A legend in the black media sphere, Barbara McGrady has given Indigenous photojournalists of the future huge shoes to fill – and now a huge mobility scooter to fill.
Diagnosed four years ago with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), the renowned photojournalist’s lungs are not what they used to be.
“It means your lungs are just about totally spent and you just have trouble breathing,” Ms McGrady said.
The photojournalist said she has a more severe case of COPD – one where her lungs retain oxygen and inflate abnormally.
“It feels like I am walking around with two balloons in my lungs which are pressing against me and it’s really, really, really uncomfortable.”
“All this pressure on my lungs and my whole being and I just feel like I want to fall down. I get really weak, I get super dehydrated, I get a really rapid heartbeat … it’s horrible.”
Although the disease doesn’t affect her sharp eye for capturing arresting photos, Ms McGrady now finds simple tasks like carrying her heavy camera gear quite the endeavour and is having issues with her overall mobility.
“I just feel when I’m using any kind of oxygen … any kind of movement or … lifting, anything that takes [considerable energy] … even concentrating really hard – which I do when I short sport … it’s a struggle sometimes,” Ms McGrady said.
“My lung guy told me not to shoot sport no more because it’s just too taxing – takes a lot of effort and concentration.”
Despite her lung specialist’s advice, Ms McGrady recently shot the NSW Koori Knockout.
“I think I’ll have to give it away permanently soon,” Ms McGrady said.
Having prominence in the Indigenous media industry has its perks, however, with over $6,000 recently being raised in just five days for Ms McGrady to buy a mobility scooter so she can keep some of her independence.
“I was really blown away that I managed to get the funds so quickly,” Ms McGrady said.
“I have quite a lot of colleagues, friends, great people that contributed to the fundraising.”
The GoFundMe page was filled with donations and well wishes for the Gomeroi woman.
“We want the best for Barb who has given so much to others,” read one comment.
Ms McGrady said the scooter will be a big help and that she felt so grateful to everyone involved.
First picking up a camera her mother bought her at age 15, Ms McGrady said she always had an interest in visual arts.
“I was too young to think of it as photojournalism. I was just photographing my family, my community, my surroundings, what I saw,” Ms McGrady said.
Growing up on a large property outside of Mungindi in northwest NSW on Gomeroi country, the owner used to give Ms McGrady’s father books and magazines to bring home.
“They were magazines like LIFE, National Geographic, TIME, Esquire, Reader’s Digest,” Ms McGrady said.
“I saw all these incredible black and white photos of black people in LIFE magazine and read about them.”
“I just thought, ‘Wow we don’t have any kind of publication like that here where I can see these amazing black people and read about them.’ … that was a big influence for me … that’s how it all began.”
A haze of distinguished figures
Throughout her illustrious career Ms McGrady has photographed hundreds of big names – although you wouldn’t know it.
“Honest to God, I forget, I can’t think, they all sort of roll into one,” Ms McGrady said when asked about her most memorable experiences.
“Because I’ve been doing it for so long … they just all become hazy.”
One person Ms McGrady said she particularly enjoys photographing, however, is her friend, Gumbainggir man Gary Foley.
Known for starting the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972, Mr Foley is a prominent activist for Australia’s First Nations people.
A diverse photographer, Ms McGrady has photographed “mainstream people” like Ed Sheeran, Nelly and Snoop Dogg concerts, more elite photography like Prince Harry, as well as a lot of sportspeople and social protest photography.
“Occupy Sydney … black deaths in custody, TJ Hickey … honestly there’s just so many.”
Shooting through a black lens
What makes Ms McGrady’s work unique is her self-professed “black lens.”
“I see everything that I photograph through a black lens.”
“That’s how I look at my world … I studied sociology at [the University of Sydney] … that’s how I relate to everything since I was a young person growing up in a small country racist town.”
Ms McGrady said it’s her unique sociological perspective – she can’t see it any other way.
“That’s what I am known for, that’s what’s been written about me … that’s what’s said about me in documentaries and short films,” she said.
“I’m really proud of that and that’s the way I see my work.”
For Ms McGrady, documenting through a black lens is critical.
“I think it’s important for mainstream Australian to see Aboriginal people as we are, and not in some negative stereotype – that’s been the history of our people,” Ms McGrady said.
“Black photojournalists should tell our stories, our way.”
Mid-conversation Ms McGrady remembered an interaction she once had with famous director Spike Lee. She giggled between breaths.
“He’s a really crazy sports fan and he knows his sport. So, we were in one of the rooms at Sydney Town Hall … and he found out that I shoot sport, and he said, ‘Oh well who’s your favourite NBA team?’ And I said the Boston Celtics.”
“And he said, ‘Ah well how could you follow that white racist team?’,” Ms McGrady said, still laughing as she recollected.
“He’s really funny. And I said, well look I started following them when I was a teenager all because of that great black player Bill Russell.”
“And he said, ‘Oh well, that’s different then.’”
It’s difficult to imagine the sheer volume of unique interactions Ms McGrady has had with different prominent figures and celebrities – as she said, even she forgets sometimes.
“You meet and photograph these incredible people … I can write a book on funny little anecdotes of [the] people I’ve photographed.”
The renowned photographer said she and Gary Foley currently have such a book in the works, however she was unsure of its release date.
“Him and I have been meaning to write a book with his words and my photographs for a few years now,” Ms McGrady said.
Next year, Ms McGrady will feature in the 2020 Sydney Biennale – one of only three Indigenous artists selected in the country.
“That’s a really big deal for me … there’ll be Indigenous [artists] from all around the world [in Sydney] in March,” Ms McGrady said.
For now, it appears Ms McGrady might be putting on the brakes for a while.
“It seems that way that I could be slowing down and maybe not doing as much,” Ms McGrady said.
“I’ll always be scooting around in the mobility scooter with a camera!”
By Hannah Cross