In later life, journalist PP “Paddy” McGuinness forged a reputation as a blistering right-wing columnist. But he started out with left leanings, which were a bit of a worry to Australia’s domestic spy agency, ASIO, who had a file on McGuinness among an estimated 500,000 citizens they had under surveillance through the middle of the 20th Century.
ASIO spent a lot of time taking covert pictures of people of interest, such as McGuinness, and a remarkable exhibition of those surveillance photos , ASIO Through the Looking Glass , opens today at Damien Minton Gallery in Sydney.
The 70 photos of people such as author Frank Hardy, Aboriginal activists Eddie Mabo and Gary Foley, film critic David Stratton and actor Bob Maza, among a range of Australians who went on to become prominent in public life.
The exhibition of these secret photos is the result of research by documentary film-maker Haydn Keenan, whose series, Persons of Interest, is currently screening on SBS TV.
Keenan spent several months trawling through declassified ASIO files in the National Archives and says it’s a unique insight into Australia’s social and political history.
In an echo of current concerns about NSA surveillance and America spying on its citizens, the height of ASIO’s paranoia is best summed up in an anecdote a former spook told Keenan: a file was opened on the Gardenvale Primary School mothers’ club because one mother asked if they really had to put up decorations for Queen Elizabeth’s 1954 tour.
“When you look at ASIO files on shelves, a high proportion of the names you find there ended up having State funerals. These people were seen as potential threats to the state, but an enormous number of them we owe a debt of gratitude to for their contribution to Australian life,” Keenan said.
In the mid ’60s and ’70s, ASIO was especially interested in the arts industry, with a range of writers, actors and film-makers among their targets.
There’s a paradox to an exhibition of ASIO photos in an art gallery, because they are not art, he says.
“They were taken not with the intention of becoming history, but that’s what they are. And the artistic aesthetic is unintentional. The object of the photo is to identify the subject and those associated with them,” Keenan said. “One of the objects of secretly obtained photos is to gain political power over someone without them knowing it. There is a strange theft of identity involved.”
Yet the photos do, at times have an odd beauty. McGuinness appears like Hagrid’s cousin, darting between cars. The photo of novelist Frank Hardy, standing in a doorway on George Street, Sydney, could have been taken by a society photographer like Rennie Ellis.
Keenan says it was taken from the window of the Hoyts Cinemas administration building, and that ASIO had a number of observation posts from sympathetic CBD businesses, including Woolworths opposite Sydney Town Hall and the Windsor Hotel, opposite Melbourne’s State Parliament.
“Over the decades, the location stays same, but fashions change: skirts go up, braces are out, hair gets long, yet angle of photo stays the same. It’s a fascinating timeline,” Keenan says.
The exhibition runs at Damien Minton Gallery in Redfern from 22 January to 1 February.
Here are some of the remarkable photos
Before turning conservative, McGuinness worked for Bill Hayden as an advisor during the Whitlam era.
Stratton came to ASIO's attention because he was seen entering the Soviet embassy. He was seeking a visa to go to a film festival, but was suspected of being a communist agent. It's not known whether Margaret disagreed.
No. 6 is Robert Bellear at an Aboriginal land rights demonstration at Mascot airport Jin 1972. He became Australia's first Aboriginal judge.
Hidden cameras at the airport captured the comings and goings of targets. Norm Gallagher was the head of the controversial union the Builders Labourers Federation and was gaoled for taking bribes from building companies.
Among those in this gathering in support of Canberra's Aboriginal tent embassy were cricketer Michael Anderson, Bobbi Sykes, Faith Bandler and Chicka Dixon.
Among those walking in the May Day March, Sydney, 1955, were NSW ALP Minister Bob Brown and writers Roger Milliss writer and Dennis Freney.
Bob Gould, the legendary Newtown bookseller, former unionist and Labor MP Jennie George and journalist and author Dennis Freney.
Frank Hardy talks with two men at the Waterside Workers Union HQ, in Phillip St. Sydney in 1961.
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