Greg Inglis stands in the middle of the field above the scrum, preparing to lead the traditional war cry before the Indigenous All Stars game. In the middle of it all is 67-year-old Barbara McGrady, camera in hand. A murmur erupts from the crowd in anticipation, and suddenly she sees it: the perfect shot.
Four years later, at 10.50am on a Thursday morning, Badde Manors café in Glebe is bustling. The traffic outside and the clanking of the coffee machine make it hard to hear the softly spoken, 71-year-old McGrady speaking, her quiet and reserved nature belies her fearless powerhouse career.
“I got into photography… I was about 15,” she says. “My mother bought me a camera. And she bought me a set of encyclopaedias, which was unusual for an Aboriginal family. So I was always curious about the world, about black people around the globe. I started photographing my community, people around me, the landscape. It just went from there.”
Barb (as she’s called by friends and family) is a proud Gomeroi / Murri / Yinah woman and an award-winning photojournalist. She is the first-ever Indigenous female photojournalist. With no formal training, it’s clear McGrady has a natural eye for the craft. Her work honours legendary First Nations sportspeople, as well as activists from her community.
“I felt as though my people were invisible,” she says. “We weren’t seen, we weren’t heard. I saw all of these amazing black people in Time and Life magazine, and I thought where are we? Where do we fit into all of this?”
My biggest accomplishment is… [countering] all the negative stereotypes about who we are as people, our history, our culture
Our conversation turns to the controversial interpretations of Australia’s past with First Nations people, and the stereotypes that came with those. McGrady speaks confidently, but quietly. Taking time between each word to catch her breath.
“(In magazines and mainstream media) There were no positive Aboriginal sportspeople, it was all negative and stereotyped… My biggest accomplishment is that I did what I set out to do,” she says. “To put our story out there in the public domain. To counter all the negative stereotypes about who we are as people, our history, our culture.”
Over the years, McGrady has received many awards including the National Indigenous Human Rights Anthony Mundine Courage Award – for social documentary photography – as well as her International Solid Screen Award for Indigenous Women in Photo Media documentation. While drawing international recognition for her work, she still manages to stay humble.
“I’ve never seen it as a job, I see art everywhere… (so) that was a huge honour for me to receive that award for indigenous women, cause I’ve seen the amazing women who won it before me,” she says. “Was I really on their level?”
With her work being featured in publications like The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian, as well as being honoured in the 2020 Biennale of Sydney, McGrady’s work has showcased Indigenous people in a way that has not been done before. She calls it “seeing the world through my black lens”.
Photojournalist and friend John Janson-Moore, who worked on the Biennale with McGrady, had nothing but good things to say about her.
“Barbara McGrady is considered a great black national treasure in my books, so it was a real privilege to collaborate with her on last year’s Biennale of Sydney project ‘Maran Yaliwaunga Ngaara-li (Our Ancestors Are Always Watching)’,” he tells me. “It is an intensely personal work. Barbara is so deeply connected to her community and to her culture in a uniquely contemporary way.
“Her knowledge and insight are profound. To get a glimpse of that through working with her was such an honour.”
McGrady’s work within her community made such an impact on the Aboriginal community that the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence held an exhibition of her work titled ‘Because of her we can’, an exhibition that McGrady says left her in tears as it was a “once in a lifetime compliment”.
Although McGrady is a ground-breaking photojournalist she still faces racism.
Close friend and photojournalist Lisa Hogben asked me if Barb had told me the ‘Event story’. She had not.
“Oh for f—s sake. Excuse the French, I’ve never been more infuriated in my whole life,” she says.
She relates how a specific government campaign dedicated to helping indigenous people and shaping government policy around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, held an event she attended as McGrady’s assistant.
“We ended up finding the event organiser and we walked up to him,” she says. “He immediately started addressing me, a white woman, instead of Barbara and acting like she was my assistant. This was the head of the organisation, and he was ignoring her. I’ve never felt worse, there was my sister standing next to me and he’s disrespecting her at her gig.
“Afterwards, I was expressing my anger to Barb as all she said was ‘what did you expect?’”
Hogben is passionate talking about McGrady, and it’s evident the friendship is extremely special.
“Role model doesn’t even encompass how much of an impact she’s had on me, and on black people,” she says. “She’s taught me about life, and how to look at life more than anyone else.”
McGrady suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) which causes obstructed airflow to the lungs and comes with some nasty side effects like bronchitis and emphysema.
“My illness engulfs me. It’s all-consuming,” she says. “It’s like I’ve got these two big balloons inside my lungs. The pressure and the pain is unbearable sometimes.”
Although the disease limits her physical movement, she has no intention of stopping work anytime soon.
“The job isn’t too physically demanding, it’s the kind of job you can do if you’re in reasonable health until you’re a hundred,” she says.
With the help of her cousin and a wheelchair, she photographed Mardi Gras this year despite her illness restricting her. She also gets around Glebe taking photos on her mobility scooter – another example of her work ethic.
“I don’t fit in anywhere, I can’t,” she concludes. “I’m just me.”
Main image of Barbara McGrady by Mikala Theocharous