Crossing Cultures

Frans Lanting journeyed to the Australian outback for a cross-cultural artistic collaboration

This photograph is the result of an extensive collaboration between Frans Lanting and the late Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula. The image reflects the time Lanting and Tjupurrula spent together in the outback as Tjupurrula showed Lanting his home, shared his stories of place and they worked together as artists.


Tjupurrula at work on a painting.

Photography is not often a collaborative endeavor. True, even the best photographers rely on assistance from a team of producers, fixers, translators and retouchers, but the actual act of creation is usually a solitary one. Breaking out of that norm is a challenge even for a world-class photographer like Frans Lanting, but that’s exactly what he did when he set out to collaborate with an Aboriginal painter during a nine-day trip into the Australian outback.

“The idea behind this undertaking,”
Lanting explains, “was to collaborate with a prominent Aboriginal artist to arrive at a single image that would show both his unique spiritual perspective on the land and a Western photographic interpretation of that. Nobody had tried to do anything like this. Many photographers have documented Aboriginal culture, but to go into this as a collaborative undertaking… This is the equivalent of a musical improvisation, where you start with certain themes, and then you make it work together.”

Lanting was familiar with the work of Australian artists, and friends associated with the Aboriginal community helped seek out artists who might be interested in a collaborative venture. One artist, Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula, let it be known that he was interested in working with the photographer, so Lanting acquired special permits to travel into the tribal lands, as outsiders are not normally allowed there. Seeing the landscape from above on the flight in, Lanting recognized colors and patterns reminiscent of the indigenous artworks with which he was familiar.

The most intimate way to know the unique Australian landscape is to understand the stories of the people who have inhabited it for tens of thousands of years. Likewise, the best way to understand their stories is to know the landscape.

“There has been a flourishing of Aboriginal artists who have created a vibrant cultural record of their identity and how it relates to the landscape,” Lanting says. “The most famous of those pieces are now on display in museums around the world, but it goes back to a very primeval connection with the land. In some instances, these artists are people who spent the earlier part of their lives in the farthest reaches of the outback, virtually without contact with the outside world.”

Together with friends from Alice Springs who understood Aboriginal culture intimately and who were crucial to the eventual success of the project, Lanting traveled to a remote community in the desert of central Australia called Kintore, a birthing ground for this modern Aboriginal artistic tradition.

Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula painting in the Central Desert of Australia.

“To put it in context just how remote that area is,” Lanting says, “only 15 years prior to our arrival in Kintore, the last uncontacted Aboriginal people walked in there from the desert.”

Once on location, Lanting met with Turkey, as he preferred to be called, and began a dialogue. To understand his perspective on the landscape, the photographer knew his primary role would be that of the listener.

“The most important thing is to sit down and listen to stories,” Lanting explains. “Stories help to make sense of the world, and in the Aboriginal tradition, individuals and the clans they belong to are the custodians of important stories. They’re the ones who have the right to tell certain stories and depict them, and nobody else can. One way for Turkey to feel more at ease sharing certain stories with me was by giving me a skin name, an important part of their traditional kinship system. That was a real honor. That skin name is always with me, wherever I travel in indigenous Australian lands. So I’m not just Frans Lanting. I am a Tjungurrayi, too, just as Turkey is a Tjupurrula—that’s his skin name. It’s similar to what family names used to mean in our culture, when they were really more like clan names and they signified a sense of place and origin.

“We sat down around campfires in the desert,” Lanting continues. “Turkey spoke English up to a point, but clearly there was a big gulf in our cultural perceptions. But he was a visual artist, so there was an instant bond between us as well. We started drawing pictures in the sand of concepts, places he knew, ideas I had. I also brought a Polaroid camera that enabled me to show pictures instantly of features in the landscape, and I would draw on them to give him some ideas of how I thought we could approach this collaboration.

Pintupi rock painting in the Central Desert, Australia.

“The images I tried out,” Lanting says, “would lead to a conversation about the meaning of rainbows or certain animal tracks, for example, so that I could understand how he was looking at the landscape. I made it clear that rule number one was that he would be able to veto any idea that I brought into the discussion. Recognizing that the landscape resonated with spirits, it would have been blasphemous for me to impose a view on him and on the landscape that would not harmonize with how he looked at it. When he liked something, he would put his thumb up and say, ‘Number one,’ which was basically his stamp of approval.”

Together, Lanting and Turkey hiked the desert—the local artist offering insight into his homeland, and the photographer from abroad shooting pictures as a painter sketches on a pad. Out of those interactions came images that tell the story not only of the landscape and the people, but also of the unique collaboration itself. The photographs Lanting made became the foundation of a penultimate image, and mingled with Turkey’s stories about the landscape, the partnership blossomed.

“Turkey and his friends started describing the stories they knew,” Lanting explains, “which were internalized versions of the exterior landscape. We played with ideas. Turkey had some canvases there, and we brought in things from the desert, like this reptile called moloch. We put it on top of one of his paintings and you can see it’s like a perfect camouflage, the organic pattern on top of the manmade pattern. That’s how we experimented.”

After a few days together, the group visited a place with a few unusual boulders clustered together—not unlike the merging of artist and photographer. As they camped, Turkey shared a story about this very location involving giant emus passing through long ago.

Lanting and Tjupurrula collaborating over some of Lanting’s photographs.

“In indigenous belief, the whole landscape in Australia is connected by song lines,” Lanting says, “which mark paths across the land made during the ‘Dreaming,’ the time of Creation. The song lines exist today inside the minds of the people in the form of stories that must be honored and remembered to be kept alive, and people find their way through the landscape remembering and reciting those stories. So after we mused on the meaning of those boulders and how I looked at them and how he looked at them, Turkey said, ‘You know, what if I make a new painting?’ Which was an extraordinary proposition. But he said, ‘Yes, I can make that work.’”

Together the artists sat in the sand contemplating the themes, patterns and even colors for the painting.

“It was truly collaborative,” Lanting says, “and then he brought in his traditional symbology, telling the story of the giant emus and connecting it with the sense of place as symbolized by the circles and the lines, which show important landmarks on the journey. And then he went to work, and I was able to document the process of him painting it, the very first strokes and how he finished the canvas sitting in the desert.”

The entire painting, the whole of the collaboration in fact, took place fittingly in the outdoors. Lanting and his team camped for several days as Turkey worked, even enlisting the help of his family to fill in details under his direction.

The large painting completed, Lanting then worked to photograph it in the landscape. He struggled to make sense of the visual juxtaposition, and made several attempts before finding his ideal composition. He propped the painting up, angled it for perspective, and turned it sideways. Many combinations came close, but nothing seemed to do the works of the artist, the culture and the landscape the sort of justice Lanting felt they deserved.

Thorny devil, Central Desert, Australia.

“And then I realized that it needed something else,” Lanting explains. “It needed to be animated. And we hit on the idea—this again came through conversations at a campfire—that we could introduce a goanna to the scene. The people here are known as the Pintupi, which loosely translates as ‘the lizard eaters.’ A group of three older women set off into the desert and came back with a beautiful goanna. We had to experiment with it—but in the end it became clear that inserting the goanna into the scene on a stick, as if it’s floating through midair like a disembodied spirit, was the best execution.”

Ultimately, the cross-cultural collaboration was as much about the indigenous artist accepting the outsider, taking him in, showing him his home, sharing his stories of place, and working together. The end result, that physical collaboration of painting and photograph, was the icing on the cake.

“In the end, the image was published with a joint credit,” Lanting says, “and we both felt very proud of what we created. Sadly, Turkey passed away a couple of years ago, so this is also a definitive record of him in the latter stage of his artistic life. I look back on it now as a really unique collaborative effort. At the center of this was leaping into an unknown entity, both for him and for me.”

Frans Lanting is a preeminent nature photographer, OP columnist and frequent contributor to National Geographic magazine. You can see more of Lanting’s work at