An interview with John Heath
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An interview with John Heath

September 1, 2019

I became aware of the photographs in 1974, which was just after the death of my grandmother. And it was actually the night of her wake, if you like, and being a young man, I wasn’t sitting around the table with my elders. However, I did hear a conversation between my mum and her older sisters and their partners in relation to the photographs of Grandma that were in the museum at Port Macquarie. My initial interest was to write the story, find the story and be able to relate the story of my grandmother and, as I found out later, Auntie Mary and Uncle Billy Bugg and great grandmother, Mary Ann Dungay – their involvement in that whole process. And it was to gain a better understanding of that. But in writing the history, or part of that Birpai history through the lives of all of the subjects, I’ve been able to tell the story of the ongoing Birpai culture and history. The work that I’ve done in identifying the subjects of the Thomas Dick Photographic Collection and also some of the locations of those photographs – it’s been kind of the same as with any other research project. It’s a kind of detective role. So, it’s gathering as much information as you possibly can and trying to learn from that and build on it. And to me it’s been an intermittent work over more than 30 years and has led to a lot of archival research as well as personal communications with people. And the work that I’ve done is centred around trying to show people that as a nation of Birpai people, we have survived beyond the lens of Thomas Dick. The history that I’ve written, while it’s part of the Birpai story, is basically centred on the families of the subjects of Thomas Dick’s work. We have formed our family stakeholders group, that we are lobbying to have proper and due recognition given to the families whose family members appear in those images.

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