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Publicity posters shine a light on post-war migration

14 November 20160 comments

A new book explores the use of publicity photos and posters to attract migrants and refugees to Australia in the aftermath of WWII.

Titled Picturing and Re-picturing Bonegilla, the book by Albury-based historian Dr Bruce Pennay analyses the themes behind the publicity methods used to encourage migration.

Dr Pennay says the book shows how images were used by the government to attract new Australians but also keep the Australian public happy about the mass migration.

publicity-postersIn writing the book, Dr Penney researched hundreds of images associated with migrant camps set up in Bonegilla and Benalla, in north-east Victoria, where thousands of migrants were processed following the WWII.

When the war ended the Australian government recognised the need increase the nation’s population.

The then-immigration minister Arthur Calwell, coined the term “populate of perish”.

So, Australia implemented a scheme to get displaced people from mainly non-English-speaking European countries to Australia to significantly increase the nation’s population and defence force and improve the economy.

Dr Pennay said the government did this by using conditioned or engineered publicity photos.

“Through publicity photos it showed people in post-war Europe a very attractive Australia, with plenty of work opportunities, sunshine and friendly hospitable people waiting to welcome them,” he said.

Dr Pennay said they also used publicity photos to show the voting public how well the migrants and refugees were settling into the country.

“The government showed Australia how good the community was at taking in strangers,” he said.

“The photos showed how well the local societies had adapted to the rapid influx of overseas strangers.”

Dr Pennay said media of the day mostly followed the government lead with positive coverage.

“The national media rarely questioned the program; it did seize on bureaucratic failings when they occurred, like during the economic recessions of 1952 and 1961,” he said.

“I was struck not so much by the sympathetic treatment that the newspapers gave to migrant complaints and discontent in ’52 and ’61, but by the reassuring pictures that appeared almost immediately after.

“For example, they showed the arrival of happy Dutch children or a migrant organisation presenting a cheque to a local hospital,” he said

Dr Pennay said personal photographs belonging to migrants and refugees showed some of that “congratulatory side” but many had a “bleakness” to them.

“Arrival wasn’t always cheery faces waving from train windows,” he said.

“They showed themselves being herded off trains, they showed the communal sleeping, eating and washing arrangements and they showed the difficulties of learning a new language,” Dr Pennay said.

“What I think is most striking about the migrant pictures is that they have now been dug out from family albums and old shoe boxes and their owners have now deemed them as archivable and deposited them with libraries,” he said.

Dr Pennay said all the photographs — government, media and personal — played an important part in local history and public remembering.

“They have been cleverly reworked by visual artists as memory prompts in our public remembering places like museums and other heritage places,” he said.

“We find more and more at Bonegilla (now heritage-listed) a shift in visitor book comments.

“Whereas visitors used to scribble a memory, now they write tributes to their forebears: ‘they were brave battlers’, ‘they sacrificed a lot’, ‘they had a hard time’.

“And not just at the Bonegilla site, but with being out of country, out of work, out of language and often out of family,” Dr Pennay said.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist