History is full of complexities. Generations later, events can pose more questions than they answer, as University of New England higher degree research candidate John Heath well knows.
That is why – in the process of researching his family’s ancestry – the softly-spoken historian has become an unlikely champion.
It all started more than 40 years ago, when John, the descendant of Birpai woman Charlotte and convict James Bugg, began investigating his lineage.
Along the way, he came across the extraordinary black-and-white images of Indigenous people taken by amateur Port Macquarie photographer-cum oyster farmer Thomas Dick, on the mid-north coast of NSW.
Staring out from the recreations of traditional life was John’s grandmother Grace Bugg, her mother Mary Bugg (nee Dungay) and other close relatives, including Grace’s siblings Billy and Mary.
“Dick wanted to recreate scenes from 100 previous years, as might have been observed by explorer John Oxley, the first non-Aboriginal person to travel through the area, in 1818,” John said.
“He built strong relationships with our people, and from 1910-1920 paid them in order to compose these brilliant pieces of art.
“Ironically, I would not have this record of my family without Thomas Dick. He saw great value in the photographs as educational tools.”
Institutions around the world agreed, acquiring the photographs of artefact making, hunting and the carrying out of ceremonial practices, for their public collections.
But, beautiful though they are, the images are largely of naked or semi-naked individuals, including babies, and no subjects were identified.
“The photographs were simply titled ‘Natives fishing’ or ‘Natives hunting’ and it’s clear that Thomas’s intention was to capture a dying race, to record life before European occupation,” John said.
Discovering the images presented a number of dilemmas for John.
Indigenous culture has strict protocols surrounding the viewing of the deceased, as well as people in ceremonial dress, and the nakedness raised other issues of modesty.
John also objected to the implication that Aboriginals were dying out.
“The images have been published and exhibited all around the world in ways that the subjects could never have imagined,” said John who, after many years of research, assembled a stakeholder group containing ancestors of the subjects and Thomas Dick, to discuss such concerns.
“It became clear that it was our responsibility to ensure that any future use of the images was culturally appropriate and respectful, so we developed some simple protocols around how they should be used and captioned.
“We also wanted due recognition of the families that had survived, as well as due recognition for the photographer.”
In a departure from his original research, John began trying to name all those featured in the photographs and to collect any enduring oral histories.
He also located the major institutions holding Thomas Dick images, many of them universities, and continues to lobby for the protocols to be adopted.
The Australian Museum was quick to change its policies and, in a recent development, Cambridge University has followed suit.
The NSW Heritage Office has also now invited John to sit on an advisory body seeking heritage protection for the surviving images held in public collections.
“We have no copyright over the images, but we want people to respect our rights as descendants to be consulted on how the images are used in the public domain,” John said.
“They feature real people and I am trying to tell their part of the story, to fill out the historical record and put them and Thomas Dick within the context of their times.
“In doing so, I hope we have brought these images to life and shown that the Birpai have survived beyond the lens of Thomas Dick.”