A curatorial focus on Australian photo essays that have received little or no attention outside of Australia by Tamara Voninski.
Megan Lewis, Conversations with the Mob
Megan Lewis speaks about the role of intuition, energy healing and photography while living with the Martu people in remote Western Australia.
The Martu mob was one of the last indigenous communities to come into contact with Europeans in Australia. The Aboriginal community has a population of 850 people in a desert region spanning over 136,000 square km. Martu land defined by the landmark 2002 Native Title claim covers a vast area in Western Australia larger than many countries in Europe or Asia. In 2002, photographer Megan Lewis quit her full time job and drove her 4 wheel drive vehicle 1600 kms NE of Perth to live with the Martu people. The Martu ancestral land is isolated and requires travel on a treacherous 360 km dirt track located five and a half hours from Newman in the vast red earth of the Great Sandy Desert.
Megan Lewis discovered early in life that she had a special metaphysical gift for intuition and healing. “All my life, I knew I would have to do something that was important. When I met the Martu people for the first time, there was a gut feeling I knew what to do. I had to tell their story.” Lewis lived in the community for several years and wrote down conversations and photographed their lives to show the Martu way of living and being. Her book “Conversations with the Mob” was published eight years later. The book is a multi-layered reflection of her healing connection with the Martu people through documentary photography, visual anthropology and oral story telling.
Initially Megan Lewis was a being in their world, not of it. In a culture where people were enormously shy and wary of the camera, Lewis reflected that she was ‘being still, patient, and being still’ again. “It was 6 months before I could take a photo that could tell a story.” She goes on to say, “They are very expressive in subtle ways and often communicate without looking up or directly at someone.” On the surface, the Martu way is silent without demonstrative obvious cues. In other cultures where people speak with their hands and body language, it is more obvious. Lewis had to translate the subtlety and layers within the culture visually. She could go days or weeks without taking a photograph and then everything would happen at once and the story-telling moments would happen.
There were two turning points in her relationship with the Martu people. An old woman was ill with an acute asthma attack and there was nowhere for her to get medical help. Lewis helped her and the asthma subsided. Her husband was an elder in the community and he summoned Megan to him. “My heart was racing and I thought this is it and I would be kicked out.” The opposite of what she thought would happen happened. Two months later, two men went missing. One of the bodies was found, but the other was still missing. She had a vision and told the community where his body was located. The search had lasted two weeks and his tracks were lost, but she found him within an hour. His body was exactly where she said it would be. From that moment, she stopped being an outsider. “Out in the desert being a photographer, a healer and finding dead bodies is perfectly normal.”
Lewis unravels the mystique of intuition in Aboriginal society. “First I have to know my subjects in order to interpret their true essence. That is more important than a photo just aesthetically pleasing with beautiful light. My focus was to show their inner light. Photography is a vehicle for people on the outside to understand and to have insight. Any good photographer relies on intuition. Everyone has it and some have developed it more than others. Working with Aboriginal people intuition is part of their whole being. It is a sense they have relied on for thousands of years. Unlike Western culture, where we don’t acknowledge our natural awareness, for aboriginal people it’s innate and part of life. This is the reason I had such a deep connection with the Martu people and they had a trust with me.”
Megan Lewis’s cultural philosophy is the sense that a universal thread connects us. “Underneath all cultural differences we are all one, we are all the same.” She focuses on the similarities rather than the differences when she raises the camera. According to Lewis, 80% of what she did in the Martu community was on an emotional spirit level and 20% was photographing, writing the conversations and producing the book.
Since publication in 2008, the book has had far reaching impacts. “Once its out in the ether it has a life of it’s own,” Lewis said about the impact of the book. A university in the UK proposed a change in their visual anthropology studies approach after reading the book. The book has also reached several government offices in Australia. The publication has brought a greater understanding of health issues for Aboriginal people and the use of mapram and healing in communities. A healer in Aboriginal culture is a maparn person. This is someone who can heal in an energetic way. This unseen force in Aboriginal life was not understood widely until Conversations with the Mob was published.
For Lewis, it took lot of trusting in the gut that everything would work out. She spent two years driving from Perth to the Martu country in remote Western Australia using all of her days off work. She quit her full-time job to live in the desert for three years. The eight years she spent on the project- photographing and publishing- took a huge toll on her health leaving her exhausted as well as penniless. “As a freelancer I had to find the crumbs of work to continue. With a project like this it did not stop when you put the camera and pen down. It’s not a walk-in, walk-out process.”
“You have to have ask yourself what is your real motivation in photography and realize that it comes with a tremendous sense of responsibility,” she said. Lewis continues to capture beautiful photographs despite her claim that she has put the camera down to help people feel differently about their lives. Five years ago, she started a healthy eating program that she hopes will expand to other Aboriginal communities. The program moved indigenous children away from high carbohydrate and dairy food to healthier diets. The result was an immediate positive change in behavior and school performance. She has also worked with communities teaching meditation and basic techniques for emotional health. She said, “The aim has been to create physically, emotionally and spiritually healthy individuals who can help themselves, and independent, happy children.”
The Martu’s early interaction with white Australia included forced labor for the Canning Stock Route and resettlement due to nuclear testing on the land. The long-term effects of the introduction of a European diet and alcohol have led to an array of health and cultural issues. Last century, the government forcibly removed children from their families to resettle them in missions across Australia during the stolen generation. The film Rabbit Proof Fence dramatized the true story of three Martu community girls who escaped after being taken from their family and land and found their way home by following the fence. When the 2002 Native Title decision was handed down giving the Martu rights to the land where their ancestors had lived for 45,000 years, the Hon Fred Chaney said, “This is a great example of the native title process also being used as a healing process.”
Lewis reflected on the end of her photographic journey with the Martu,” I remember sitting there thinking I’m just a part of the family when I was leaving. If I picked up the camera now the pictures would be different again. But it was not financially possible and my health had come to the end of its tether.” By publishing “Conversations with the Mob”, Lewis said, “I was opening a door into a world people don’t often see or have access to and their story becomes your own experience through interpretation. I visualized how I would want people to feel when they saw it. It was about the energy. I wanted it to be more than pretty pictures.”
MEGAN LEWIS is an award-winning freelance photographer based in Perth. Megan was born and raised in rural New Zealand before moving to Sydney at the age of 21, where she began working for Reuters, and then The Australian. In July 2002, Megan left The Australian to live full-time with the Martu people. Her book Conversations with the Mob was published in 2008. Megan’s intimate photographic portrayal of the Martu people won her a 2005 Walkley Award, the most prestigious award in Australian journalism. Her work has regularly appeared in international publications, including the Washington Post, International Herald Tribune and Time Magazine, and has been exhibited in Australia and Europe. Website: www.meganlewis.com.au
TAMARA VONINSKI recently bought an old caravan to travel and explore Australia following a redundancy from the media where she worked as a photographer for magazines and newspapers. She is a founding member of the Australian photo collective Oculi. Her photographic projects have received multiple international awards and residencies including: International Pictures of the Year Awards, AGNSW residency at Cite Internationale des Arts and Alexia Foundation Photography for World Peace grant. Follow Tamara’s journey around Australia via her blog www.gypsypoptop.com. Website: www.tamaravoninski.com.au