My story
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"My work is about reverence. This is at the heart of my practise."

In 1997, my attention was drawn to a part of Australia unknown to me. 


Until then, my career had been solely focused on the music Industry - photography for musicians, bands, festivals - there had been no time or thought for anything else. 

 

Although I have a strong love of nature and spend as much time as I can in it, my work was photographing ‘white fellas’ in major cities. But that changed from that one day in 1997. 

 

My Mum rang to say she would be at Bondi Beach for the day 'planting hands’ as part of an art installation called the Sea of Hands. She thought it would be a good photo opportunity. 

 

The Sea of Hands is one of Australia’s major reconciliation community campaigns for Native Title and Reconciliation. 

 

Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) works for justice, rights and respect for Australia’s First People. The Sea of Hands was created as a powerful, physical representation of the Citizen’s Statement on Native Title. A petition was circulated by ANTaR to mobilise non-Indigenous support for native title and reconciliation. 

 

Hands, in the colours of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags, each carrying a signature from the Citizen’s Statement, were first installed in front of Parliament House. It was then the largest public art installation in Australia. 

 

Since the first ‘planting’, the Sea of Hands has become a symbol of the People’s Movement for Reconciliation.

 

The planting I photographed at Bondi Beach was one of many installations that have taken place. 

 

Looking back at that time, I see I was wanting to include more meaningful subject matter in my art practice. I was drawn to the message of the Hands - community support for reconciliation, rights and respect. 

 

My meeting with the ANTaR group lit a fire in me, directing me into a new area of photography work where I found the depth and meaning I was unconsciously seeking. It also showed me how art can be a tool for awareness about complex issues and promoting change. 

 

On the day at Bondi Beach, I discovered there was a Sea of Hands bus trip organised to tour Australia. I signed up, joining a group of 50-80 year olds with a handful of young activists thrown in. 

 

Starting in Sydney, we drove to Alice Springs, Darwin, Broome, Geraldton and Perth; all in a month. My photo essay of the ‘Sea of Hands Road Trip’ appeared in Rolling Stone magazine. Off the back of that essay, I was commissioned to photograph the first public Garma Festival in North East Arnhem Land. 

 

The Garma Festival was the inspiration of Mandawuy Yunipingu, lead singer of Yothu Yindi. 

 

Yothu Yindi is Australia’s first Aboriginal rock and roll cross-over band. They travelled the world during the 1980’s and 1990’s to show Indigenous culture and talk about social, cultural and political issues and how these cross over. Garma was Mandawuy’s vision. He saw it as another way to share and talk about his culture: his ‘multiversity’. 

 

His vision was to educate Australians by bringing them to Yolngu land and giving them an immersive experience of Aboriginal culture. 'Garma is an event that has the ability to change the way people think and feel about Aboriginal Australia'. 

 

We in the Music Industry were the first to be invited, so we could publicise the festival and share its vision. My trip to Garma blew my mind. And blew everything up inside me.

I soon returned to Arnhem Land, on a freelance basis, to photograph a project about the sea turtle migration with Rod Kennett of Charles Darwin University. 


Our group camped on Yunupingu land for two weeks along the Arafura Coast, sometimes going out after midnight until dawn, tracking the turtles and watching as hatchlings made their way to the sea. 


Many nights, I slept with an axe - after the red eyes of a crocodile swimming around in the dark was pointed out to me in torchlight! 

 

In 2000, I joined the Saltwater Band as the on-road photographer for their first community tour. George Rrurrambu Burarrwanga from Warumpi Band, Big Frank from Soft Sands Band, both Aboriginal Elders from Galiwin’ku, joined us. Together, we travelled for two weeks to remote communities: Gunbalanya, Ngukurr in Arnhem Land then Jabiru and Katherine.


The Yolngu band wrote and performed most songs in the lingua franca of East Arnhem – Yolngu Matha, also combining ancient songlines with a scattering of verses in English for the contemporary compositions. 


We covered huge distances from the Northern Territory. It was a long time with a band on a tour bus, but I got to know them and to deeply connect. 


There were three important elements that stand out for me in collaborating with the band. Firstly I was invited onto country to meet and then collaborate with the band. This was a great honour and privilege, not lightly granted. Being a part of Yolngu cultural practice in daily life is an immersive and inclusive experience. I gained an understanding and insights whilst working together on country. 


The visits I have had on Aboriginal traditional land have instilled deep feelings and connection of people, land and place and given me an understanding of these relationships. My interest in Indigenous cultures and practices expanded beyond Australia to see the importance and relevance of traditional knowledge for all humans; those living in traditional cultures and those in our contemporary world. 


I believe in the seed of the old being present and important in the new. This is manifested in a deep connection to land, environment, family, culture, language - felt and shared through stories, myths and legends in all cultures. 


My process as an artist - of immersing myself, over a period of time, in the environment I am working in, gives the images a fullness of feeling. 


I'm a photographic artist with a press background, so the photographs, though honest and representative, come with a feeling derived from personal experience. 


It’s important for me to share my experiences of culture, land and environment, and I do this through exhibiting my work. 


In 2018 I had the opportunity to exhibit at the Royal North Shore Hospital. For this, I chose from the bodies of work mentioned to bring together into an Exhibition format: ‘Gurrumul and the Saltwater Band, Top End Community Tour, 2000’. The sharing of the legacy of Gurrumul (who passed away in 2016) was important to me. 


As time passes the exhibition shows me the power of his legacy and its influence. What I know is that a photographic exhibition can be a participatory, inclusive experience that can lead the viewer to a philosophical foundation of Yolngu culture: referred to as ‘both ways’ immersion. 


When working on country Yolngu & Balanda (Blackfella-Whitefella) are held within the net of Yolngu culture, identity and place which, in turn, shapes and forges any creative outcome. 


The Arts and media have a leading role to play in shaping current public perspectives, transcending barriers and holding a robust parley which challenges Australian ideals to be more inclusive and diverse. 


The exhibition was my attempt to actively honour the legacy, work and music of Gurrumul and his Yolngu culture; and I was grateful to receive the blessing of Yolngu family to exhibit and display. 


Photography has been my medium for my artistic expression. I have photographed in diverse areas and industries: documenting for personal and professional reasons. As part of my work practise I’ve contemplated the power of a photograph to touch the viewer. 


The great Magnum photographer Cartier Bresson wrote about the power of the decisive moment: ‘To me, photography's the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as a precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression'. 


Photographs are like windows that we can look through; to be taken away for just a moment. Yet these moments are timeless. They stretch time, give space, and we return feeling quite altered, quite moved. This is the universal effect of an image. It resonates deeply with our own feelings, familiar stories or has the power to bring insight to the unknown. 


My imagery tells a story that takes my audience through the window and on a journey. This is my raison d’etre. 

Gallery Representation

To enquire about gallery representation, please email sophie@sophiehowarthphotography.com