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Aurukun dancer inspires a prize winning portrait

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Eric Yunkaporta was about to step onto the ceremonial dance grounds at Laura when photographer Wayne Quilliam asked if he could take a quick photo.

The picture of Mr Yunkaporta in his ceremonial headgear and body paint, titled Silent Strength, has now won a $50,000 prize.

Mr Quilliam says at the time he didn’t realise how important the picture would become, both to himself and the people of Aurukun, who were delighted when the picture was chosen as one of 50 finalists.

“I called Eric and told him the amazing news, they were just ecstatic because he was sharing not only his image but also the culture of Aurukun,” he told AAP after winning the National Photographic Portrait Prize.

The photographer met his subject only moments before he took the shot, but quickly realised he had photographed many of Mr Yunkaporta’s relatives during more than 30 years documenting Indigenous communities.

“I looked at him and I said, “brother, you look so familiar”. And we started to have a bit of a yarn and we realised that I’d photographed his grandfather, his community, his uncles and aunties, for many, many years,” Mr Quilliam said.

“I basically turned around and said, ‘brother, do you just mind if I grab a quick photo of you before you go out?’”

Mr Quilliam said he quickly took two or three photos of the “very quiet, incredibly strong young man” in ceremonial head wear before he thanked him and proceeded to watch the traditional dance.

The National Portrait Gallery’s director of collection and exhibitions, and judge on the competition’s panel, Sandra Bruce, said the portrait won in a unanimous decision.

“There’s this contemporary drama that speaks to this 40,000 to 50,000 years’ worth of tradition,” she said.

Growing up in Tasmania, Mr Qulliam was aware of his Indigenous heritage, but knew little of his culture and always had a sense of longing, he said.

Moving to the mainland, he began taking pictures of Indigenous communities, which led to invitations to document gatherings in the remotest parts of Australia.

“I’ve had the absolute privilege of being involved in rural, remote and urban communities for so long, they have allowed me into their lives and trusted me to tell their stories in the right way,” he said.

“Every person that’s been on this journey that has shared their story, their life essence with me, I thank dearly.”

Mr Quilliam plans to use the photographic equipment that comes with the prize to expand his work teaching photography in remote communities.

The Photographic Portrait Prize is on show at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.

Cape York Weekly 5 July 2022

This article appeared in Cape York Weekly, 5 July 2022.

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