Wayne Quilliam: Life through his lens

Award-winning Indigenous photographer Wayne Quilliam talks about storytelling, being an ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation and his recent work with Australia Post.

There are about 500 remote Indigenous Communities in Australia.

And Wayne Quilliam reckons he has been to every single one of them.

As one of Australia’s most respected Indigenous photographers, Wayne has spent the past 30 years visiting, living and working in First Nations Communities. And now he’s making the rounds again.

This conversation took place the day before he flew to Shark Bay in Western Australia, a Community he had first visited 25 years ago. To say he was excited about the trip would be an understatement.

“I was in Geraldton (WA) about 25 years ago when I got a message from a young Aboriginal man named Capesy who was starting out as a tour guide,” Wayne says. “He asked if I would photograph him in Shark Bay for his marketing material. I loved his commitment to success so I did it for free.”

“I'm not just excited about seeing my friend again tomorrow but also to share Country and stories with him again. Nothing excites me more than that.”

This from a photographer who has curated over 300 international exhibitions, been recognised with a Walkley Award and a Human Rights Award and been nominated as a Master of Photography by National Geographic.

Those accolades are recognition of Wayne’s talent and a reflection of his deep connection to people, culture and Country. And that connection is what truly matters to him.  

Answering the call of Country

Wayne was born in Tasmania, a “land of strength and resurgence.” When he turned 15, he decided the world was too big and beautiful to hold at arm’s length. He also wanted to learn more about his culture. So he joined the Australian Navy.

“That’s when the big adventure began,” he chuckles. “There were two other Aboriginal sailors in the Navy and they told me about their Country. That was a catalyst to wanting to know more about my own Country and culture.”

“My nan, in particular, wouldn't talk about our culture because it was forced out of her as a child. It was my grandfather who taught me about connection to the land and how we look after it. He wasn’t Aboriginal but he knew the stories well.”

While stationed in Hong Kong, Wayne bought his first camera. This was the next turning point in his life–he just didn’t know it yet. A few years later, he left the Navy for an Aboriginal newspaper, the Koori Mail.

“Then one day I decided I needed to know more about my culture so I threw my dog in the back of an old van and we took off for about three or four years just travelling around Australia, living on different people's Country and visiting Communities. The first ones I visited were in Victoria–along the Murray River through Echuca and Swan Hill up through into Mildura.”