The State Library NSW holds some of the most unique cultural relics in the country. In fact, the library collection descends five floors below street level, State Library photographer and imaging specialist Joy Lai told Urban Village.

“People think the library is just books and printed material, but there is so much more,” said Joy.

Few people would know there’s the collection of human hair jewellery from the Victorian era (then a trendy statement of affection gifted between loved ones), ancient oil paintings, Captain Cook’s journals and ornaments brought over by First Fleet passengers.

“I’ve been here for ten years and there’s stuff that still surprises me.”

Joy has held a camera for decades, beginning on the streets of Surry Hills with a polaroid shooting urban scenes, before the age of digital photography.

Portrait of Joy Lai and Chief Hapuku, painted by Gottfried Lindauer 1877 (DG 302). © State Library of NSW. Photo by Joy Lai

The State Library closed earlier in the year due to the pandemic, the first time its doors have been shut since the 1919 Spanish flu. But it is now open again, having implemented strict Covid safe measures.

With the library reopening, visitors can view their latest exhibition, for which Joy was a crucial part, Eight days in Kamay, which features original sketches and journals from the Endeavour expedition, contextualised by Gweagal knowledge.

“We worked with Aboriginal cultural experts and heard perspectives on their ancestor’s experience as the Endeavour was coming in over the horizon. It was fascinating,” recalls Joy.

The small team set out to the Kamay National Park near La Perouse, the sight of first contact in 1770.

“Really learning about the Aboriginal perspective was incredible. When you’re there it doesn’t feel like 2020. It feels like it could be any time; the landscape is so vast.”

What does the rest of 2020 look like for Joy?

“I’m looking forward to getting back out there, getting back into the landscape, taking time, creating images that are immersive and compelling that resonate.”

Catch the Eight Days in Kamay exhibition free at the State Library NSW until 28th February 2021, or visit their website for the digital experience.

Follow Joy at:
Instagram: @joideverve

Cover image: First light, looking toward Potter Point, Kamay Botany Bay National Park, © State Library of NSW. Photo by Joy Lai