An image of The swimmers, Milingimbi, Arnhem Land

Axel Poignant

(England, Australia, England 12 Dec 1906 – 05 Feb 1986)

The swimmers, Milingimbi, Arnhem Land

Not on display
Further information

Axel Poignant, who migrated to Australia in 1926, felt he had been ‘re-born an Australian’ having witnessed the miraculous transformation of the desert when its transitory flowers and birdlife came to life after rain on the Canning Stock Route in Western Australia in 1942. There he developed an intense affinity with the landscape and Indigenous Australians whom he photographed. He said: ‘I was hooked … From this time I had a conscious commitment to the documentary in both still and movie photography.’1 Captivated by the land, the people and their cultures Poignant visited Nagalarramba and Milingimbi, Arnhem Land, in 1952 to record with dignity and humanity the traditional daily life of Aboriginal people which was under threat from the official policy of assimilation at the time.

Poignant’s image of children swimming at Milingimbi suggests they could spring to life in a series of moving frames as their exuberance almost leaps from the print itself. The composition of the children implies one movement as they run, jump and dive. Their arc-like shape mimics the partially submerged tree – both silhouetted against the vast water and sky. The joy of playing, swimming and splashing is a universal pastime for many children, and images such as ‘The swimmers, Milingimbi’ conveyed a humane understanding of Indigenous people to the wider Australian public. This concept was achieved when Poignant’s photo-story, ‘Piccaninny walkabout: a story of two Aboriginal children’, was published as a children’s book in 1957. Its popularity demanded further editions, with the book retitled ‘Bush walkabout’ by Poignant in 1972.

1. Gross J 1984, ‘Axel Poignant’, ‘The British Journal of Photography’, 84/26, 29 Jun

© Art Gallery of New South Wales Photography Collection Handbook, 2007

printed 1983
gelatin silver photograph
43.2 x 32.8 cm image; 50.5 x 40.4 cm sheet
Signature & date

Signed l.r. sheet., pencil "Axel Poignant". Dated l.centre verso, pencil "...1952 /...1983

Purchased 1983
Accession number
© Courtesy Roslyn Poignant