That station was owned by Hugh and Agnes Buntine, who were the ancestors of Dorothy’s husband Geoffrey. In 1841 Agnes gave birth to a child, Albert, who was credited as ‘the first white child born in Gippsland.’

Carol keeps a portion of Dorothy’s ashes in her bedroom in a plastic box. She plans to spread them when her brother next visits.

Lauren, 2016

My housemate Lauren Hammond works as store manager at a fashion retailer in Richmond and has a mild Netflix addiction. She moved into our sharehouse in April 2015, joining Julia, Michael and myself in a Federation era home with as many chimneys as bedrooms.

Though we grew up 300 kilometres apart, the first thing Lauren and I did was identify the people we knew in common. As large as it is, Gippsland, the region we both happened to grow up in, can be a small place.

Months later, Michael’s parents made a visit to Melbourne on break from their work on Groote Eylandt, a remote Aboriginal community and island in the Gulf of Carpentaria. It was around the time news was breaking of a ‘funds scandal’ on Groote, and having grown up in remote Northern Territory, Julia asked Michael about his parents’ experience there.

The discussion strayed towards mining royalties, native title and media spin on ‘abuses’ in remote communities. Michael held his parents’ perspectives at arms length - they were not his own. The rest of the conversation was left wing, a Melbourne-standard white people talking about black people they don’t know - until Lauren said she had Aboriginal ancestry.

She had only just found out. Her father, a cattle farmer in Newmerella, was visiting Melbourne when he abruptly handed her a staple bound history book: Hammond Family of Coongulmerang.

“That’s how my family does stuff.” She laughed.

In 1851 a group of frontiersmen including brothers Tim, Billy and Jack Simpson, Tom Johnston, Jack Dye and Charlie Hammond massacred a group of Gunaikurnai people on the Brodribb River near Orbost. Folk history tells they rode out seeking revenge after the spearing of Dan Dempsey the cook.

Gunaikurnai accounts say they lit Dan’s hut on fire and filled him with so many spears he was left dead standing, but that the killing was justice for the abduction of a girl. Other accounts suggest Dan had also given flour laced with arsenic to Gunaikurnai in the area.

At the massacre on the Brodribb, Charlie Hammond abducted a Gunaikurnai boy who he would later name after himself and raise to become a stockman in Buchan. This ‘Charlie Hammond’ is Lauren’s great, great grandfather.

In August 2016 the Australian Bureau of Statistics ran the largest statistical collection ever undertaken in the country, the national census. As a household we each logged in, and at question 7 the form asked:

“Is the person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin?”

For the first time Lauren answered yes.

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