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Murri people

Brewarrina, New South Wales, Australia born 1945

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours soil into hand of traditional landowner Vincent Lingiari, Northern Territory 1975 Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia
photographs, direct positive colour photograph
Technique: direct positive colour photograph
Primary Insc: No inscriptions
printed image 76.2 h x 50.8 w cm
sheet 76.2 h x 50.8 w cm
Purchased 1994
Accession No: NGA 94.1403


  • Mervyn Bishop was born in Brewarrina, New South Wales, in 1945. Bishop's position as photographer for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs placed him in a unique position to document Aboriginal life and political activism Australia-wide. He was present in 1975 when Prime Minister Gough Whitlam handed back, with a symbolic pouring of sand into Vincent Lingiari's hand, the 2,500 sq km Wave Hill lease. Lingiari accepted it on behalf of the Gurindji people.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010

  • This iconic image captures the historic moment on 16 August 1975 when traditional landowner and elder Vincent Lingiari accepted the crown lease to his ancestral lands on behalf of the Gurindji community from the then Prime Minister of Australia, Gough Whitlam. This historic act was forged through the symbolic pouring of a handful of soil, with the words:

    Vincent Lingiari I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people and I put into your hands part of the earth itself as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever.[1]

    This simple act, set on parched desert sands against a brilliant blue sky at Daguragu (Wattie Creek), has come to symbolise the government’s recognition of Aboriginal land rights, and its documentation was cleverly constructed by Bishop. The formalities had already taken place in a nearby shed. However, sensing the inadequacies this offered, Bishop requested that Lingiari and Whitlam repeat the hand-back outside, providing a far more evocative backdrop to this significant event. In 1966 the Gurindji had walked off Lord Vestey’s Wave Hill cattle station to protest against poor wages and living conditions. Now a famous part of Australian history, this strike also sought the return of the Gurindji’s ancestral lands, and this was the first such case recognised by Australian law.

    Bishop’s vision to photograph subjects from an Indigenous perspective heralded a significant shift in documentary photography in Australia and paved the way for future generations of Indigenous photographers—such as Michael Riley, Brenda L Croft and Ricky Maynard—to continue his groundbreaking work in taking control of the lens.

    Cara Pinchbek

    [1] Hon W Snowdon, ‘First speech as the member for Lingiari’, Speeches, The Hon Warren Snowdon MP, viewed 2010,

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010