Photographs of Ms Dhu and the fight for human rights

In 2023, the coroner’s inquest heard that officers believed Ms. Dhu to be “faking.” The inquest showed footage that reportedly revealed how the police had treated her. Her family wants the CCTV footage from Ms Dhu’s last agonizing hours to be released. The coroner, so far, has denied this request.

The family’s grief at losing their daughter is overshadowed by the desire to expose the injustice of her death. The internal investigation of Ms Dhu found that eleven police officers did not follow police procedures. However, none were terminated or suspended.

It’s time the authorities listened to those Aboriginal people who are most directly affected and released this footage.

Carol Roe and Della Roe, Ms Dhu’s grandmother (left) and mother (right), speak to the press before the inquest. Angie Raphael/AAP

The demand of Ms Dhu’s family to make public her treatment in prison echoes that of many visual theorists: If others are forced to suffer and feel pain, isn’t it the duty of the observer to acknowledge, witness, and respond to this? Even more than the obligation to observe injustices, photographic evidence is now a powerful proof.

Susan Sontag, a famous critic, once said that “without photos, there is no War,” – implying that we must see distant events in order to be convinced that they are real. These images are powerful, as they serve to witness atrocity and injustice. The horrors of WWII were captured in photographs, with Buchenwald’s treatment of Jews shocking the world in April 1945.

However, the effects of such images can be complex. As many Aboriginal Australians have argued in Australia, such images may disempower the subjects by portraying them as abject or distant. One of the most powerful critiques of Aboriginal treatment in the 1950s came from a film Their darkest hour, made by West Australian parliamentarian William Grayden, about the Ngaanyatjarra tribe, located on the southern edge of the Gibson Desert, near the Warburton Ranges.

The film featured graphic and shocking images of malnourished Aboriginals. The film was a success in Australia and abroad, generating public concern well into the 1960s. It contributed to an international movement against racial prejudice.

It is specifically credited for fueling a wave of public support for the Aboriginal Rights Movement. It was this that led to the 1967 successful referendum to empower Commonwealth to handle Aboriginal affairs. Today, the subjects of the film and their families resent its shameful portrayal of their lives, and they question what benefits have resulted.

Light graffiti in Perth Ethan Blue

Aboriginal people are now demanding control over their representation. They use photography to assert a strong identity. They are demanding change based on rights and not pity with its condescending overtones.

The Bicentennial marked a turning point in American history, forcing the nation to recognize Indigenous discontent. Protests and marches were a physical demonstration of their demands. The 1972 Tent Embassy was a brilliant piece of media.

The Aboriginal tent embassy was repainted with a new sovereignty sign in Canberra in January 2012. This coincided with the 40th anniversary of the embassy. Alan Porritt/AAP

Noel Pearson, a Queensland Aboriginal man, accused the ABC last week of racism. Pearson said that the ABC should:

If this were not the case, then against whom would they be able to direct their soft, low-level bigotry?

The revelation of atrocious conditions, ill-treatment, and abuse, has led to many improvements in the status of Aboriginal Australians. The ABC’s Four Corners revealed a pattern of abuse, deprivation, and punishment of vulnerable youth within the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. This revelation sparked intense public sentiment. It led to an inquiry into juvenile prisons in the Northern Territory.


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