In 1939 the Department of Information was established to ‘undertake the large publicity campaign necessary to support Australia’s war effort’. This campaign was centred principally on increasing and sustaining the people’s faith in the cause for which they were fighting, and sought to gain support for the government’s security and fundraising activities and distribute ‘sound’ facts on the war and its progress.
The activities of the Department were extensive and various, and when, in 1981, two packets of ‘historical’ photographs of a rural Victorian town were returned to Australia by the New York office of the Australian Information Service, a small but fascinating example of those activities came to light.
The photographs were taken by Jim Fitzpatrick, an official war photographer with the A.I.S., who was sent in 1944 to document the impact of the war on the population of the dairying town of Drouin. Now held by the National Library of Australia and recently digitised, the 88 photographs that comprise the Drouin Collection focus on the towns’ people as a community and also on a more personal level. There are portraits of individuals and family groups, photographs of people working and socialising and images of the town going about its business. We learn from the extended captions still attached to most of the photographs people’s names, ages, occupations, their fathers’ occupations, whether they are married or not, and what their hopes are for the future. The social standing of those photographed is plotted with precision and humour, and the wealth of sociological information revealed is quite remarkable. The people of Drouin are portrayed with an unusual degree of freedom and candour made possible, perhaps, because Fitzpatrick knew that his portrait of the town was not intended for Australian eyes.
For Fitzpatrick’s assignment was part of an extensive publicity campaign to convince our allies, particularly the Americans, that we were ‘shouldering our full share of the burdens of war’. A few months after he took them, twenty seven of Fitzpatrick’s photographs, accompanied by an essay and captions by Dave Stevens, appeared in the bi-monthly South West Pacific magazine, under the title ‘A Small Town at War’. South West Pacific was produced by the Department of Information as an information and copy resource and provided free of charge to overseas press and radio editors who needed no further permissions to use the articles it contained.
Then, as now, the Federal government was preoccupied with issues of national defence and greater trade opportunities. With the end of the war in sight, the Curtin government wished to improve Australia’s bargaining position in post-war negotiations and establish the grounds for a closer economic relationship. To do this, Australia needed to be recognised abroad for more than our highly improbable flora and fauna, and South West Pacific was one way to ‘re-brand’ the country by emphasising the values and strong cultural bonds we shared with our allies, and the sacrifices made by the Australian people in support of the war,
Placing the contributions and sacrifices to the forefront, ‘A Small Town at War’ bristles with facts and statistics on the town’s war effort. The first two sentences inform the reader that out of a population of only 1100, 150 of Drouin’s men are away fighting the war. Most families would have been affected, having to manage without their fathers or sons, brothers or husbands. Those few younger men who do appear in Fitzpatrick’s photographs are either on leave from the Armed Forces, working in essential industries, or too young to join up yet. The town’s patriotism is matched by financial generosity, for Drouin has always exceeded its war loan quota of £20,000, and donates generously to the Red Cross and to the Spitfire fund.
Steven’s goes on to provide information on Drouin’s other contributions to the war through it’s local produce – flax, butter and cheese – and the shortages and restrictions faced by residents due to the rationing of butter, meat, sugar, spices, bacon, tea and petrol, and the suspension of normal manufacturing in favour of war production. But readers of ‘A Small Town at War were being appealed to on much more than a factual basis. The detailed descriptions of people’s lives—so detailed one can almost hear the town gossip dictating them—are intended to convey a sense of small town intimacy, and serve to make the people of Drouin real to us. Stevens’ text constantly articulates the parallels between Australian and American society and values and makes an emotional claim that, at heart, we are the same people.
Similarly, the freshness and candour Fitzpatrick achieves in many of his images reinforces the impression that Drouin is a rather quaint, unworldly place, but they are also testament to his charm in dealing with his subjects, for as the clever photograph of a group of older women captured chatting away beneath the sign ‘Talkies’ clearly shows, these pictures are anything but unplanned. The humour of this and other photographs serves to leaven the rather earnest propaganda message as we smile in recognition of our common frailties. And Fitzpatrick’s close-ups of young women smiling unselfconsciously are so beguiling, one smiles back in response. In the United States, images of smiling girls had been selling all manner of products for 50 years and more, and Fitzpatrick uses these attractive girls to help sell the idea that Drouin is a charming town whose people deserve the goodwill and support of all our allies.
Sixty years on, the Drouin Collection reveals how effective war propaganda can be when created by a talented photographer. Just as fascinating is the way the collection allows us to see how the then federal government wished others to see us.
National Library of Australia