The 1970s: a decade of protest
Photographs by Roger Scott
'Jack Mundey, BLF Western Distributor demonstration, Ultimo' (detail), Roger Scott, 1974, courtesy of Josef Lebovic Gallery
The 1970s were one of the most volatile periods in Australia’s political history. Mass demonstrations took place to protest the Vietnam War, the South African Springboks tour and in support of Aboriginal rights. In Sydney the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) teamed with resident action groups and environmentalists to apply green bans on developments that threatened the city’s built or natural environments.
Roger Scott is one of Australia’s most outstanding documentary photographers. Roused by the political ferment of the 1970s, he sought a political voice via his camera. Tired of the set-ups that he saw photojournalists routinely create to please newspaper editors, Scott chose to hit the streets and get amongst the action, without manipulating or directing his subjects. As a result, his photographs provide some of the most dramatic and evocative images from this eventful decade.
During the Springboks rugby tour in July 1971 Scott photographed protests against the South African system of apartheid. Denied entry to the Sydney Cricket Ground, demonstrators were forced to remain outside, while inside Scott’s camera recorded a small band of pro-apartheid white supremacists who had been allowed to march along the grandstand with flags flying.
Protests are notoriously hard to photograph, with the sheer density of people often negating opportunities to frame good pictures. It can be challenging to truly reflect the mood and size of a large demonstration. Despite this, Scott managed to create some amazing images at the anti-Vietnam War moratoriums in Sydney’s CBD in May and August of 1970. He captured a sense of their scale and atmosphere, as well as more intimate portraits of individual participants.
Between 1971 and 1974 there were 42 green bans in place across Sydney. In 1974 Scott photographed the arrest of a young Jack Mundey in Ultimo. The BLF leader was one of a number of demonstrators trying to prevent the demolition of homes for the Northwestern expressway.
Possibly the most extraordinary image in this exhibition is a portrait of Malcolm Fraser at a rally in the aftermath of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s controversial dismissal in November 1975. Emotions ran high as each side campaigned for the pending election. When Scott, who was no supporter of the Liberal leader, shouted an antagonistic remark at him, Fraser spun around, making a threatening gesture, which Scott captured. Behind Fraser, a sea of faces is dotted with the signage of different lobby groups.
Curator Museum of Sydney
The 1970s: a decade of protest is on at the Museum of Sydney from 8 March to 1 June 2008
First published in Insites, Autumn 2008