On January 2 2019, Facebook user Benita Tahuri shared the following two images and a post — on the left, the Australian Aboriginal flag, and on the right, a photograph of the “sun and skyscape … as a consequence of the fires”:
In the original post, Tahuri credited another user (Rose Fletcher) for taking the photograph on the right, purportedly showing the sky during catastrophic wildfires:
Haunting images of the sun and skyscape resembling the Aboriginal flag as a consequence of the fires🤔😢🤭
Photo of the right was taken by Rose Fletcher and the only thing I did was add the flag and the image she took and put them together like this
Make of this what you will
To be very clear this is the message from Rose who captured this moment in time yes she took the photo
“Not my photo, a message that was simply passed in front of me, because I had the means to share it. I relinquish all claim to it, please share it. I’m overwhelmed by the response, and thankful to every person who has passed it on to others. When this happened, I was feeling hopeless, all the fires, and there between the sunrise and me, a giant pall of smoke over the Southern Ocean – and then that few seconds I could capture. And then the magnificent response from ordinary people”
Tahuri addressed the perhaps confusing message of the person from whom she had borrowed the image. Although the second user said it was not her own photo, she went on to say it was a “message that was simply passed in front of her,” presumably meaning she captured the image as a photograph but relinquished ownership of it, feeling that it was an important message which ought to spread.
The original post above was shared thousands of times, and yet another iteration shared by user Jan Milne a day later racked up over several thousand shares more:
Milne publicly shared a friends-locked screenshot from user Sue Sully, who shared an image of the Australian Aboriginal flag side-by-side with Fletcher’s photograph, writing:
This is the Aboriginal flag on the left and the countryside burning on the right. Haunting image[.]
On January 5 2019, a user shared the two images to Reddit’s r/BeAmazed:
A Reddit commenter shared a scanned article about indigenous Australian people and fire [PDF], but it had more to do with intentional use of fire to manage the land — not necessarily the devastating wildfires plaguing Australia in late 2019 and early 2020.
Rose Fletcher originally shared the image on December 31 2019, and that post was shared more than 11,000 times. She wrote that the “rising sun behind all that smoke seems to be recalling the era when this country was truly loved and respected”:
A commenter asked Fletcher where the photograph was taken; she provided a location:
I was sitting by the mouth of the Hindmarsh River in Victor harbor when this happened[.]
As for the image’s attributes and striking similarity to the Aboriginal flag next to it, that might be said for Australian sunsets in general. A still from a video published to YouTube in 2010 was not markedly different from the image shared by Fletcher in the sense parallels could be drawn:
Of the two images, the one on the left was simpler to verify. The Aboriginal flag was a fairly modern creation, first flown in July 1971. A page on the Australian Museum’s website explains the meaning of the flag:
The Aboriginal Flag is divided horizontally into equal halves of black (top) and red (bottom), with a yellow circle in the centre.
• The black symbolises Aboriginal people.
• The yellow represents the sun, the constant re-newer of life.
• Red depicts the earth and peoples’ relationship to the land. It also represents ochre, which is used by Aboriginal people in ceremonies.
The flag was designed by Harold Joseph Thomas, a Luritja man from Central Australia. It was first flown at Victoria Square, Adelaide on National Aborigines’ Day on 12 July 1971. It was used later at the Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972.
Today the flag has been adopted by all Aboriginal groups and is flown or displayed permanently at Aboriginal centres throughout Australia.
In sum, the meme was in part more editorial than factual in basis — whether or not the photographs were accurately described is somewhat secondary to the clearly effective message it carries about colonialism and its ultimate effects on lands and peoples. That the image struck such a chord in each iteration was indicative that its message was felt and understood by those repeatedly sharing it on from myriad sources.
The image of the Australian Aboriginal flag is accurately labeled in the posts, and the second photograph of a sunrise over southern Australia was likely taken by Fletcher around December 31 2019. It is true the images resembled one another, but also likely true many images of sunrises could be compared to the Aboriginal flag — not least because its creator modeled the yellow circle in the center after the sun. Finally, the flag itself is fairly modern (48 years old as of January 2020) and carries specific symbolism — none of which specifically involved bush fires or associated catastrophic destruction.