Arts & Culture

Portrait of Bermagui Aboriginal elder in prestigious photography award

Elise Searson23 August 2019

Selected as a finalist in the Olive Cotton Portrait Award – Robert Foster. Photo: Imogen Hall.

A deeply poignant image of Yuin man Robert Foster currently hangs on the walls of the Tweed Regional Gallery in Northern NSW.

The image, made by Bermagui photographer Imogen Hall, is a finalist in the prestigious Olive Cotton Portrait Award which is funded by the family of Olive Cotton, one of Australia’s leading twentieth-century photographers, and aims to show new portraits by emerging artists.

Imogen and Robert went to high school together and over the years formed one of those “diamond in a haystack friendships”.

“It was really essential for me to photograph the landscape through the prism of this person (Robert) who is so deeply connected to the land,” Imogen says.

“Imogen and I get on real good, I’ve known her for a long time, she came up and asked to take some photos and I said yeah, why not?” Robert says.

Roberts daughter Teanika made this photo of her dad during the phone interview.

Robert Foster humbly downplays the significance of his role in the image making process, “Imogen said there’s some colour photos too but I love this black and white one, it’s a mad one. A lot of people are recognising me now.”

This year’s judge was Marian Drew who believes a photographic portrait exhibition such as the Olive Cotton award, “gives us time to really think and feel about our connection to other people, reviving our sense of empathy”.

After some over the phone direction, Robert’s Sister in-law Mandy Tithe made this photo on her phone.

The portrait is also winning praise closer to home, “When the kids saw the photo they were fighting over who got to put it in their room and Teanika won,” Roberts says.

His whole family is “spun out” by Imogen’s success with the image, “My mum is still alive and lives next-door, she likes the photo too,” Robert says.

After years bedazzled by the bright lights of the city, Robert returned to Yuin country when his heart began to wonder back home, “I went away and tried to live in the city but came back home because the mountains called me back.”

It’s a connection and feeling that shines through in Imogen’s selected work.

Imogen won the director’s choice award in the Olive Cotton in 2013 and says “It’s one of those competitions you just can’t pick, every year it’s so different.”

Robert is hoping Tweed Regional Gallery will except the portrait as a gift, “Having his story told means so much to him, he’s just so proud – I hope they accept it,” Imogen says.

Sydney, photographer Belinda Mason won the $20,000 overall prize for the 2019 Olive Cotton, you can explore the winning works HERE.

The Olive Cotton exhibition runs until Sunday, September 22. Tweed Regional Gallery is open Wednesday to Sundays from 10 am to 5 pm. Entry to see the exhibition is free and so is the wonderful view of the mountains.

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