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Mike Donaldson Interview

authour of Burrup Rock Art


How and when did you first become interested in Rock Art in the Burrup?

I was introduced to Pilbara petroglyphs during University study years when I worked up there for a while. I was always interested in Aboriginal art and culture, and I heard about the great variety of Burrup art through an anthropologist friend who had done some work there, so I decided to go and have a look. That would have been in the late 1980s.

What led you begin to start photographing it?

I have been a keen photographer for 50 years. I just photograph these things!

How did you go about photographing it?

Early on I just used a 35 mm SLR. The rocks that the art is on are a jumble so it is impossible to use a tripod anyway. First you need to find the art sites. Although there is estimated to be a million engravings on the Burrup and surrounding islands, it is still a big place and you don't have art on every rock, You can walk for hours and see very little, then come on a rich patch that might contain thousands of images. Eventually you get to know where to look.

What equipment did you use to create the images?

I started with a Canon T70 35 mm SLR about 25 years ago. I tried many film types but settled on Fuji Velvia, a fine-grained rich colour E6 process slide film which gave great results. I swapped that for an early Canon 300D digital SLR (6.3 megapixels) which was OK but lacked the resolution I was used to with Velvia 35 mm. Then I graduated to a Canon EOS1D MkIII (about 10 megapixels) and with a much better lens (16-35 mm f2.8 L II USM). I also use a Canon compact macro 50 mm lens and a ring flash for close up shots. I recently traded the 1D Mk III for the higher resolution 1Ds MkIII (about 20 megapixels) so that I can get acceptable resolution for double page spreads in books like the Burrup Rock Art.

How long has this project taken to come to fruition?

Although I started photographing the Burrup rock art over 20 years ago, it has taken many trips to the area to get to most of the islands and cover most of the Burrup Peninsula. Finding people with boats who can take you out to the islands (and pick you up some days later) takes time. Once I decided to do the book, it took about 12 months to select the 600-odd photos, produce the required resolution images in the designed format and in CMYK for printing, do the captions and write the text, get approval from traditional Aboriginal owners to print the photos, work with the book designer and editor etc etc.

Was there a certain time of day best suited to photograph the petroglyphs?

As many of the sites are in remote places that take some hours to walk to, it is not always possible to get back at the best time of day. The sites all face in random directions, so there is always something at most sites that can be photographed well at most times of the day. For others, particularly bigger spectacular or important sites such as Climbing Men, or Thylacine images it requires going back many times to find the best light. For some sites it even means going back at different seasons as the shadows may fall across the art in summer but not in winter.

How did you go about getting permission from the traditional owners to photograph the rock art and produce the book?

Most of the Burrup is vacant crown land, though it is now planned to turn those areas into a National Park. The islands are mainly in Marine Parks or Nature Reserves, so these areas are accessible to the public without any need for approval. Some of the rock art is on industrial land leased by companies for iron ore shipping facilities, salt evaporation ponds, and LNG plant. Permission is required from the companies to access those areas. In Western Australia, you don't require any permission to photograph rock art for personal or research purposes, but if you photograph for commercial purposes such as a TV advertisement or to promotes a product in front of an Aboriginal art site you do require permission. I only thought about putting my photos into a book after I had done most of the photography, so I then contacted the Department of Indigenous Affairs and got some advice about who the traditional owners were. I then contacted all that I could and made 5 or 6 trips to Dampier, Karratha, and Roebourne to meet with those people, show them a draft copy of the book, and get approval to use the images in the publication. I removed a few images from the book at that stage at their request as some people thought they may be culturally sensitive.

The Burrup is a focus for a number of groups concerned about the  development on the peninsula do you think the rock art and this industrial development can co-exist?

It is a fact of life that industry already has a presence on the Burrup. At the time the decision was made to establish port facilities there, the rock art was not known, and certainly the richness and quantity of rock was not appreciated. The industrial areas are clearly defined and although some art has been damaged or removed to allow the industry to establish the facilities, probably 98% of the art is safe from further encroachment of industry once the National Parks are gazetted and proper management plans are in operation. My view is just draw a line in the sand and accept that some art has been lost, but ensure we don't lose any more. The companies there all appreciate that they have a big responsibility to ensure that this happens.

What was rio tinto's involvement with this publication?

Rio Tinto are major operators on the Burrup with iron ore shipping facilities and evaporative salt production and shipping facilities. Rio employs about 20 archaeologists/anthropologists and so have a big presence there and these people work closely with the various traditional owners to ensure their work is done in a culturally acceptable manner. When they saw my draft book they were keen to help with the publication in order to get a wider appreciation of the cultural heritage values of the Burrup in the general community.

How did you approach them?

Because I had been going to the Burrup area for many years, I got to know some of the anthropologists working in the area, and they all knew that I was preparing a book on the rock art. Rio Tinto suggested they might be able to help with the publication, provided all the appropriate Aboriginal groups (there are quite a few!) were happy with it.

Were they immediately interested or did they need some convincing?

The Company was immediately interested on the proviso that all Aboriginal approvals were in place.

It was mentioned in the article in the Australian that you are working  on a two volume book on Was rock art?.do you have a release date for this?

I am working on two further rock art books. One is on Depuch Island, a small island 100 km NE of Burrup which has heaps of art, originally described by people on HMS Beagle in 1840. I am working with the WA Museum on this book and I expect to see it printed before the end of the year. It will probably be a smaller format book (22 x 22 cm?) about 350 pages.

My magnum opus is the Kimberley Rock Art. I have been walking the wild rivers of the Kimberley for over 20 years and have many thousands of photos of the amazing rock art from there. Given that the art is much more colourful and visually exciting than the Burrup art, and the Kimberley is about a million times bigger than Burrup, my Kimberley book will be in 2 volumes, each of about 500 pages and the size of the Burrup book (27 x 27 cm). I am talking with a few possible corporate sponsors about helping with printing costs, but even so it probably will need to sell for about $300 for the 2-volume set. I am currently talking with various Aboriginal groups about approvals to publish the photos as I want to avoid publishing any culturally sensitive images.

Do you intend on exhibiting these photographs anywhere or is the publication your main focus?

I will exhibit a selection of the photos at a family exhibition in Bowral (NSW) in October, but I don't have any plans to exhibit the photos more widely at this stage.

What do you hope is the outcome of all your hard work and this publication?

Better appreciation of the value of the Burrup rock art among the wider Australian audience will hopefully raise awareness of the rich cultural heritage we have in Australia. I believe this heritage belongs to all Australians and if it is valued more, more will be done to protect and manage these great sites.