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To advance tourism, it's time to revise the media restrictions around Uluru

By Russ Grayson - posted Tuesday, 17 June 2003


Now that fears about SARS and terrorism are depressing the Australian tourism industry, there can be no better time to revise the permit requirements and charges imposed on commercial photography in national parks managed by the federal government.

Freeing-up commercial photographers and video-makers would generate new images that could be used to promote national parks like Uluru-Kata Tjuta and Kakadu as tourist destinations and head-off the ill-feeling now evident among commercial photographers towards park management. Such liberalisation would be timely in light of the June 5 release of the federal government's tourism green paper. This was designed to stimulate the ailing tourism industry and proposed that inbound travel focus on niche markets such as Indigenous tourism.

Long-standing resentment

Resentment over costs and limitations on commercial photography and video production has simmered for some time and focus on the need to apply for a photography or video permit as stipulated by the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Convention Act 1999 (EPBC Act). Regulation 12.38 says that "a person must not use a captured image of a Commonwealth reserve to derive commercial gain". That's all Commonwealth reserves, including those on Christmas and Norfolk islands. In Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, film and video recording attracts a charge of $250 a day; stills photography, painting and sound recording is charged at $20 a day; and, if a traditional owner is required - as may be the case for filming - than it's another $350 a day.

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The appearance of images of the national parks in photography books indicates that some professional photographers are happy with the arrangements or accept them grudgingly. But the issue is controversial among professional photographers and is evidence of a clash of cultural values between the parks' Aboriginal owners and the freedom of commercial photographers to pursue their profession. The commercial use of images does not indicate and disrespect of Aboriginal culture, the photographers say.

Local Aboriginies do not see it that way. The case is put on their behalf by an Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park information document which claims that they do not want to become "camera fodder ... as mere subjects for filming and still photography along with the Uluru sunset". The same document hints at the use of emotional blackmail by alleging that filming and photography are "a matter of respect for the park and its people". Interesting, because photography is often carried out because a photographer or videographer has respect for something, especially an inspiring landscape.

The document goes on to admit that it is understandable that businesses want to use images of Uluru-Kata Tjuta and that the park authority is "obliged to find ways to make this happen while still protecting our own law and lifestyle". The permit system and regulations seek to protect Anangu culture and those sites with Indigenous restrictions on which gender and seniority groups can view them. The document states that filming, photography, drawing, painting and written descriptions of such sensitive sites are subject to restrictions.

Photographers say that charges and controls enforceable by rangers are unnecessarily restrictive. If a ranger suspects the permit holder may have done the wrong thing to "capture an image or record a sound", under the EPBC Act the ranger may seize all copies of the image or recording and the camera or device used to record the sound.

Take only photographs, leave only footprints? Forget it!

The permit-and-charges system makes a mockery of the national park exhortation to "take only photographs, leave only footprints".

The issue recently came to a head with the publication in Australian Photography magazine (November 2002 issue) of an article by Ross Barnett. Developing his argument for greater freedom for photographers in the May 2003 edition, Barnett said that such restrictions are out of place in any national park, especially one on the World Heritage list because of its scenic and cultural values.

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Uluru's status as a national symbolic icon to both Anglo and Aboriginal cultures is also argument for fewer restrictions. Barnett added that while it is important to respect other cultures, "respect does not come about by giving a government bureaucracy the power to vet both photographic images and the written word before they go to publication". That, of course, amounts to nothing more than censorship. Respect "certainly does not come about through giving individual rangers the power to treat professional photographers as though they were the enemy".

Who is affected?

It is not just commercial photographers and video makers who are affected by the permit system. So are people who may want to record the sounds of the park for commercial reasons and artists - the restrictions imposed by the EPBC Act also apply to painters.

Despite the protestations of professional photographers, it is possible to make a case, based on the ability to pay, for fees to be paid by the makers of television commercials making use of images of the park. A similar case could be made for stills photography destined for use in advertising. Publishers of picture books (which celebrate the park, not denigrate it) and photographers shooting for stock, however, do not have such deep pockets.

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About the Author

Russ Grayson has a background in journalism and in aid work in the South Pacific. He has been editor of an environmental industry journal, a freelance writer and photographer for magazines and a writer and editor of training manuals for field staff involved in aid and development work with villagers in the Solomon Islands.

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