(England, Australia, England 1906–1986)
43.2 x 32.8cm image; 50.5 x 40.4cm sheet
Axel Poignant, who migrated to Australia in 1926, felt he had been ‘re-born an Australian’ having witnessed the miraculous transformation of the desert when its transitory flowers and birdlife came to life after rain on the Canning Stock Route in Western Australia in 1942. There he developed an intense affinity with the landscape and Indigenous Australians whom he photographed. He said: ‘I was hooked … From this time I had a conscious commitment to the documentary in both still and movie photography.’1 Captivated by the land, the people and their cultures Poignant visited Nagalarramba and Milingimbi, Arnhem Land, in 1952 to record with dignity and humanity the traditional daily life of Aboriginal people which was under threat from the official policy of assimilation at the time.
Poignant’s image of children swimming at Milingimbi suggests they could spring to life in a series of moving frames as their exuberance almost leaps from the print itself. The composition of the children implies one movement as they run, jump and dive. Their arc-like shape mimics the partially submerged tree – both silhouetted against the vast water and sky. The joy of playing, swimming and splashing is a universal pastime for many children, and images such as ‘The swimmers, Milingimbi’ conveyed a humane understanding of Indigenous people to the wider Australian public. This concept was achieved when Poignant’s photo-story, ‘Piccaninny walkabout: a story of two Aboriginal children’, was published as a children’s book in 1957. Its popularity demanded further editions, with the book retitled ‘Bush walkabout’ by Poignant in 1972.
1. Gross J 1984, ‘Axel Poignant’, ‘The British Journal of Photography’, 84/26, 29 Jun
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