‘Little Gunshots, but with the blaze of lightning’: Xavier Herbert, Visuality and Human Rights


Xavier Herbert published his bestseller Capricornia in 1938, following two periods spent in the Northern Territory. His next major work, Poor Fellow My Country (1975), was not published until thirty-seven years later, but was also set in the north during the 1930s. One significant difference between the two novels is that by 1975 photo-journalism had become a significant force for influencing public opinion and reforming Aboriginal policy. Herbert’s novel, centring upon Prindy as vulnerable Aboriginal child, marks a sea change in perceptions of Aboriginal people and their place in Australian society, and a radical shift toward use of photography as a means of revealing the violation of human rights after World War II. In this article I review Herbert’s visual narrative strategies in the context of debates about this key historical shift and the growing impact of photography in human rights campaigns. I argue that Poor Fellow My Country should be seen as a textual re-enactment, set in Herbert’s and the nation’s past, yet coloured by more recent social changes that were facilitated and communicated through the camera’s lens. Like all re-enactments, it is written in the past conditional: it asks, what if things had been different? It poses a profound challenge to the state project of scientific modernity that was the Northern Territory over the first decades of the twentieth century.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.5130/csr.v23i2.5820

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