Set against a brilliant cloud-flecked azure sky, the subjects of Lynne Roberts-Goodwin’s portraits possess a quiet pride and intensity. Identified by their titles as Bedouin falconers, the men are photographed at close range and with a gently ascending camera angle – an iconic device of portraiture which creates studies of individuality imbued with an air of timelessness. The large scale of the prints, the distant gazes of the men and the assumed trust between the photographer and the subjects make for monumental works which posit ancient traditions in the contemporary realm.
The photographs were taken during Roberts-Goodwin’s residency at Wrsan wildlife sanctuary, Ajban, situated north-west of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Roberts-Goodwin first visited this site in 2002 at the invitation of His Highness Sheikh Sultan Bin Zayed al Nahyan. Her initial work focused on photographing the falcons owned by the Sheikh, a project which continued her ongoing research into both avian migration and what she described as ‘the conceptual issues of the “perceived exotic” of place and racial belonging’.
The portraits of the falconers which Roberts-Goodwin created on subsequent visits to the region extended her interest in the ways in which the desert hunting exists as both a stereotype of a Western fantasy – that of the windswept Arabian standing proudly as a falcon sits primed for flight upon his outstretched wrist – and as a living practice. The training of falcons to act as hunters was an essential skill for Bedouin living in harsh desert regions, and the ancient tradition retains its popularity and is practised today, although more so as a boutique sport than an essential means of survival. The men in these photographs descend from the Al Hammadi family, renowned as ancient and highly skilled Bedouin falconers, having originated in Balujistan and migrated over a century ago to the United Arab Emirates and surrounding regions.
The Al Hammadi portraits form part of a larger series of photographs entitled Random acts which was first shown in Sydney in 2007. They were initially displayed alongside landscape images which depicted places identified by the artist as important geographical sites as they lay along both the ancient frankincense trade routes and the falconry migration routes travelled by the Bedouin. Such migratory zones, which are often borderless areas possessing extraordinarily complex histories of trade, travel, conflict and cultural exchange between East and West, were of great interest to the artist, particularly the ways in which the sites retained a continuous living link to the past.
This coupling of the ancient with the contemporary is at the heart of this series of photographs. As Roberts-Goodwin said, ‘the conceptual collision of migration of culture and avian migration of falconry here is combined to form a sense of ownership by the subject of the individual’s culture and sense of place and heritage. The images attempt to bear silent witness to random yet considered acts within sites and contested territories, and to cultures that are unchanging yet paradoxically saturated with contemporary currency’.
Maggie Finch, Assistant Curator, Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2012).