The sepia-toned photograph of an Aboriginal woman dubbed ‘Queen Mary - Ballarat’ was taken in the 1870s by German photographer Frederick Kruger. Kruger had been commissioned by the Victorian Board for the Protection of Aborigines to capture two series of photographs at Coranderrk Aboriginal Station. The first collection of photographs focused on the station’s success and the pastoral ‘civilisation’ of its residents. Kruger’s second commission however, more overtly reflected the turbulent political climate in which it emerged. The policy of separating Indigenous people based on their racial heritage heightened conflict between the Board and station residents at Coranderrk. Photography played a central role in government attempts to stress the racial limitations of ‘full-blooded’ Aborigines and to justify their separation from ‘half-castes’.
In the midst of these political tensions, Kruger was also working on images which would appeal to a broader commercial audience. ‘Queen Mary’ appeared on the first page of the Souvenir Album of Victorian Aboriginals, a palm-sized souvenir compilation of notable Indigenous figures assigned European royal titles.
In a format popular during the second half of the nineteenth century, Kruger’s work fits into a wider ethnographic trend of photographing representatives of a supposedly ‘dying race’ for posterity. Standing inside a white picket fence, Queen Mary is laden with as many cultural relics as the frame can encapsulate. She wears a possum skin cloak over western dress and holds a basket, boomerang, digging stick and spear. At her feet are another two baskets and a boomerang.
Ethnographic photography featuring Indigenous Australians raises a number of contemporary issues. Photographers, in perceiving Aborigines as a doomed race, might have seen themselves as preserving culture for the future, but they did not anticipate the relevance of their work to the descendants of those they photographed. In many cases their image capture was focused on documenting a culture for the sake of posterity, for financial gain or for both. Consequently, questions of ownership and the role cultural repositories play in providing access to these photographs are vital questions for contemporary communities. Recent research has also begun to look out from behind the camera, pointing to the type of agency which Indigenous people might find as subject in the construction of these images. Here, in some cases, it appears Aboriginal people were able to manipulate photographic representations of themselves for their own ends.