In recent years there have been a number of photographic publications that focus on Australia’s indigenous culture. Most hone in on the tragic circumstances of the country’s First People, who often live in the most atrocious conditions, victims of consecutive governments that claim a desire to liberate when in fact they oppress.
These are important stories to tell, visual narratives that shed light on issues that as a society Australia needs to recognize and make a genuine commitment to change. But these stories also tend to pigeonhole an entire people and are not the only tales worth telling. The Indigenous people have lived in harmony with nature and this wild continent for more than 40,000 years. And still many live the way their ancestors did, passing down knowledge, traditions, Law and language. It is here that we find The Lumen Seed, a deeply emotional, yet accessible book about one woman’s descent into darkness and her walk to the light.
Judith Crispin is many things; a poet, photographer and scholar, as well as a mother, friend and daughter. She is also a cancer survivor. Just as these labels don’t define her, neither do the photographs and stories in her book define those who are featured. Rather, Judith Crispin gives a glimpse into moments that when combined provide a picture that is far more expansive in its storytelling than one image, one poem, one narrative can ever be.
Her book entitled The Lumen Seed: Records of a search in the Australian desert begins with Judith Crispin sharing the moment she was told she had cancer. A survivor, she doesn’t dwell on the illness, but rather what it gave her, a sense of urgency: time is precious. “Don’t wait” she says, a lesson learned from another friend who had succumbed to the disease, but a lesson she didn’t recognize until she faced her own mortality.
Judith Crispin says she felt an overwhelming urge to flee. Her inner voice told her to return to the land of the Warlpiri people at Lajamanu, in the Northern Territory, where she had visited several times before. The desert was literally calling her, but what it wanted to tell her was yet to be revealed.
The photographer says her book, The Lumen Seed, which features photographs and poetry, is a book of “magic that describes the world hidden inside this world, a world seen only by Aboriginal elders and by the dying”. The Lumen Seed is more like a personal diary, an artist’s journal, a rambling story that is not linear, that leaps from one story to another. But how could it be linear when our thoughts and feelings rarely pour forth in a logical progression, especially when we are in search of ourselves.
The book unfolds as thoughts moving from one idea to another in an unhurried fashion. There are the political moments with references to Maralinga the site of atomic bomb tests back in 1953, the ramifications of which are still felt today; the irreverent moments like the photograph and story of the UFO-themed van park at Wycliffe Well in the Northern Territory; and the spiritual moments that assuage the mind.
In The Lumen Seed Judith Crispin shares stories of her own experiences, and those of the Warlpiri people. The voice of Elder Jerry Jangala is ever present, which makes the experience even richer. As the book unfolds the words of the Elders shape a story about belonging and identity that is encapsulated in this quote: “without the connection between the land and the person, the individual is lost, empty inside, not connected to anyone or anything or the land”.
The poem The Lumen Seed is long and requires time to read and digest, but this verse in many ways sums up the book:
What would it mean to wake in the desert’s arms?
To wake and see sparks climb
from the dark line of night, cigar shaped
and silver, igniting spinifex.
Alison Stieven-Taylor is a writer specializing in photography based in Melbourne, Australia.
Judith Crispin, The Lumen Seed: Records of a search in the Australian desert