by Bill Neidjie, as told to Mark Lang (Aboriginal Studies Press, $34.95)
While he was referred to as ‘Old Man’ in his later years, he was perhaps most often referred to as ‘Big’ Bill Neidjie for the majority of his years – a reference to his imposing height and prodigious strength.
Neidjie, an elder of northern Australia’s Gagadju people, was born ‘early in the [20th] century near the banks of the East Alligator River into the Bunitj clan…’ and as such, he received more traditional learning from elders of that time than is available to many Indigenous Australians today.
However, by the time he met photographer and author Mark Lang, Niedjie was prone to bouts of illness as a result of his age, and confined to a wheelchair. Neidjie knew his health may not last much longer, and so he sought a way to share as much of his knowledge as possible prior to his passing.
Lang, a self-confessed ‘Pom’, emigrated to Australia at the age of 26 and has spent the ensuing 45 years travelling the country as a photographer. His passion for the outback led him to Kakadu, while his character led Neidjie to entrust him with his life story.
With the release of this tale in the form of Old Man’s Story, Wild recently interviewed Lang to gain further insight into his own experience in facilitating this project, as well as to hear more about Neidjie’s last wish.
Can you start by telling us a little of your own upbringing and how did this led towards photography and publishing?
I began life as an army brat, born in India, where my father was stationed before The War.
Army kids are always moving, so my folks sent me to Boarding School when I was nine. At school there was a photographic club, and once I saw a printed image appear on a piece of paper I was hooked. I’ve been taking pictures ever since. Art School followed after leaving College, then freelancing in London before I came out here as an advertising photographer at the age of 26.
I did that for fifteen years, then I turned to shooting landscapes with a panoramic camera. I was one of the first shooters to specialise in that format.
Have you always been a writer or is this new book your first major project in this vein?
I’ve always enjoyed writing stories because you pick up so much material out there on the road. But this is my first book, and it was imperative – as Old Man had entrusted his story to me – that I complete this story and put it to bed before I tackled any other material.
From the story of my seven-year long journey around Australia there are at least two more books yet to come.
Can you tell us about the specific circumstances that led to you being offered the opportunity to tell Bill Neidjie’s story?
As usual with these things, it happened by chance.
Old Man was looking for someone to work with to record his last thoughts for his people. He was worried that they were losing touch with their culture. At the same time, I was looking to spend time with Aboriginal mob, so that I could gain some perspective on their feeling for country, and I was hoping to find an elder who could ‘learn me up’.
We got to know each other as friends, then one day Old Man said, “I tell you story…”
The book gives a limited account of your own experiences during this time. Can you tell us about something that happened during this time the book doesn’t cover?
I simply had to do a portrait of Old Man Bill. There were lots of pictures of him, but no portrait. So I suggested, as he was a storyteller, that we do a picture of him ‘telling story’ to a youngfella. He agreed. However, no matter how many times I booked the youngfella to be available when we were due to shoot, the kid was always absent when I arrived to pick them up and head to the location – maybe he’d gone fishing with his father, or gone across the river with the family. The reason is that Aboriginal mob live in the ever-present, and if the fish are on, the fish are on, never mind about taking a bloody picture.
So, I shot the picture with Old Man on his own beside a fire, looking at the lens as if we, the viewers, were the youngfellas. The copy that runs with the picture reads; “Now YOU, you look after this story, this earth…”
What was your knowledge of Indigenous Australians prior to starting your tour of northern Australia and how has it changed since?
It was somewhat sketchy when I first set out. I’d photographed a couple of elders – my first when I was doing a book with Thomas Keneally called Outback, a history of the Northern Territory. A ranger at Uluru, Toby, let me do a portrait of him in front of the Rock. I’d drawn a sketch in the sand of what I wanted in the shot, the silhouette of Uluru with Toby’s shape in front of it. Toby looked down at it and then drew two eyes and a smile on the face, and we shook hands. Such a warm, gentle handshake, it was. I remember thinking, ‘I really like these people, I’d love to know so much more about them.’
Since I’ve completed this journey I can only say that we have so much to learn from the First Australians. Old Man Bill had such deep knowledge of country, such eloquence; an ability to say so much, with very few words.
I remember something that Pat Dodson has said: ‘There is such a rich story yet to emerge when blackfellas and whitefellas work together. Where saltwater meets sweetwater, well, that’s where you find the fattest fish.’
With reconciliation a perennial issue in Australia, and more recently with constitutional recognition, what do you think should be done to better include Indigenous peoples?
Change the Constitution for a start. We’re all one mob together. That was one thing Old Man fervently believed, that we are all One World. And until we are all equal together under the law, Australia will never mature into the amazing country that it really can be – an example to the world that we can all live together, and honour each other’s differences.
A big theme of the book is the ability to transfer important information from generation to generation with great fidelity. What lessons can balanda take away from Big Bill? What do you think future generations of Indigenous Australians should think about it?
Well, they can’t go back to the old ways, those days are past.
But their culture is so immensely rich, it’s something that we don’t have: an intimate knowledge of country based on a continuous occupation of tribal land over thousands of years. We can all learn from the ‘old people,’ all of us. We need to look after this place, this country, this planet. It’s our home.
As Old Man Bill said: “Look after country, and country, he look after you…’ because, if we don’t look after this place then our time here is limited.
I guess the big question for Aboriginal people is how to preserve their cultural beliefs and also function in the modern world. It’s a question only they can answer.
And that was Old Man’s deepest wish: that his mob hang on to their story and pass it on to their young folk. Just as he had.
So that is why he wanted his last thoughts recorded, and I was honoured to be the person to record and to carry that story, and to ensure that it was published.