Welcome to Country: The East Arnhem Land Photographic Experience

Welcome to Country: The East Arnhem Land Photographic Experience

It’s been a week and a half since I returned from the East Arnhem Land Cultural and Photographic Tour which I ran with travel photographer, Lynn Gail. The tour was Lynn’s brainchild as she has visited the region before and saw the potential of running a photographic tour that brought photographers into the Indigenous Yolngu communities there.

To say that this tour has been the single most exhilarating and emotional travel experiences I have had would be an understatement. When you arrive at a Yolngu community in East Arnhem Land, you arrive to a welcome ceremony steeped in the traditions and beliefs of the people. Each community is unique, with its own totems and traditions, and each welcome seeps into your skin and connects you so intrinsically with the people who receive you with utmost sincerity and open arms. The welcome is more than just a greeting — it’s the community’s way of acknowledging your arrival and your presence and of accepting you into its circle and cycles. Within minutes of the welcome ceremony, you’re sitting with people, laughing, joking, finding out more about them as they sate their curiosity about you.


Hanging out at Bukudal
Photo by Lynn Gail


To call this just a photographic tour would be to do it a disservice. Unlike other tours that I have run and that I have attended, this isn’t about taking photographers from location to location and showing them the sights to shoot. Photography in this tour becomes almost an extension of the way we experience the moments that unfold: from exploring the mangrove flats with our new friends, to following the kids from the community as they delight in showing us aspects of their life, from fishing, to tracking, to collecting oysters and, of course, dancing. The photographs emerge almost naturally as you sit with the women of the community and participate in creation of woven baskets and shell necklaces; moments are filled with laughter as the women find hilarity in a man stirring the big pot in which stripped pandanus leaves are boiling to soften them. It’s a novelty for them to have a bloke participate in women’s business.

Then, you’re out in the field with the men, spear fishing, or looking for shellfish amongst the rocks in the shallows. The sea is a beautiful turquoise and wonderfully warm against your hot skin, the sand feels strong and earthy under your bare feet; you prise oysters from rocks and they go on the wood fire that Waka, one of your guides, has built on the beach. You sit with the men and realise that you’re out here in one of the most remote regions of Australia, eating freshly shucked oysters hot off the fire. There is an epicness about the experience that is further heightened by the splendid glow cast into the sky by the setting sun. For long moments, the world turns burnished gold and you have your camera out and viewfinder pressed to your eye because this has got to be the most splendid sunset you have beheld!


Hanging out at Bukudal
Photo by Lynn Gail


At dusk, you gather by the fire and the people of the community, who are now your friends, your brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles, grandmothers, sit, eat and laugh with you. You feel cocooned in a sense of community that is reminiscent of a time long past, a memory of childhood when the world seemed smaller, closer, friendlier. You’re moved almost to tears by the embrace of this community, by the purity and honesty of interactions that have made you feel so much a part of this world. It is a deeply felt world and you know that your photography reflects this — suddenly, your portraits are more intimate, more sincere and your landscapes show a newfound respect for the power that lies within the land, the ocean, the bush.

One of the best things about photography is its power to prompt recall. In going through the images from the tour, I was taken back to significant moments I had experienced and could relive them in my mind’s eye. But more importantly, photography also allows us to share these experiences and to show why the experiences have been so transformative.

Music: “The Time to Run Finale” – Dexter Britain


If you would like to join us for next year’s East Arnhem Land Tour (September 10 – 17 2016), find out more about it here.

  • Jean Ison

    02/10/2015 at 5:54 am

    You have expressed so well Seng the wonderful time of visiting and being welcomed to the Homelands by beautiful people and sharing their precious culture. Thank you for the opportunity to have such an all encompassing experience. Thank you so much as it opened a whole new beautiful world, and I also as an aside have photos!

  • sengmah

    12/10/2015 at 8:53 am

    Thanks Jean! It was also wonderful to have you on this tour and I hope the post and video brought back wonderful memories for you!

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