The Original Photo Essay

Photos & text by Virginia Parker Staat

“Visual storytelling utilizes both language and art to pass on
the essence of who we are.”  

~ Debbie Millman

It has been over a year since David and I visited Australia. One of the highlights of our journey was our trip to the Mitchell Falls rock art complex. These ochre paintings are believed to be among the oldest surviving rock art in the world. Some as old as 80,000 years.

We were fortunate to arrange a tour of the complex with Aboriginal guides. These guides from the Wandjina tribe explained that the rock art had multiple purposes. Some were for instruction; some contained tribal records; others provided warnings; and sometimes they were painted simply for the joy of the art itself. The rock art was also used in conjunction with various initiation ceremonies. During initiations, elders used the rock art as visual support while transmitting cultural information from generation to generation. 

It occurred to me that in many respects Aboriginal rock art is an example of the original photo essay. This was especially true if the art was created to support their oral tradition. 

We found one of the most fascinating rock art paintings in the Warnmarri or Brolga complex. Two brolgas were centered on a large rock, nearly touching head to head. The creatures were surrounded by a myriad of other paintings.

Two Brolgas go head-to-head in this ancient rock art.
Two Brolgas go head-to-head in this ancient rock art. © V.P. Staat

The brolga is one of Australia’s two species of crane (see photo on page 5). Much like America’s Sandhill or Whooping crane, brolgas are monogamous birds, breeding for life. They have an intricate courtship dance. Both male and female raise their young together.

The brolga has several different meanings in Aboriginal culture. The bird speaks to relationship, highlighting the sacred bond between a man and woman and how they should live together. An ancient tribal legend tells of a girl who loved to dance. After refusing to marry an evil spirit, he used his magic to turn her into a beautiful bird, the brolga. The brolga is also part of the Aboriginal Dreamtime or creation story. In Dreamtime, brolgas developed Australia’s lagoons and marshlands and brought song to the people. 

Like a photo essay, the Aboriginal peoples may have used the brolga rock art combined with their oral traditions to relay these different stories. They may have counseled young people to emulate brolgas in their relationships. On cold nights, groups may have huddled together under the rock alcove overlooking the brolga paintings and entertained restless children by telling them the legend of a young dancer haunted by an evil spirit. During initiations, tribal elders may have used the brolga paintings to impart their creation story. In the Aboriginal culture, every detail of the Dreamtime story was critical during initiations in order to pass down their oral tradition.

In a photo essay, we do much the same thing. We select our photos based on the story we want to tell and the emotion that we want our readers to feel. We use our words to help readers connect with our message. We combine our photos and words to tell a visual story. 

This integration of art and words is powerful, and the Aboriginal peoples must have known it. Modern educational research indicates people remember only ten percent of what they hear and only twenty percent of what they read. When combined with a visual, however, people retain approximately eighty percent of the information being relayed. When elders told their Dreamtime story in the Brolga Complex, did they do so knowing their initiates would more easily recall the story’s details when surrounded by the rock art paintings?

Every culture on earth has used storytelling to keep people connected with their past, to inform, and to entertain. Visual storytelling, a combination of words and art, promotes an extremely powerful learning tool to connect people to their culture. Photo essays are simply a modern-day version of this ancient art form. What remarkable visual story will you tell?