GUEST POST: #WRITING OLD MAN BILL’S STORY

author_picI would like to thank photographer Mark Lang for this piece about his book, Old Man’s Story. During the past 35 years Mark Lang has ventured out into the
Australian landscape with a panoramic camera to record the varied extremes, eventually selling his house so that he could complete a book; a task that took seven years to complete. It was during this journey that he met up with ‘Big Bill’ Neidjie, an elder and traditional owner of Kakadu. For over two years Mark worked with Old Man Bill, recording his story and photographing his country. Old Man’s Story is the result. You can find out more about Mark and his work here.

After fifteen years in Sydney as an advertising photographer, I turned to photographing the landscape instead, leaving the city in the early ‘eighties and buying some acres on the North Coast. Each year I’d spend a month or so travelling and shooting the country with panoramic cameras, and these pictures I would leave with a photo library in Sydney. Even though I wasn’t making a lot of money, I was doing the work that I could put my heart into. Taking pictures out there in the beautiful landscape was more than enough for me.

However, I had always wanted to do my own book dedicated to this land that I love so much. I knew that such an undertaking would require a huge sum of money to keep me on the road for several years, and as I didn’t want to have to work within someone else’s budget, or deadline, the only choice I had was to finance the trip myself. So there was only one way to go. I had to put my land up for sale. It sold within days. Six weeks later I was out of there and on the road. Gone!

I explored so many of the extremes of the country, from the howling blizzards of Tasmania’s high country to the scorched silence of the Simpson Desert. But after several years of travelling the continent, I looked at what I had shot and felt that there was a depth lacking in the work. It was like a collection of beautiful snaps, no doubt brought on by the fact that no sooner had I go to know a place, then it was time for me to move on, back to the road again. What I really needed to do was to learn to be still awhile and get to know a landscape better.

Old Man's StoryI had also reached a stage where I felt that I needed to spend some time with Aboriginal people, for I strongly felt that any book dedicated to the landscape, as mine was, would have to have the Aboriginal perspective within the work, and I would only gain that insight if I spent some time with these people. Maybe I could find an elder who might teach me about his country …

So I came to Kakadu. And then met up with a traditional owner, and senior elder of that country, ‘Big Bill’ Neidjie. It was an encounter that changed my life.

Old Man Bill was in his eighties, wheelchair-bound and fragile, but he was still very much of a vital force. A man of such simple eloquence, he was also well-known for two books of his thoughts: ‘Kakadu Man’ and ‘Story of Feeling,’ both of which had been published as eloquent pleas in defense of his country after leases for uranium mining in Kakadu had been granted in the ‘seventies. He had also been instrumental in negotiating the terms that defined Kakadu as a National Park, thereby protecting it, and enabling the blackfella and whitefella to work together, look after the country, and learn about each other’s culture along the way.

His major concern, however, was that his people were losing touch with their own culture. He was one of the last of the ‘old people’ who had been brought up living on their land the traditional way, and thereby learning its rhythms and seasons. The arrival of the twentieth century had changed all that. Old Man believed that without the knowledge of their tribal culture, his young people were lost. So he had one last book left in him – his last thoughts and wishes for his people, and was looking for someone to work with to record these last thoughts before he died. Meanwhile I was looking to spend some time with an Aboriginal elder who might ‘learn me up.’ So, when he asked me to work with him, there was only one simple answer. I had to tell him ‘yes.’

I spent two years with Old Man, and during which time I taped nine hours of his thoughts, which I then had to transcribe and read back to him, and camped all the while in his country, so that I could photograph it through the Dry Season and also through the Wet, and thus illustrate the words that he had spoken.

I also felt that I had to do a portrait of him, an image to speak for him when he was gone. I drew up a layout, a picture of Old Man beside the fire ‘telling story’ to a youngfella, just like those stories he had been told by his old people, night after night, when he was a child. He liked the idea. We would do it, and his four year old great grandson Ricky, a constant companion to him, could be the youngfella.

But what words should accompany such a picture?

At the summit of the Ubirr lookout overlooking the floodplain was a National Parks sign with some of Old Man’s words written upon it. They simply read…

‘My old people all dead, we only few left, not many.

We getting too old…

Young people, I don’t know if they can hang on to this story.

But now you know this story…

Might be you can hang on to this story, this earth.’  

We had several attempts over some weeks at getting the picture, but each time I turned up to take both of them to the chosen location, Ricky was nowhere to be seen – taken fishing by his father, or hunting magpie goose upriver. We had one very last chance to take the picture, or we’d have to forget it, for the Wet season was about to break and Old Man’s health was failing fast.

I turned up on that fateful evening to pick them up. No sign of Ricky. He’d been taken across the river with the family. So I just had to accept that this was how it was meant to be, all along; I would shoot Old Man beside the fire on his own, and we, the viewers, would be the youngfellas, and his words would be addressed to us. So that’s what I told Old Man to do, to look right into the lens, as if to say …

‘Now you. You look after this story, look after this earth.’

The flash fired, and I can still see those old eyes of his, even now. We were done.

BillNeidjie
BILL NEIDJIE. IMAGE: MARK LANG

And so the day came when my work with Old Man was finished and it was time for me to leave Kakadu. It was a tearful farewell, for he had trusted me entirely to get his story out into the world, and I had promised him that I would.

Six months later, my old friend passed away. His picture hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. Old Man’s Story is a story, not only for Old Man Bill Neidjie’s own people, but for all of us.

Old Man’s Story (Aboriginal Studies Press) is now available at book stores and online here