L’Oeil de la Photographie series on Photojournalism Now:
The Critical Mirror – June
The significance of captions – April
Why we need professional photojournalists – March
Photojournalism Now – February
by Alison Stieven-Taylor – first published June 2016 on L’Oeil de la Photographie
See the story on L’Oeil de la Photographie with more images.
On May 6th Petapixel ran a story on Steve McCurry and images taken by him that were reportedly digitally manipulated. The story sparked a flurry of discourse on Facebook and other social media platforms about the appropriateness or otherwise of manipulating documentary images.
The Petapixel story followed a blog post by Italian photographer Paolo Viglione who had visited McCurry’s exhibition in Turin at the Venaria Reale. Viglione pointed out a Photoshop error in a street photograph taken in Cuba where a person has been repositioned. Others joined in on social media posting more supposedly manipulated images of McCurry’s, where people had been removed and a streetscape altered.
Comments ranged and raged. Some declared McCurry’s practice as utterly disgraceful and an affront to photojournalism. Others didn’t see an issue because the image in question was personal work, what McCurry described in his response to Petapixel as “art”. Yet McCurry, a member of Magnum Photos, is known as one of the world’s most celebrated photojournalists (although he now labels himself a ‘visual storyteller’ as stated in an article in TIME on 31 May 2016) and with that position comes an expectation that his images are the real deal.
As stated in the NPPA Code of Ethics, a “visual journalist’s” role is to present a “faithful and comprehensive depiction of the subject at hand…to document society and to preserve its history through images”. News organizations and photo agencies have their own codes, which include strict standards that don’t allow the manipulation of images. Industry bodies such as World Press Photo are also doing their utmost to uphold the tenets of photojournalism putting stringent rules in place for the annual World Press Photo competition.
Manipulation of photographs has existed since the medium’s nascent years and even some of history’s most iconic images were the subject of tweaking in the darkroom. Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ was altered in the darkroom to remove the mother’s thumb from the tent pole. According to James Curtis in his book Mind’s Eye, Mind’s Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered the mother had reached out to grab the tent pole in order to steady herself and her grip on her baby. Lange removed the thumb, an act Curtis says was designed to show the mother as less capable of providing for her family and more as “someone stricken with anxiety”.
One could argue that because Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ was the result of a commission by the Farm Security Administration it isn’t strictly photojournalism, but this and other photographs taken at that time were used widely in the press. Is the manipulation of Lange’s image within the realms of what is considered allowable? Does it matter that this alteration may have shifted the narrative of the photograph to reflect what the commissioning body wanted? Does the fact that this photograph was part of a campaign to improve the working conditions of itinerant workers excuse the manipulation?
Whereas the audience of the 1930s had little knowledge of photographic processes, today audiences have greater awareness of the possibilities for manipulation of photographs, which impacts the public’s skepticism about the media’s ability to tell the truth. In fact in the US, the public’s faith in corporatized news is at an all time low with a recent Gallup survey revealing that only four out of ten Americans believe the media reports the “news fully, accurately and fairly”. In the annual trust barometer by Edelman “peer-inﬂuenced media…now represents two of the top three most-used sources of news and information” showing audiences are turning away from traditional news sources.
While we are living in a time when the photograph has never been more potent, a worrying, homogenized aesthetic is emerging in photojournalism where photographs like McCurry’s are looking more like stills from movies. Are the aesthetics of an image more important than capturing reality? Do we, as an industry and as the audience, want photographs that present a sanitized view of the world? Do we want future generations to look back at our visual history and be unable to define what was real and what was fabricated?
Photojournalists perform one of the most difficult, and at times thankless, jobs in media. Often they put their lives at risk to tell stories that are important and to give a voice to the voiceless. They play an essential role in documenting history, in telling meaningful stories and in helping us make sense of what’s happening around the globe and in our own backyards.
The world is not perfect, and photojournalism’s role is to reflect these imperfections. Photojournalism is the critical mirror of the world. In the past photojournalists have been confined to publishing their work through corporatized media, but now in the digital space there are new opportunities to engage with audiences directly. It is a transformative time. Photojournalists need to find new ways of storytelling and to redefine the way the world is documented. Let us hear your voice.
This article is part of a series on photojournalism for L’Oeil de la Photographie by Alison Stieven-Taylor. Be part of the conversation. To share your ideas or thoughts on issues facing photojournalism email firstname.lastname@example.org
The adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand (or ten thousand) words’, doesn’t ring true when it comes to photojournalism. The audience needs to know what they are looking at if the intention of the photograph is to communicate a specific message and derive an emotional response. Very few images can stand without captions and all images that are considered iconic have been supported by words.
While ambiguity in photography as art may be a desirable outcome, in a journalistic context, captioning is as important to the news value of the photograph as the image itself. Cultural theorist Walter Benjamin said using captions would transform the photograph from its “modish tendencies” to beautify any subject no matter how miserable or banal, into an object that contained valuable information that reached beyond aesthetics. Only when the photograph was no longer considered an object of beauty could it become something of value.
Captions play a significant role in the communication of ideological messages enabling the symbolism of the image to be reinforced. Iconic images of the 20th Century – Dorothea Lange’s 1936 ‘Migrant Mother’ and images from the Vietnam War including Eddie Adams’ photograph of the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner, Nick Ut’s ‘Napalm Girl’, and Malcolm Browne’s ‘Burning Monk’ as examples – earned their iconic status, in part, because the captions gave literal meaning to the images, which later came to have symbolic meaning also. Lange’s photograph is representative of the Great Depression, but it is also understood to stand for poverty and injustice, the plight of marginalised women and issues of class. It also evokes the emotions of Madonna and Child.
News photographs become part of historical fact with iconic images representing the collective memory of particular events. With this in mind, the need for accurate captions is perhaps even more relevant in the digital age where the historical repository is vast and largely not curated.
It has always been an expectation that photojournalists provide captions and often detailed précis on their photographs and subjects as a requirement of the profession.
But even when photographers do provide captions, images can be misinterpreted or misrepresented once they get into the production chain of news services. Sometimes errors are simply made in the heat of the moment or the rush to get the story out. At other times captions are written to promote a particular position. In the digital sphere often the desire to get as many hits as possible, to draw attention, is the motivator. Although not all attention is welcomed as a CNN International news anchor found out when he incorrectly retweeted an image last year about the Syrian refugees.
In February 2014 the UNHCR tweeted an image of ‘Marwan’ a four-year old Syrian refugee with the caption that the boy had been “temporarily separated from his family”. The image went viral and was retweeted by the CNN International anchor with the caption: “UN staff found 4 year-old Marwan crossing desert alone after being separated from family fleeing #Syria”.
The thought of a four year-old boy being alone in the desert drew a flurry of sympathy and concern on Twitter. But once the boy’s situation had been clarified, and another photo posted to show he and a few others had fallen behind a much larger group, the tone on Twitter turned to “scepticism and anger at the perceived misrepresentation of Marwan’s plight” as The Guardian reported.
Van Es says he wrote a caption that clearly stated the helicopter was evacuating people from “the roof of a downtown Saigon building. Apparently, editors didn’t read captions carefully in those days, and they just took it for granted that it was the embassy roof, since that was the main evacuation site”. Even in 2013 the caption that ran with the photo was still incorrect – The Economist used the photograph above the lead paragraph in a story “Vietnam and America: All Aboard?” which stated the image depicted the evacuations from “the roof of an official residence during the fall (or liberation) of Saigon.”
Beyond the world of news media, there are of course valid arguments for not captioning at all. Founder of Drik Agency in Bangladesh, photojournalist Shahidul Alam, used digital technology to create an immersive photo campaign, Crossfire, to expose the actions of the Bangladesh government’s enforcement agency, the Rapid Action Battalion, who were given license to capture and execute their own people without due process.
The photographs in Crossfire capture the locations where people have been killed, or from where they have disappeared. The photographs are intentionally ambiguous as Alam explained. “We withheld captions because we did not want to provide a simplistic reading of the image. We wanted the audience to work at understanding…these pictures. Behind each image there is a whole case history so when you go to the Google Earth Map you will find the exact location of each event (killing or disappearance), the case histories behind it and you can unravel the piece to a much greater level. As the viewer you are not just a passive recipient, you need to engage with it. We took this approach because we felt that this is a story that couldn’t be dealt with at a superficial level, one needed to go beneath the surface and to imagine the screaming”. Crossfire has been exhibited throughout Bangladesh and internationally to great acclaim.
Today the digital space gives photojournalists the opportunity to tell their own stories and to provide detailed captions that invite viewers to know more about what they are looking at. With an increasing majority turning away from corporatised media and looking for news and information in social media feeds and on blogs the opportunities to expand the conversation are greater than ever.
Photographs may be thought of as a universal language, but interpretation is open and dependent on the viewer’s own cultural relativism. Without captions the photographer is missing an opportunity to lead the viewer on a storytelling journey. You may not be able to control the conclusion, but you can certainly set the scene.
This article is part of a series on photojournalism for L’Oeil de la Photographie by Alison Stieven-Taylor. Be part of the conversation. To share your ideas or thoughts on issues facing photojournalism email email@example.com
The truth is that more than 2 billion people are still disadvantaged when it comes to digital communications and many of these people are those whose stories need to be told. The notion that everyone has a smart phone is a privileged thought and the digital divide that exists across the globe is widening despite advances in technology.
The ‘digital divide’ is a term used to define the gap between the underprivileged and the wealthy and urban middle class in countries like the US. It is also used to define under-developed and under-resourced nations on continents such as Africa and Asia.
Regardless of geography, the digital divide impacts those who live on the margins of society along with the elderly, rural and indigenous communities, the illiterate and the handicapped. There are billions who don’t have access to mobile networks and many have stories to tell, but no means of telling them.
So when someone says, “why do we need photojournalists when everyone’s got a smart phone?’ the answer is obvious: the most vulnerable are even more invisible today than in the past and photojournalists are perhaps needed more than ever to bring some equity to the visual narratives of our times.
The opportunity that the Internet has afforded photojournalists to reach new networks and to create followings has given photojournalism a great leg up in terms of visibility for their work. And while “visibility (alone) doesn’t pay the rent,” as Magnum Photos’ Susan Meiselas said, if the ultimate goal is getting the story out to a broader audience, then photojournalism has more eyes on it now than ever before.
There are also more images circulating now. With so many images the risk of image fatigue runs high and photojournalists are working to find new ways to tell stories that will cut through the visual clutter and raise awareness of important social issues. And they are also taking on greater roles and responsibilities as they move beyond the confines of the traditional media outlets to take their stories further afield.
There is a long history of journalists as activists and digital technology has furthered the reach enabling journalists to collaborate with others to create online communities where likeminded people can come together to advocate change.
But few formalize their approach in the way that award-winning photojournalist and human rights activist Robin Hammond has. Robin is the director of Witness Change an organisation that “produces highly visual storytelling that opens minds and changes policies on seldom-addressed human rights abuses”.
Witness Change was officially launched in June 2015, but Robin has been working on long-term projects that address human rights abuses for more than a decade. In talking about his motivation for starting Witness Change, Robin says, “For years I’ve documented human rights abuses around the world. I hoped my work would improve the lives of people I photographed. Sadly, for most, life remained largely the same. Something was missing. I realized that if making a difference is my goal, to witness and hope is not enough; change must be at the center of what I do. Witness Change was formed by a group of people who refuse to believe things must remain as they are. It was born out of the belief that people care, stories are powerful, and change is possible”.
Working with grassroots LGBTI groups, Robin has created a series of portraits, which are accompanied by the personal stories of those pictured. Many of the stories are harrowing accounts of physical and emotional abuse, of terror and torture. But they are also stories of people who are standing strong and true to themselves and those they love. Individuals are invited to post their stories on the Witness Change website also to further the conversation.
While the project was initially created to raise awareness through storytelling in pictures and words it has evolved to be much more. The team behind Where Love is Illegal now works to provide financial support to those grassroots LGBTI groups who collaborated in the making of the project.
Condemned is another of Robin’s projects, which is now also under the Witness Change banner. Condemnedaddresses human rights issues attached to the stigma associated with mental illness in African countries in crisis. This work, which is a book and exhibition, was shot over several years and spans nine sub-Saharan African countries. It has been shown and published around the world and Robin has won numerous awards and accolades. He has also spoken at various conferences and consulted with human rights organizations.
And there have been tangible outcomes. As a direct result of viewing Robin’s work a South Sudan non-governmental organisation started a mental health program; and an advocacy program has been established where books have been sent to influential people such as Bill and Melinda Gates, Hilary Clinton, Bono and Bob Geldof with the hope that drawing attention to these human rights abuses will help to turn the tide.
Robin’s story is quite unique, but it is also indicative of what photojournalists in the digital age are capable of now that they are no longer restricted to the world of corporatized media. And it is reflective of Robin’s belief that change is possible, which continues to fuel his commitment and passion.
Witness Change may be just one example of why we need photojournalists, but it’s a pretty extraordinary one.
This article is part of a series on photojournalism for L’Oeil de la Photographie by Alison Stieven-Taylor. Be part of the conversation. To share your ideas or thoughts on issues facing photojournalism email firstname.lastname@example.org
It was 1989 and Bowie was on a publicity tour for his band Tin Machine. Ockenfels was the last photo shoot for the day. Bowie asked him what he was going to do that no one else had done. “I said, well if you guys all take your shirts off I’m going to light paint you with the flash light. David started laughing and said okay I’ve got to see this”.
The dare paid off and for the next six years Ockenfels collaborated with Bowie on numerous shoots. “David would call me up and we’d discuss the album he was working on and create images that would illustrate what was going on in his life. It was an amazing time”.
Amazing and daunting. “I was working with probably one of the most creative musicians to ever walk the planet. As an artist himself David is a tremendous painter and sculptor and he can be photographed by anybody, but for a time he just wanted me. Every time the phone rang and he asked me for something else, I was like, oh god what am I going to bring differently to the table?”
Frank Ockenfels portraits of David Bowie
After college he worked as a photographic assistant before getting his “big break” in 1988 with a portrait of Tracy Chapman for Rolling Stone magazine. Her album took off and the photograph ran full page. All of a sudden the phone started ringing. “Rolling Stone was your license to kill at that point,” says Ockenfels who found himself in demand, shooting the hottest names in music.
During this time Ockenfels experimented with a range of photographic styles, jotting down ideas in his journals. “At first I was just making tech notes. That morphed into keeping Polaroids. I started drawing on them or just ranting about what I did and didn’t like about the shoot. Then I began collaging”.
These journals inadvertently became his portfolio, conveying a distinct visual signature. “They were just for me, but clients started looking at them and asking me if I could do certain styles they saw in the journals”.
Ockenfels journals are now considered works of art and he’s published various limited editions. In his upcoming Sydney exhibition Frank Ockenfels 3 a number of images feature from the journals including the portrait of Angelina Jolie.
After more than a decade in music, Ockenfels rolled into film and TV, applying his idiosyncratic approach to shows like Mad Men, House of Cards and Breaking Bad and movies such as Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean and Shades of Grey. In recent years he’s also shot numerous editorial portraits from George Clooney to President Obama.
But it is the avant-garde that fires his passion. “A lot of my clients let me see how far I can push the images”. His portrait of Australian film director George Miller is a case in point. “Wired magazine commissioned me to do a Frank portrait”. He laughs saying he’s not sure what that means. “But they like it when I go off the deep end”.
For the Miller shoot he gaffer taped 1930s lenses to a modern camera and showed up with circuit boards and wires hanging out the front of the camera. “George just started laughing. He was taking pictures of the camera and me. He couldn’t believe I was using it, but I showed him the Polaroids and he was like, this is really cool…When I got the contact sheet I drew all over it and that’s the image the magazine chose to run”.
Frank Ockenfels portrait of David Lynch
in interview with Alison Stieven-Taylor
American photographer Ken Schles’ seminal work, Invisible City, was re-released in 2014 by Steidl, 26 years after its first edition. There is also a new companion book, Night Walk.
The work in both books was shot in the eighties when Schles was living in the East Village in New York City. At that time New York City was in a state of decay and facing bankruptcy. On the Lower East Side crime rates were out of control and law enforcement had abandoned the streets. In the late seventies, Schles, then a student, moved into a rundown tenement on 12th Street in the heart of the East Village.
During his tenure the East Village was alive with musicians, artists, designers, writers and poets. The underground music scene was exploding and clubs were pulsating to the new wave punk sound, the most famous CBGB’s, a proving ground for acts like Patti Smith, Television and Blondie.
Here rent was cheap, but life even cheaper and frequently the air rang with gunshots. Heroin was the drug of choice and dealers claimed the neighbourhood. Junkies took their last hit in putrid alleyways and apartments became extemporized shooting galleries. Buildings reeked of detritus, reefer, vomit and alcohol. Getting mugged was commonplace.
Living the life of a struggling artist only carries cachet for those who haven’t walked the walk says Schles. “It was not fun, it was scary and dangerous. You felt like you were taking your life in your hands walking down the streets. It was a pretty nasty place.”
(C) Ken Schles Invisible City
Schles moved into the East Village to attend Cooper Union Advancement of Science and Art where he took a painting major. To make ends meet he worked at the iconic Strand Bookstore. “It was a crazy place, like all the misfits worked there. Patti Smith used to work there, she left just two weeks before I started…I had this sado-masochistic supervisor who spoke 14 languages, but went to these crazy sex clubs,” he laughs at the memory. “He used to send me out during the day to buy drugs for him. It was a wild environment”.
In his second year at Cooper Union Schles discovered photography and his world changed overnight. “I had to take this mandatory photography class and I fell in love with the medium. I felt like it was answering a lot of questions and solving a lot of the problems I was having with painting. One of those problems was I didn’t really like the idea of being in a studio and confronting a canvas. I thought it was too self-absorbed and too self-referential, the canvas like a mirror”.
Photography gave him the opportunity to explore what was happening in his world and to try and understand “how I fit and my relationship to the world. I took off with photography and totally gave up painting. I really got so crazed with it I restructured the whole program at my school and got them to overhaul the photography department. I’d lock myself in the dark room almost like 24/7”. He studied with Lizette Model, William Gedney, and Larry Fink, amongst others and the New York school of photography heavily influences his early work.
(C) Ken Schles Invisible City
He built a darkroom in his apartment. Part of the work was already done, the last tenants boarding up the windows in an attempt to keep thieves at bay. “I put a steel plate on the darkroom door and a heavy-duty deadbolt. I kept all my valuables in there, but I didn’t have much. I got broken in to all the time. I lost count. One time they lowered a rope from the roof…that’s pretty desperate”.
Before he graduated he scored a job as a photographic printer for a number of Magnum photographers including Giles Peress. “That was a real privilege, in a certain way I feel like he is my mentor,” says Schles of Peress. “When I started with him he had just published Telex Iran, which for me was almost a revelation because I loved the way he used text in the book and created this dialogue between image and text. He made you start thinking critically about your relationship to the subject matter, to images, to text. It was very exciting for me to see that book and go through it with Giles. Between the professors I studied with, the people at Magnum, working at the Strand and being in this kind of cauldron of activity in the East Village, that was a really great education for me”.
(C) Ken Schles Invisible City
Carrying his camera with him always, Schles documented the world around him in grainy, often out of focus, black and white photographs that were first published in Invisible City. Schles says this book “is a more self-reflective piece about what I was going through at the time. This is about me questioning who I am and what is this place I am in and trying to build an image of this place for others to understand, not in a purely visual way, but also an emotional and theoretical kind of way. That’s why I call it Invisible City. Even though there’s nothing fictionalised about it, I do feel that each of us, we all have our separate journeys and unique perspective informed through the culture that we live in and through the experiences that we have. With this book I was trying to get to the core of what my sense of being in this place was at that time”.
By all counts it was a difficult period. Schles’ landlord abandoned the building after discovering the tenants, organised by Schles, were preparing to take him to task on the building violations like inconsistent heating, which in a New York winter was life threatening. After the landlord “ditched” Schles was left to run the building.
“At the same time the neighbourhood was ground central for the heroin dealers and there were lots of people coming into the neighbourhood to buy drugs. A woman in my building, the mother of three kids who had a pretty bad habit, couldn’t afford to buy dope. The dealers would supply her and she would let people come up to her place and use it for a shooting gallery so we always had these junkies moving through. At the front of the building was an old school Italian Mafia bar. It was pretty crazy.”
That craziness is captured within the pages of Invisible City in a raw, gritty narrative that echoes the misery and decrepitude of the East Village. But more than documenting the chaos around him, Schles went behind closed doors both literally and metaphorically. In the photograph of an empty child’s pram left in the hallway in front of an apartment are questions of what lies behind that closed door, and what is life like for that infant in this squalid setting? A young man sits in a kitchen an improvised clothing line strung across the room. A blurred image shows the ghostly light of an illuminated cross, a woman trudging through snow toward it. Is it a church or pharmacy? Is she seeking salvation? A scene opens through a vase of tulips. The flowers are at odds with the devastation seen through the window. A man stands naked washing his clothes in the bathtub. A young boy points a gun at the camera. Is the rage on his face an act? A couple has sex amongst the debris that fills a narrow tract of land behind an apartment block. Fireworks light the night’s sky.
The grainy black and white aesthetic firmly situates these images in a particular period, although Schles says at the time the images were taken they were viewed as either as “too conceptual, by the straight photography venues” or not conceptual enough by the avant-garde crew. “I really fell into this no-man’s land”.
“Back then people didn’t like the grainy, out of focus look. I got a lot of shit for it. People were like what are you doing, what’s that about? I thought about Julia Margaret Cameron saying who are you to tell me where the focus is supposed to be. She got a lot of shit when she was working in the 19th Century because her pictures were out of focus. It amazed me that here I was in the 1980s and people were giving me a hard time for it, a hundred years later!”
He continues. “Technically there weren’t very high ASA films. I used Tri-X and push processed it and that also gave the pictures a feel and a look. Because I was photographing in really dark areas, everything felt like it was about to fall apart – could I hold the camera that still for that long, could I push the film. I feel like I was working on the edges of possibility and I think my struggle with the technical is reflected in the pictures. That sense of things almost falling apart adds to the quality of the immediacy of the images too”.
While Schles was living in the East Village the scene began to change rapidly. Galleries started opening and artists began collaborating in a way he hadn’t experienced. Schles fell in with a group of performance artists and the mood shifted. He began to shoot at clubs and bars and it is from this period that Night Walk picks up the narrative. “We were living in the middle of fucking shithole nothingness, but the East Village went from total rags to this otherness and then jumped into this whole other realm…it got co-opted really fast, and Vogue was ringing me asking me for photographs”.
(C) Ken Schles Night Walk
(C) Ken Schles Night Walk
(C) Ken Schles Night Walk
(C) Ken Schles Night Walk
Invisible City was first published in limited edition in 1988 and quickly garnered a cult following. The New York Times declared it one of the best books of that year and in the intervening years it has become a coveted item. It’s release also landed Schles an agent. Throughout the 1990s he carved a reputation in the music industry shooting CD covers for the likes of Green Day, Rod Stewart and Alicia Keyes. “That was always a lot of fun. I got to be very creative and was able to make a living”.
Schles, who now lives in Brooklyn, is no longer interested in working as a commercial photographer, there have been too many changes and he finds the work somewhat soulless. “I was getting dissatisfied with a lot of commercial work. You do it, get the money and in the end you’re not left with anything. The only thing I feel really good about is my own work. That’s something I can look back on and be satisfied with”.
“With my own work, I can work on ideas about what does it means to make an image, to be in relation to something take a picture of it, put it in the world and have someone look at it, read it, interpret it. It’s something we are doing on a global level now, especially now that almost everyone has a camera or so it seems. But I feel like people don’t understand what the impact of that is, or the ramifications or significance.”
He expands. “People are almost mindlessly operating these machines and sending all these messages, but I don’t know if we intrinsically understand why we’re doing it…I think there’s something that can be looked at and analysed about that process…I feel like we are losing this sense of criticality about the way we put ourselves in relation to the image and we are using the image as an extension of ourselves but it isn’t. And I think there’s a danger in that because images by their very nature are seductive and used for propaganda, to sell things commercially, they’re used in all sorts of ways. But we are very slow to come to terms with what we are actually doing.”
“This explosion of photography is creating a whole new situation about our relationship to the image, which is very interesting and very exciting, but being a professional photographer I’m a little wary of what’s the inherent meaning of what’s going on and what the significance is and those kind of issues I think I can pursue in my own work. I don’t know if there is an answer, but it is something that I need to explore.”
As we wrap up the interview the conversation moves back to Invisible City and the new book Night Walk. Schles says it was a “confluence of events” that led to the republishing of Invisible City.
“This is an important document of a time and place in New York that no longer exists. Back then people didn’t want to look at it and now it’s become romanticised. But I was proud of the statement I made as a 27 year old and I felt it was disappearing. I got the rights to it back and thought about getting it republished. At the same time there was this up swell in interest and people started approaching me about showing the work….and Steidl also expressed interest in a reprint.”
(C) Ken Schles Night Walk
At the time both Schles’ parents were dying of Alzheimer’s and he began thinking about images and memory and that led him to revisit the photographs he’d taken so long ago. “I started looking at the pictures and seeing all the people I knew that had died from AIDS back then or heroin or were now dead. Revisiting the images was part of me dealing with my own loss”.
Rather than wanting to alter his original book by adding more images, Schles decided to put together Night Walk. He created a dummy and PDF to show Steidl who was getting ready to publish Invisible City. The next thing he knew he was being asked for final files and a blurb for the catalogue and Night Walk was in production.
“Invisible City’s internal dialogue, its introspective feel sets the tone Night Walk, which is about the vitality of the people. I was really conscious of that when I was putting it together – you’ve got these dead subjects and these are people who are dead – but I get this sense of vitality from the work.”
It seems fitting to end this story with an excerpt from Schles’ dedication in Night Walk: “The man speaks to the boy now. He cannot help but to try to tell him what was meant to be seen; what he hopes will be remembered. All else has been annihilated. I lay these fragments before you, so that you may remember them too”.
Currently on exhibition in The Netherlands:
9711 JB Groningen
3/4 – 7 June
Opens 3rd April, 2015 at 5pm with an introduction by Ken Schles
To buy the books and see more of Ken Schles’ work click here
in interview with Alison Stieven-Taylor
Photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva knows this canvas well. She grew up in Tiksi in the Republic of Yakutia, a northern Russian seaport located on the coast of the Laptev Sea. Her father, a breeder of rare Eastern Siberian Huskies, invested in his children a love of nature and adventure, a spirit that today informs her choices on what to photograph.
Yet photography was not an immediate calling. “I wanted to be a painter, but I wasn’t very good,” she laughs as we chat. “I’ve always loved extreme travelling. So after University I travelled for a year with the reindeer herders of a nomadic tribe in my homeland. The Republic of Yakutia is an interesting place and I’m very lucky to have been born there. There are lots of corners and places to explore in my Republic and I really wanted to go and see what’s out there”.
While travelling with the reindeer herders she slowly began to take photographs. As the year progressed the idea of creating a photographic project of the trip began to formulate. “It was very intuitive,” she says.
Excited by the storytelling possibilities that photography offered, she enrolled at the International Centre for Photography (ICP) in New York in 2008. “New York was a life changing experience,” she says although this was not her first time in the US. When she was 15 years old she had spent a year in Connecticut as an exchange student. “ICP is a pretty special place. Studying with all the students who were as passionate about photography as me, and with teachers whose work I admired so much and being able to see the shows in New York…Giving all my time to photography, I enjoyed it so much and it started to open up a lot of things for me. Once I was out on my own I began to explore it further”.
Since her graduation in 2009 Evgenia has landed work with National Geographic Magazine and had her photographic stories published in the New Yorker and German magazine Mare amongst others. She’s been successful in gaining grants and sponsorship also.
“I am aware of the difficulties of the photographic industry and I wouldn’t say it is easy for me and when I was just starting it was extremely hard as it is for many young photographers. At the moment I am lucky to have enough work, but I generate this work myself, I am not an assignment photographer as such. I try to explore my own ideas and do my own projects and then collaborate with magazines on publishing. I’ve also been very lucky because the topics I am working on at the moment are interesting for people. We will see what happens in the future, but I have good faith in the photography world.”
Her latest series, Weather Man, fulfills a lifelong fascination with those who work in the remote meteorological stations in the Arctic, yet the story came to her by chance as often is the way.
In the Spring of 2013 (April) Evgenia embarked on a sled dog trek with her father, brother and two of her father’s friends. “This expedition was my father’s dream, something he wanted to do with my brother and I when we grew up. We travelled across the Arctic Ocean and the New Siberian Islands, which are completely uninhabited. On the trip we passed two meteorological stations with two or three people working there and we spent some time sheltering at one when there was a big snowstorm. I was really amazed by the people living in the middle of nowhere and I thought there was something to explore there”.
The trip peaked her interest and she wanted to see other weather stations. Evgenia went aboard an icebreaking ship that travels to all the stations once a year to deliver supplies. It was a two-month journey. “I visited around 20 stations, but I realised I was looking for the stations of my childhood, an era of highly romanticised stories about Arctic explorers and those working in the Arctic…you know men with big beards and sparkling eyes. The stations have changed now, they are more modern, the buildings characterless, meteorologists are younger and many work there for short times. So it was a completely different atmosphere to what I was expecting”.
She continues. “And then we stopped at Khodovarikha station. I was there for about two hours while the ship unloaded. As soon as I met Slava (Vyacheslav Korotki) and saw the station I was fascinated by the place and by him. I knew I had been looking for him and we connected right away. He doesn’t talk a lot, but I could see that we would get along very well. This place is so surreal. In summer it is full of sand and you feel you are inside an hourglass where time has stopped. I went back on the ship, but I couldn’t take this man and place out of my head. I knew I had to come back”.
Evgenia says she intentionally chose to begin her project in winter. “It is very dark at this time of the year, and this is something very special about Arctic. I wanted to show the feeling of this darkness. This part of Arctic is completely unknown for many it is a white spot on the map”.
“In my work what I am photographing is real, but I also try to create this special surreal atmosphere to enhance this feeling. That’s why it takes me so long to work on my projects. I worked on this for one year and finally had 14 images. I am not so interested in showing the reality of the place, but little pieces, moments that contribute to this fairytale that I feel when I am there.”
The sense of surrealism also comes with the knowledge that this world Evgenia has captured has now passed: the 1930s station is no longer, replaced by a modern, generic construction. Slava is to retire and return to his hometown of Arkhangelsk, also in northern Russia, near the White Sea.
Over the years Slava has intermittently returned to Arkhangelsk, where his wife lives, but how will he cope living in an inhabited settlement, after so many years spent in virtual isolation? “I talked a lot with him about that,” says Evgenia. “He doesn’t see himself living in a city. He cannot cope with the traffic, he’s afraid of cars, and doesn’t like that he needs to walk only in certain places. He’s used to walking where he wants. He doesn’t understand why everyone is rushing and why people can be so rude, why nobody stops to talk and to say hi. He doesn’t accept this life in the city at all and wonders why people torture themselves!” He plans to return to his parents’ old home situated by a river where he can be at peace with nature.
Creating a Dysturbance
In the main, photojournalists are a resourceful bunch and many are undeterred by the so-called ‘crisis’ in journalism. This is especially true of freelancers who by the very nature of their work are adept at finding ways to tell the stories that are important to them, and to seek new ways to engage the public.
One of the most exciting examples of this ingenuity is #dysturb, an initiative that sees large black and white posters featuring a single image with caption and credit pasted on walls around some of the world’s largest cities including Paris and New York. Now it’s Melbourne’s turn.
As guests of Photobook Melbourne Festival, co-founders of #dysburb, French photojournalists Pierre Terdjman and Benjamin Girette, are currently in Melbourne, bringing their unique concept to the streets and alleyways of the inner suburbs.
#dysturb began in March 2014 when Terdjman, who is an award-winning photojournalist, returned from the Central African Republic. “I had my pictures published in Paris Match, but I wanted to show more images as I felt the public didn’t really understand what was going on there. I wanted to give it more attention.” His idea was to turn his images into large posters and paste them around the streets of Paris. Collaborating with Girette, the pair decided it would be “more interesting to include work by other photojournalists also”. Tapping into their network – photojournalists tend to stick together – they quickly assembled a number of participants all eager to share the work they were passionate about.
“Many of our colleagues are working on issues that are not promoted by the media,” says Terdjman. “Being published and showing your work is very important – no matter if it is in a magazine or on the Internet or on a wall, it is important for people to see what you did and for yourself to show to the people.”
The formula is simple and inspired at the same time – source the image, print the poster, find a blank wall in a location that sees a lot of foot traffic. Many of the sites #dysturb chooses see thousands of people passing each day. “Magazines in France, or the US with big circulations only sell maybe 50,000 copies,” says Terdjman. “We paste the pictures in places where everyday people cross the street, so 15,000 people a day, or more, will see the pictures. In this way we gain much greater visibility for the work and create more opportunities to get the attention of the public”.
Pasting often happens under cover of darkness. While this carries the cachet of a subversive act, the #dysturb team are completely forthright with authorities and local residents. “We don’t run away from the police, we have nothing to hide,” says Girette. The pair has been arrested and told to take down the posters a couple of times, but given they’ve pasted more than 250 images the odds are in their favour.
Terdjman adds, “I don’t think we’d have the credibility that we do if we weren’t photojournalists. Many of those we are working with and who are giving us pictures are colleagues. We know how we work, we know ethically the people that give us pictures are not playing with the pictures or altering the reality of the picture”.
Ethics and photojournalism continues to be a hot topic. The day before I met with Terdjman and Girette the winners of this year’s World Press Photo awards were announced along with the revelation that 20% of finalists were disqualified for manipulating their images. It is a sore point for those photojournalists who follow the creed of the profession particularly in light of the negative public reactions that manipulated news images have drawn in recent years.
“Photojournalism isn’t like fine art, everything doesn’t have to be perfect that’s the point. You can make a beautiful picture without manipulating it. What you see is what you get,” states Terdjman. Girette adds, “Removing objects from pictures is just stupid.”
The ambiguity of the photograph and the issue of captioning has been another point of contention for the profession. Terdjman and Girette are at pains to ensure the captions on the #dysturb posters carry the journalism doctrine of the five W’s – who, what, when, where and why. “In contemporary or fine art you can have an untitled picture and allow your audience to interpret the image,” states Girette. “But with photojournalism you have to orient the audience to the points you want to explain. If you don’t put a caption on the picture five people will pass by and five will interpret the picture in a different way. The caption tells them what they are looking at and then they decide what to see and how to feel about it. For us misinterpretation of the picture is a disaster”.
For #dysturb to be successful it has to be non-political says Terdjman and the group never pastes pictures about national news in the countries the photographs were taken in. “We don’t want people to feel or think we are militants or politically involved”.
To illustrate the point Girette discusses the large poster of the Charlie Hebdo protests in Paris earlier this year. This picture was pasted in London the day after the protests. “We can print and send images very fast. People can look at the date on the pasting and see it was yesterday…with this picture were faster than even some newspapers or magazines”.
The effectiveness of the platform, and their non-profit status, has seen the major agencies like Getty Images and Magnum Photos get behind #dysturb and there is hope others will follow also. While some of the biggest names in the business such as Paolo Pellegrin and Moises Saman are contributing images, the platform also allows lesser-known photojournalists an opportunity to show their work. “We give them visibility they can’t afford or can’t get,” says Girette.
#dysturb is an interesting exercise in what Terdjman terms “inverse” social media. “We use the street as social media. From the street we tell the people to go to the Internet to get more information. It’s not the Internet driving people to the street”. Perhaps not initially, but many people take photos of the #dysturb pastings and share them on their social media networks. Piquing curiosity, more people are going in search of the pastings, and #dysturb now has a mobile site that tells you where they have been in your city. “We are using the platforms that exist to tell the story via other people”.
The momentum of #dysturb has seen its co-founders travel extensively over the past year attending numerous festivals around the world. In addition to pasting posters in the cities they visit, the pair gives talks on the opportunities for social documentary photography and community engagement. They have also instituted a schools program that is being rolled out in France.
In each city they visit Terdjman and Girette also collaborate with local photojournalists sharing the #dysturb dogma – this is not just an exercise in pasting pictures. There are ethical and environmental considerations. “Every aspect of the pasting is taken into consideration,” says Girette from where to paste and how to navigate questions from the public and police, right down to the type of glue used – in this case water-based adhesive. “If we are to preserve this way of publishing and the dialogue it creates then we have to be consistent in our approach”.
“We’d like to see it get to the stage where there are monthly pastings in the cities we are already working with,” says Terdjman. “That way people will get used to it and the audience will anticipate it, be hungry for it. That is already the case in Paris where people who are living around the areas we paste are asking when we are going to paste again.”
It is not surprising with all this activity that Terdjman says #dysturb has become a full-time job albeit one that doesn’t come with a pay packet. He and Girette have backed the project with their own money. They’ve also found a very sympathetic printer in Paris. But while Festivals invite them to collaborate and cover their expenses, they are patently aware that a permanent funding base needs to be established if #dysturb is to continue to flourish.
“For the moment we can’t give the baby to someone else because we need to work on the foundation, but sometime in the future we will have someone manage it for us worldwide,” says Terdjman hopeful they will be successful in finding a sustainable model.
And once they’ve handed the ‘baby’ over? “We both want to go back to taking pictures”.
Q&A with Sasha Stone
Last year while I was in Amsterdam, I interviewed Sasha Stone the General Manager of Unseen Amsterdam Photo Fair (pictured below). Now in its third year, Unseen is dedicated to showcasing new and emerging photographers alongside more established artists. With the emphasis on new and “unseen” works, this year more than 60 photographic artists will show work never before seen anywhere, including online.
Unseen is held at Westergasfabriek, a large 19th Century gas works site in Amsterdam that has been converted by the owners and the municipality into a cultural park, which buzzes with activity. The park is dotted with huge, former industrial buildings that are used for conferences, fairs, exhibitions, and events. Unseen is the only event that encompasses the whole site.
Sasha: This year we are presenting a lot of new attractions at Unseen Photo Fair. One of the most important new aspects of Unseen is the Unseen Premieres. These are works shown at Unseen that have never been seen before in a gallery, institution or online. This means they will be launched at Unseen. We are thrilled to be able to welcome over 60 artists who will be coming with a premiere to Unseen.
We have designed an entire Premiere Route so you can walk past all the premiering images. This route starts in the Transformatorhuis (one of the fair buildings) and gives you a great insight to the newest changes taking place in contemporary photography by both established and young artists.
Furthermore, this year we are launching the Unseen Magazine. The magazine highlights all the artists represented at Unseen Photo Fair 2014 and also focuses on important issues at hand in the world of contemporary photography.
At the festival, we are excited to work with Phanta Vision. They will be presenting their interactive installation Trust a Cloud, which is a definite ‘must see’ at the festival ground.
Alison: What has growth been like in terms of the number of galleries interested in presenting at the Fair (which is by invitation only)?
Sasha: We have seen considerable growth in the number of galleries who are interested in participating at Unseen. We have 53 booths and therefore we have to be selective when inviting galleries to participate. This year at Unseen, we are overjoyed to welcome galleries from 18 countries, with new countries such as Indonesia, Slovakia, Hungary and South Korea being represented at the Fair.
Unseen does not have an open application policy, rather we invite galleries for participation based on content. However, should new galleries who want to exhibit at Unseen should definitely contact us. We are constantly looking for new artists and new galleries.
Alison: Are you seeing any particular trend with the artworks at Unseen this year?
Sasha: A very evident trend is that of crossing the boundaries of photography into sculpture. Artists such as Letha Wilson, Andrew Lacon and our campaign photographer, Lorenzo Vitturi, especially focus on materiality in their work. With a lot of photographers returning to the physical form and questioning what a photograph is in the digital world.
Another feature of Unseen are the Unseen Talks, and this year the line-ups and topics are impressive. In particular are two Symposiums being held on the Friday, and a panel discussion on Saturday, that are definitely worth highlighting:
Under Construction – a group discussion focusing on a new and highly relevant generation of American visual artists for whom the creative process can be as much the subject of an image as its final result.
Saturday’s Panel discussion is on Emerging Platforms, and looks at the places and the ways in which photography is presented.
Plus there’s the Unseen Book Market, which last year was a major drawcard.
Unseen Amsterdam opens 18th September. For more information visit the website here.
Fair Director Alexander Montague-Sparey
Dedicated to high calibre photographic fine art, Photo Shanghai is primarily pitched at the growing Chinese art investment market. I spoke with the Fair’s director, Alexander Montague-Sparey (above), about photography’s place in the fine art market and why Australia and New Zealand don’t rate in this year’s outing.
Montague-Sparey, who is a former director at Christies London, says conceptually Photo Shanghai began two years ago, and after researching what was going on in the space – we’re talking high art, not festivals – it was given the green light.
At the time Montague-Sparey was with Christies working with art collectors in the region. “There was a big shift happening in Shanghai. The local collectors were starting to show more interest in high level works of art, whether it was antiquities or wine or contemporary art and photography was becoming a big part of that also,” he says. As this trend continued to gain momentum Photo Shanghai became feasible and Montague-Sparey was appointed as the Fair’s director.
“There was a lot of enthusiasm about Shanghai specifically coming out of Europe and America,” says Montague-Sparey adding that one of Europe’s most successful photography galleries, Camera Work Gallery in Berlin, signed up straight away. Others followed and Photo Shanghai 2014 quickly began to take shape.
While the northern hemisphere is well represented, he says there are no galleries this year from Australia and New Zealand. “I think that’s really to do with the fact that it’s year one. Photography doesn’t quite seem to have made it that far over into the Asia Pacific region yet, there are galleries that sell photography, but I don’t think they are galleries that are big enough yet to consider doing art fairs in China”.
The recent Melbourne Art Fair confirms Montague-Sparey’s thinking. While there was a smattering of art photography, there certainly wasn’t the vibe that photography in this space is a big part of the art market here. This is more about the number of collectors for photography as opposed to the talent in this part of the region.
In terms of what’s selling in photographic art, Montague-Sparey says, “The Chinese at the moment are particularly interested in fashion photography. They love works that are glamorous, elegant and have wall presence”. Iconic fashion images from the likes of Herb Ritts are popular, but Chinese investors are also supportive of their own artists such as Yang Fudong, who Montague-Sparey says is, “doing really, really well at the moment” and is represented in leading galleries in Shanghai and New York.
Magnum Photos is exhibiting at this year’s Fair and Montague-Sparey says there is most definitely a market for documentary photography in the art world. “Like most markets the (documentary) market is led and dominated by specific names. With Magnum we’ve found that the Chinese are especially interested in photographers like René Burri or Cartier-Bresson who are obviously iconic photographers. These are names and images that they recognise. Of course Cartier-Bresson spent a lot of time in China and documented the political history of that country and his work resonates particularly in Shanghai. But there is absolutely a precedent and a market for documentary photography internationally that is led by iconic photographers”.
I ask Montague-Sparey if there is a correlation between what Photo Shanghai is doing and the plethora of photography festivals around the world. “Are you looking at these festivals for emerging talent or are you very much relying on the gallery market?”
He says, “We are working with festivals, but there is a bit of a disconnect between the festivals and our business model because we are essentially aiming to sell photography to quite established, or certainly very passionate new collectors. Photo festivals are really a celebration of photography at the entry level or the local level. Most of the Chinese festivals are celebrating local talent, but that’s a very different thing. We are selling some of the most established names in the industry, dead or alive, spanning 150 years of the medium, to an international audience, and it is a commercial perspective that you don’t tend to find at the festivals. The bar is set quite high at Photo Shanghai. But we are helping each other.”
Asked if Photo Shanghai is interested in exploring new and emerging talent, like we see at fairs such as Unseen Amsterdam, Montague-Sparey says “Absolutely. In year two we are going to have a dedicated emerging talent section because I think it is very important to try and celebrate photographers working in Shanghai, and other regions in China, who don’t yet have a vehicle to be seen”. This year Photo Shanghai will feature a handful of smaller galleries from China who already have “strong emerging talent on their books”.
“We take it for granted in the west that this medium has been sold for decades now, but in China it is an emerging art form from the collectors’ perspective”. As such educating galleries who may have never taken on photographers before, educating the collectors and also the artists form part of the primary objectives for the Fair.
“A huge part of the program is a lecture series we are holding on every day of the Fair. In our program there are lectures on what it means to collect photography, the editioning process, what to look out for, condition issues, provenance, framing, lighting – all the stuff that is so integral to collecting photography.”
He continues. “With all things that are new you need to educate your audience and hold their hand. I have done that with a lot of collectors, explaining the editioning process because they want to know that it is a controlled thing and that there is only going to be ten examples of this print or that the work is unique. So there is this whole world to explore and communicate to the new audience of collectors in China”.
Currently New York leads the fine art photography market followed by Paris and then London. “Those three markets are so robust, but there is this whole opportunity in the East and that’s why it is so exciting,” he concludes.
Shanghai Exhibition Centre
Visit the website for all the details
Australian photographer Rod McNicol has made a 36-year career out of a singular vision; to take portraits in the 19th Century ‘stare back’ style. Now a major survey of his work, ‘Memento Mori’, is on show in Melbourne.
McNicol was one of the early students of the now infamous Prahran College of the Arts in Melbourne. In its heyday in the seventies, and under the tutelage of one of the most creative, and unorthodox teaching staff, Prahran encouraged its students to genuinely think outside the box. But after a semester at Prahran McNicol decided the College environment wasn’t for him. “I knew I’d be locked into this obsession and I was right. Three and a half decades later and I’m still there”.
In his short time at Prahran McNicol made important contacts that led him to co-found The Photographer’s Gallery in Melbourne with filmmaker Paul Cox, a former teacher at the College and photographer John Williams. The Photographer’s Gallery, which is now defunct, “was a locus and the means whereby Australians, working at home, could gain credibility overseas,” to quote Tony Perry, a former teacher at Melbourne’s Photography Studies College, in 1980.
Out on his own McNicol rented a “daylight studio” in the inner Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, where he still practices today. “I’m a serious village elder of this area now,” he laughs telling that the neighbourhood has changed dramatically in the 36 years he’s been in the studio. Like other dilapidated, but colourful inner city suburbs, the gentrification brush has swept through Fitzroy too. Spaces like McNicol’s studio add flavour to a suburb that is at risk of becoming too vanilla and losing its Bohemian cache. But while he watches new apartment blocks replace old shops and arcades on the street where his studio sits McNicol wonders how much longer he’ll be able to stay; “my work is etched into these walls” he laments.
It was here in Fitzroy that McNicol started taking photographs of his peers, images that became part of his early body of portraiture work, and some of which form the basis to the double portrait series on exhibition. “They were very stark, very black and white and framed identically and quite ruthlessly,” he says.
Work from this period has been shown in Australia and also overseas, but McNicol is largely unknown outside the insular art photography scene here. I mention his story is not dissimilar to another Australian photographer, Max Pam. Lauded in Europe, and France in particular, Pam is somewhat ignored in his homeland. McNicol expresses his empathy. He tells, “The French get me. They took to my photographs quite readily because I was not just referencing the history of portraiture in photography. I was also drawing on imagery that came outside art – criminology, mug shots and also phrenology”. McNicol’s leaning towards the bizarre, creates an ambience of intrigue that appeals to the French sensibility in art and the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris counts McNicol’s portraits in its collection.
The title of his exhibition ‘Memento Mori,’ is Latin for a symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death. McNicol says it reflects the origins of his “obsession” with a particular type of portrait photography. “I came into photography when it was more social documentary, generally speaking. But I was always fascinated by 19th century photography especially portraits where people were staring back into the camera”.
While 19th Century portraiture was dictated to by slow shutter speeds and cumbersome equipment, McNicol came to the genre at a time when he could have pursued a range of styles. “But I really love the engagement you get from that look back (from the sitter) and that look back in the 19th Century was never far away from one’s mortality”.
McNicol, who is now 57 years old, has spent his career in this “obsessively singular way.” He labels his work, “Anti-portraiture because when you think about the thrust of most great portraiture, they are trying to express all sorts of things about the personality of the sitter. But the territory I go into I am stripping all that back and creating nothing but this look back into the camera”.
‘Memento Mori’ presents a selection from McNicol’s oeuvre, but the centrepiece is his series of double portraits that have been taken at intervals of 20 years or more in the same studio, against the same wall. For some sitters it must have been a déjà vu moment. These double portraits are presented with the original black and white image on the left side and the more current portrait on the right shot in colour.
There is one portrait in this series that most definitely evokes ‘Memento Mori’; the portrait where the sitter appears only in black and white, with the corresponding colour panel blank. Allegorically this photograph quietly says ‘I was here for a time and now I’m gone,’ but all of these works talk about the passage of time. “That’s a crucial image in the series,” says McNicol. “The fact that we age, we change and that I’m hinting at a fate that is awaiting all of us”.
“I wanted to make my portraits from my life around me and fortunately at the time I started in photography life around me was pretty vital. I did a series of portraits of my peer group – actors, artists, writers, junkies – all of us outsiders really.”
As our interview comes to a close McNicol says, “When you have someone quietly in front of your camera looking back at you, even though in the way I’ve done my work I may be removing questions of personality and gesture, what you do end up with is a very engaging look back into another human being. It is a strange territory to keep going back to”.
Until 31 August, 2014
Monash Gallery of Art
860 Ferntree Gully Road
Wheelers Hill (Melbourne)
American photographer Mary Ellen Mark has been taking pictures for more than 50 years. In May the Stills Gallery in Sydney hosted her first solo exhibition in Australia featuring a number of images from the eighties and nineties including some shot for National Geographic in 1987 for a story on Australian Immigrants.
More recently she’s worked in Australia as a stills photographer on three of Baz Luhrmann’s films – ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘Moulin Rouge’ in Sydney, and ‘Australia’ in the remote town of Kununurra in Western Australia, 3,040 kilometres (1,889 miles) from Perth. I can tell by the way Mark pronounces” Kun-un-urra” that she is still savouring that quintessential Australian outback experience. Of her time with Baz and his multi-Oscar winning wife Catherine ‘CM’ Martin she says, “Great people, brilliant”.
Internationally Mark is equally renowned for her film stills as well her documentary photography and she’s managed to successfully live in both worlds without losing her visual signature. She is credited with shooting more than 50 films including ‘Tootsie,’ ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ ‘Apocalypse Now’ and Fellini’s ‘Satyricon’. Mark tells me these commissions, and her magazine work, have funded her personal projects, which lie at the heart of her photographic practice.
Like other notable photographers Mark studied painting and art history before photography came into her life. “When I went to university I wanted to be either an architect or painter, a fine artist; I found being a painter very isolating. As for being an architect, that’s very academic, very difficult and I am not a good engineer,” she laughs.
At graduate school Mark took a major in photojournalism; it was a light bulb moment. “Photography became an immediate love for me. I had always read books about photography and was always fascinated with great photography. But it hadn’t occurred to me that it was something I could do myself until I got to graduate school and picked up a camera in my very early twenties”.
Following graduation Mark secured work with publications she’d grown up with such as LIFE. “In the Sixties there was a real life for a photographer working in magazines. Magazines needed great photography and they believed in it. I wanted to be an artist and take pictures that move people and that would last far beyond my lifetime. I wanted to become really great at what I did, that’s always been my goal”.
“I always thought of magazines as kind of my grants. A lot of the time they’d let me go and work on my ideas. It was a great time, but it’s changed. I think work for magazines now is very illustrative, and I’m not an illustrator, I’m a storyteller. Today images in magazines are controlled by post-production, that’s the real artist not the photographer,” says Mark. “Magazines are not interested in work that is very personal. They want work that can be changed with a grey or blue filter in post-production. If young photographers are interested in what I was, in telling stories, they have to pursue that. Don’t let technology push you around”.
While Mark hasn’t made the shift to digital – she still shoots medium format and 35mm film – she says, “I am not against it. I teach and most of my students shoot digitally and some make great pictures. But for me it is a different mindset as it involves the computer. It’s a different thought process, and I know film so well and I love the prints…I don’t want to give that up”.
It isn’t nostalgia colouring her view when she speaks of the constant bombardment of imagery from cyberspace. Mark says the current level of activity in photography has “lowered the bar. I don’t think people know what good photography is anymore, not just the public but those working on magazines also. There is no discrimination, everything is uploaded, downloaded, and we are inundated with images. People are not dazzled anymore by how difficult it is to take great pictures”.
Continuing she says, “We used to look at magazines and see the pictures of great photographers who took incredible images that stuck in our minds forever. Now we are seeing average nothingness. I mean it is true that anyone can take a picture, and some make good pictures, but it is very hard to make great pictures, very hard and I don’t think people know the difference anymore. I think people are becoming numb”.
I ask – ‘who, in your opinion, are the ‘great photographers’? The phone line goes quiet while she mulls the question. “I’m looking at my wall in the studio, I have a lot of prints up here, people whose work I really love,” she tells me down the line from New York. “For me the photographers who were the great photographers are still the great ones – W. Eugene Smith, Irving Penn, André Kertész, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Margaret Bourke-White, Helen Levitt…A great contemporary photographer is Graciela Iturbide from Mexico. With the great images I think they heighten peoples awareness about life and about art and humanity”.
(C) Mary Ellen Mark
Throughout her career Mark has been drawn to stories that fall outside the mainstream – brothels in Bombay, street kids in Seattle, pregnant teens, circus performers – creating visual explorations that peel back the layers of the human experience. Very much her own woman – Mark is one of few that have rescinded their Magnum Photos membership – she is still resolute in carving her own path.
Like many great photo essays her idea for ‘Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay’, which became one of her most lauded projects, came by chance. “When I first went to India in the late sixties someone took me to Falkland Road. It made a lasting impression on me and I said I’m going to come back here to photograph these women. It took ten years to pull it together, but I did go back and photograph them. You have to be determined. I’m proud of that work and nothing has come close to it as far as the intimacy and the look into the lives of these women. People still struggle with how to deal with that work”.
‘Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay’ became a book, one of the 18 she has published. ‘Man and Beast’ was released this year and is her latest, featuring works from Mexico and India. Here Mark’s images explore the complex relationship between humans and animals, one of the topics of fascination for this erudite photographer.
Currently she and her filmmaker husband Martin Bell are working on a sequel to Bell’s 1983 film Streetwise. Again this story began by chance. Mark was on assignment in Seattle for LIFE magazine shooting a story on runaway children. After photographing these children and hearing their stories, Mark went home to Bell with enthusiasm to pursue the story in greater depth. Bell agreed and later that year the pair returned to Seattle to make the documentary film. Since then they’ve been following the life of one of that film’s protagonist, Tiny, who they met as a 13-year-old prostitute living on the streets of Seattle. Mark says Tiny is now a mother of ten. There is also a book of this work.
“All my projects mean something to me,” says Mark. “I develop relationships with many of my subjects and l love going back, I really believe in going back. It’s very moving when a project ends and yes, it’s sad. But I’ve always felt you are only as good as the next thing you do so I’ve made myself move on.” At 74 years she has no intention of slowing down, there are too many stories left to tell.
It is late in the day in New York as we end our interview. Mark’s voice is full of an energy that belies her years. As we get ready to hang up she says, “Call me if you need anything else, if you have more questions. It was a pleasure”.
Falency, Moe, Nana From the series: Tama’ita’i Pasifika Mao’i 2014
Gago says in reflecting on the universal images of the Maori Pacific experience “the one thing I’ve noticed is that Maori Pacific people are always captured in a moment of extreme cultural expression. We are always overtly expressing our culture in costume or dance and rarely are we shown in an everyday setting. There is still a real Colonial perspective on the Pacific experience in New Zealand and we are represented as working class, you never see academics or lawyers for example. As an ideological transmission of culture I’ve always found that problematic and disingenuous. In building my own cultural language it has been really important to convey authentic experiences where we are not relegated to a decoration. To show diversity and that we are modern, complex and sophisticated”.
Having trained in film studies, Gago tells me he has chosen to work with still photography rather than the moving image to investigate the notion of the Pacific identity in visual culture. “I am not in a rush to make a film. Right now I want to look at the still narrative to develop my own visual and cultural language. I’m really interested in this idea of cultural framing especially in relation to Maori and Pacific and New Zealand identities, and what that could possibly look like. Over last four years I’ve spent that brief period developing my own cultural framing and trying to figure out how to build a narrative within the still frame; something that is equally complex and layered as say a video or a film with the intention of arriving at film practice sometime in the future”.
He says taking a slower approach is necessary as the work is quite “personal and intimate and it deals with the politics of real living people…sometimes you just can’t rush that process. It takes a lot of getting to know your subjects and building relationships and connections with them because I am basically capturing their identity. For me it has to be a meaningful experience”.
Currently the focus is on his peers, he is 30 years old, and younger people because he feels their identity is underrepresented in the broader understanding of Pacific culture. “These kids are building their identities from scratch because they are three generations removed from the Pacific. They don’t always necessarily grow up learning their language or being embedded in the cultural framework. I am interested in that for the moment”.
The commission for the Auckland Festival is the first time Gago has photographed the women in his Pacific family and community. He says it is a natural progression from his earlier work dealing with masculine identities, and also queer identity in the Pacific, which he says is even more invisible within Pacific cultural representation.
“To balance out the narrative I wanted to look at the women in my family. I talked to a lot of people about what they imagine the Pacific experience is for women. Many said ‘oh aren’t they unemployed, with like nine kids sitting at home wearing Mena dresses and huge flowers behind their ears! That’s what people outside of my community think, and that’s their lasting image, which is perpetuated by advertising and national rhetoric that really promotes New Zealand as being a Pacific country and the women as decorations.”
He says the reference to the Mena dress really impacted him as these dresses are extremely expensive and many families can’t afford them; the association rankled him enough that he decided to wrap one of his subjects in a large swathe of floral fabric as a kind of protest against the ridiculous assumptions and the ignorance around the Pacific culture. (See the photograph of Vicky and Genevieve above).
During our Skype interview I share the news with Gago that the Festival’s Director Julia Durkin had told me she thought his work was the ‘best commissioned piece’ so far. “That’s awesome, I’m really flattered. I didn’t realise how happy they were with the work. This is the first I’ve heard that, so thank you. I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m kind of blushing,” he smiles shyly.
In closing Gago says he hopes his work will create a point of reference for future generations. “I hope when they look back they will know where they came from and what the period and the Pacific experience looked like. I hope that anyone who comes to the show who is Maori Polynesian can see themselves reflected in a genuine and positive manner. And anyone who isn’t achieves that insight as well and an understanding of what Pacific identity is”.
Raghu Rai in interview with Alison Stieven-Taylor
|Mother Teresa (C) Raghu Rai|
March 2012: I arrive for my interview to find Raghu Rai combing his hair and smiling genially in the lobby of a hotel in Fremantle. The weather gods have turned on a fine day and even though the morning breeze is at times cool, especially in the shade, there is ample sun. Raghu tells me he would prefer to do the interview in the park across the road. He wants to ‘feel the breeze on my face, be in nature’. But at the park’s cafe they don’t accept foreign currency and his attempt to gain sustenance is thwarted. I haven’t brought my purse, carrying only my notepad, recorder and room card.
We retreat to the verandah of the hotel and I launch quickly into the interview, aware he is hungry. I have already been up for several hours, and taken a long walk. ‘Me, I like to sleep as much as I can,’ he reveals with a throaty chuckle. The old, they like to sleep, is the inference, but this man is a very spritely 70 years old, the glint in his eye still visible, his energy that of a much younger man.
I come to interview Raghu through a series of encounters. After seeing his exhibition My India, I was intent on interviewing the creator of these deeply meaningful and evocative images that capture what we may now call, Old India. This is the India before the Western influence that is today apparent across the country leaving behind a complex and intense values system that is being scuttled in the rush to tomorrow. His black and white photographs demand you slow down and take in all the details, the nuances. These images are multi-layered in content and during my four day visit to Foto Freo 2012, I have returned to the gallery multiple times.
Raghu is of Old India himself and my first encounter with him is at the seminar at which he is speaking. His words fill me with a sense of hope for humanity – I know that sounds extreme, but his words are so heartfelt and uttered with deep integrity and he has such a centered countenance. He is mindful of his existence. When asked by a panel member how he wants to be remembered he laughs and shrugs. ‘Who cares?’ he says his whole face participating in the smile. I immediately like him and am drawn to his philosophy and want to explore the topic further. The only thing to do is figure out how to get the interview as I fly out the next day.
But fate is on my side. That night I am at an exhibition opening. I turn around to see Raghu in his billowing black cape, looking like a holy man his hands clasped in front. Remarkably he is alone. Before others recognize him, I walk up and introduce myself. I talk rapidly, mention the magazine I write for, and that I’d like to interview him, but I leave tomorrow at midday. Breathe, breathe. I launch in again – if you can’t do it now, we could do it by phone, or by email I suggest, but my enthusiasm for those mediums isn’t great and it is obvious in my drop in energy. He prefers face to face, he says, suggesting we meet the following morning in the hotel lobby.
So here we are.
AST: ‘I found your work inspirational when I saw your exhibition and then when you talked yesterday I felt very emotional. I thought wow, there is a lot of heart and integrity behind your work because a lot of your photos are quite confronting in their subject matter. And I wonder if you can talk a little about how you find that balance between photographing the human condition even when it is in a desperate situation and still being so calm?’
RR: Well this is the kind of discipline that you achieve over the years Warm heart, cool eye, so that you don’t get excited. To receive anything the way it comes like a clean screen of a television so whatever you reflect is truthful and honest and without being dramatized. Our responses can be very dramatic. The kind of emotions and feelings that you receive, you reflect this, without imposing anything upon it. This is a very important discipline. We say photographers capture the truth, so the truth has to be captured as it is.
AST: Is this something you have learned over time?
RR: I’ll say you keep learning and keep understanding that discipline, but in any given situation – even if you don’t understand many things at times – your human instinct is the ultimate mirror that reflects the truth in its entirety. That’s where the magic lies, you know, because instinct is something more to do with your heart and your spiritual feeling. Most of us, we come from here’. He touches his head, referring to the brain as ‘the biggest computer god has installed in all of us. And it has all memories, sounds and sights, so most of the time we connect here (he points to his head again) and we try to analyze – Oh Yes this is what it is. So let’s take this. – And the moment you shut this bloody thing off (touching his head) or you deprogram it once and for all and then you come from here (he puts his hands on his heart) and instinct. Instinct in creativity is the most powerful tool.
AST: And how did you learn to turn your computer off?
RR: You don’t learn, you keep practising, sometimes it works very well and other times you are preoccupied or you have problems or whatever and then it doesn’t work at all. It’s not something that you own, it comes and goes because we human beings get affected by so many things around us. Life is not that simple in terms of going on this creative journey.
AST: Do you think coming from a country like India that has so many complexities in its culture that it enables you to look at things in a more holistic way?
RR: I guess to some extent it does help you with basic value system, but the discipline of the medium, which requires its own kind of practice is one thing and secondly being very instinctive while you take pictures. You know I say why I don’t like to shoot elsewhere in the world? Because I can smell and feel India even with my eyes closed. I can feel the energies criss-crossing my space and it becomes far easier to get to the depth of things. Maybe instinctively I can also, once in a while, do something good (away), but I will not be as centered and as easy as I am back home’.
Once Raghu did a month-long project in Mexico with Sebastian Salgado. ‘I loved being there, but it wasn’t the same as shooting in India. Sebastian, who travels everywhere, said to me he takes his home with him, in his heart…I want to understand my village to the last detail. These words might sound very heavy, but they are very precious to me in the context of how I feel about photography’.
RR: (Laughing) Who cares? It doesn’t matter because my life here and now is very precious to me. If I interact with that kind of instinct and intensity I will be a fulfilled human being. It’s that process for people from the East because our philosophy of life is very different.
AST: When you started you were in your mid-twenties. Did you have an idea of the subject matter you wanted to cover or were you open to whatever came your way?
RR No my first few pictures, I never thought of becoming a professional. My younger brother was a photographer and I had met photographers through him, so I thought OK let me play this game. But when I started playing this game – the important thing is the liability of becoming a photographer, of a creative photographer – I didn’t have any such liabilities, I was just having fun with the camera. So that was a very easy period for me and in my first year of photography I managed to take some pictures that even today when people look at them they say are masterpieces of their own kind. Why? Because I was coming from instinct, you know, and responding in a very natural way. And grabbing something, which I thought was so amazing, and had so much feeling already, that’s all.
AST: If I recall correctly, you took a shot of a baby donkey in a village at dusk and your brother sent it to the picture editor of the London Times. They ran it in the weekend paper…
RR: That was quite a kick for me. Now when I look back I say because I didn’t have the liability, I was a free man. When I became a professional I began looking for good pictures. It changes your attitude, when you are looking for good pictures you are feeling less and thinking more. What a dangerous game it becomes (laughter), but now after so many years one is almost liberated. It doesn’t matter and now I photograph the trees, the clouds, I photograph anything anywhere and it is my own connectivity with every element on this planet that matters in any given situation. It may not matter later on, but just now it does, it’s precious.
AST: So you have the philosophy that we only have this very moment, that this is the given?
RR: Yes, and connectivity is the main thing, with larger spaces, larger experiences. Each time I picked up a camera I could take a concentrated look at the world around me and the world was becoming very fascinating for me. I began a very serious, intense affair with life and nature with my camera, and this is how I started doing photography. Then I started shooting for newspapers in India, but newspapers or magazines, they have their own editorial demands, which teach you to be a little more disciplined. But they also restrict you in many ways. So what I was doing simultaneously was that I was also shooting for myself.
All those guys in the West, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Eugene Smith were at that time a very powerful influence on me because of their strong black and white works. I used to look at those magazines. I used to love many photographers work and still do, but I decided to relieve myself of influences by taking photos that were similar and never printing them, getting them out of my system. The West is too far away and very different from us. The life and nuances of India are very different compared to anywhere in the world.
AST: You had quite extraordinary access to Mother Teresa. What was it like photographing her?
RR: I think that purified me a lot being with her. I’m not the kind who does prayers or goes to temple or the church or anywhere, but it was such a pure powerful experience. You know what she would do? She would not look at you she would look into you. Imagine someone going inside of you, it’s dangerous (laughs). Mother knows everything so you better be good and clean. It was a great learning and I remember the first encounter was in 1970 when she was hardly known. About ten years after I decided to do a book and I went to her. Each time you met her you had to come back to that level with Mother, direct and instinctive. She said to me, no there is no need to do a book. So I explained to her, I said Mother, I have done five books on different subjects and Mother it is not because I want to do another book. She said, what is it? And I said, Mother you know your work has given me the purity and connectivity with the Lord? She said yes. And I said, anytime I am working on any other subject I get this longing that I must go to Mother. She said all right I’ll do the prayers and I’ll let you know. And I said, Mother I have done the prayers.
It took me ten years to understand that Mother served two things – mankind and connectivity. When she said I’ll do the prayer and I said I’ve done the prayer, she had the same respect for my prayers as for hers. That is something that was so special about that human being, that she valued others’ prayers. The feeling was so intense, for me to do the book that she said, okay we will do it’.
Another two books on Mother Teresa followed. When the second book was finished he took it to Mother who by this time was in grave health.
RR: She was very unwell. I went to visit her and wanted to show her the book. The Sisters said if the doctor allowed her to come out she would and sure enough she did. I sat there for a few hours, and then she came out in a wheelchair. There was such an aura, a spiritual energy around her. I went to her and said Mother I have the book. She took it, flicked through it, said ‘that’s nice’ and gave it back to me. You know if I have experienced that, when someone asks me how I would like to be remembered, it doesn’t matter.
AST: Are you interested in photographing modern India?
RR: You can’t ignore the changes – those images of India (his), the eternal India, are far deeper in human context. Now all these new elements have come into our culture like the advertising from global brands that are competing for space. It is a mish mash of a nation and a culture, which is also very interesting. Maybe in my country I look at the nuances and details in my culture the same way you see yours, but there is no Indian way of seeing things. If there are 20 photographers shooting the same situation they will all take a different image.
AST: Do you have any advice for those embarking on photography as a career?
RR: I want to uproot you and toss you in the air. When you come down, you don’t put your steps on anyone else’s footsteps and you don’t step on your own footsteps. Define your own approach. Nature will offer you something. Try to discover a moment, rather than allowing everything to happen in your head. Life has so much magic happening all the time, but if we are just shooting with our heads then the world of photography becomes very boring. My personal journey, my exploration, for myself has been to invest my mind, body and soul in my photography.
British-born photographer Sam Harris is best known for his body of work “Postcards from Home”, through which he has demonstrated a unique approach to turning family photographs into a visual narrative that appeals to those outside the family circle. But his journey to this point has been one of hard truths, dogged determination and ultimately personal discovery, as he tells Alison Stieven-Taylor.
Postcards from Home (2008-2011), the first of a series, has been published online and is also an award-winning book, which has found wide appeal across cultures. “I think it is a common truth that if something is intimate then it is pretty universal really. I am sure Fellini said something along those lines,” he laughs. “Beyond that I guess the passion and the love that comes across in the photos is maybe refreshing when there’s so much sex, drugs and war photography out there”.
Harris, who now lives with his wife and two daughters south of Perth in Western Australia, began his career in London shooting bands for record covers. He says he came to photography through his interest in painting; he is another who originally wanted to be a painter, like renowned UK photographer Lewis Morley. “But I fell in love with the darkroom and the ability to play around with negatives and create images from my imagination. From the darkroom I took that into the studio and in-camera,” he says.
I know from my time as a music journalist that when you work in rock ‘n’ roll everyone thinks it’s so glamourous, celebrities and all that rubbish. They also assume you’re working in a hyper creative space, which was true in the eighties and nineties before the corporations saw dollar signs and gobbled up small labels. To quote from the TV series ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ “when the marketing people got involved everything went to shit”. Harris agrees.
“When I started out it was about being inspired by the music. I’d come up with ideas, meet with the band and then create some kind of piece of artwork that would be used for the record cover. But I didn’t like making that kind of work to order and that’s where it was heading,” says Harris of his former life in London.
Bored with record covers Harris turned his focus to artist portraiture. The first magazine he shot for was the Sunday Times. “That was a lucky break and got things moving very nicely for me. I ended up doing that kind of work for the next decade. But niggling away inside my soul somewhere was the feeling that I was losing touch with the original artist in me”.
At the turn of the new millennium Harris was about to become a father for the first time. As he contemplated the future, lifestyles and babies he recalled an exhibition of Don McCullin’s work that he’d seen in London a couple of years earlier. “I remember that exhibition stopped me in my tracks, it blew me away. It made me very emotional. His work is so meaningful. I again started to question the work I was doing…it felt vacuous”.
One day riding the Tube he noticed an elderly couple sitting opposite. “They were a West Indian couple with matching denim shirts and jeans and white plimsolls and white cloth caps, just these twins. And I was like wow that’s such a great image. In those days I didn’t carry my camera with me all the time,” but from then he travelled the Tube with his Rolleiflex.
Over several months he amassed a collection of images. “The next time I was at the Sunday Times Magazine office delivering a portrait job I said to the art director do you want to see some of my personal stuff I have been shooting on the Underground. I showed him, he really liked it and they ran a spread, which was fantastic. That was it, that pushed me and I started pimping myself as a documentary photographer,” he laughs.
As all documentary photographers know, work was sporadic, but Harris felt happy getting one good commission a year. He took assignments in Tahiti, Brazil and Australia and worked on defining his style. “It took me a few years as I was trying on different hats,” he says. “Only when I went and did a shoot in the Amazon for the Body Shop Foundation did I kind of realise some hard truths. When I was asked to go on that trip I was so excited. I was thinking this is like the dream job to go to the Amazon to shoot tribes in remote regions, it doesn’t get more classic documentary than that”.
“So I was really excited about going on that journey and I had some sort of romantic notion of painted faces and feathers and beads and all of this stuff. And when I got there of course what met me was very different, really kind of grim. They were in a really bad way and I was shocked by the conditions. That forced me to question my own involvement, what was I doing there? Was my photographing these people really going to help them from being wiped out? Is this really about my career?” Wrestling with these questions Harris headed home to contemplate his future.
Deciding to throw fate to the wind, he abandoned his career, packed up his then family of three and headed to India. As the trip rolled on Harris found himself gravitating towards photographing his family, and a rough idea around some kind of a visual diary began to unfold. At the same time he embraced digital for the first time, what he describes as “the never-ending polaroid, it’s brilliant”.
“You’d think that photographing your family is easy, but doing it in a way that is interesting outside of the family bubble, especially with small children, is actually really difficult,” he says. “I was trying to make images work, but I got to a point that I wasn’t really happy with it ultimately and I was struggling with my identity.”
Despite feeling like he’d boxed himself into a corner, Harris kept pushing. “It’s like that saying that to discover new land you have to get lost at sea. I’d lost sight of the land and when I realised oh shit I am actually lost, I was thinking what am I going to do now? But I just kept going and eventually that new coastline came into view and it was the beginning of Postcards from Home”.
The turning point came in 2007 when a photograph he took of his wife hanging the clothes out became an epiphany (see photo below). That photograph captured “a moment between the moments. When I looked at that photograph it was like unlocking a key to the things that I was still grappling with. Suddenly I understood how to move forward with the way I was approaching my subject matter”.
Within a year he had the first incarnation of Postcards from Home, which was published in Burn Magazine. “You know I’d disappeared for years and no one knew what I was doing. Now I was going to be published in Burn with this personal project and I was petrified. In those early days of Burn there were very active conversations under the photo essays. And there was a lot of debate, and arguments and you could get shot down in flames easily. So I was very anxious, it was like starting again. But the response was wonderful and it grew from there”.
I ask him how his family feels about being the subject of a book? That kind of scrutiny must, quite frankly, get a bit irritating. He laughs. “I think that changes as they grow, and from week to week and month to month. So first of all my wife doesn’t really like to be subject matter so sometimes she is, but very rarely and on the periphery. We edit the work together and as soon as she sees anything that has a smell of her in the work she’s like ‘no’. But I’ve learned now and I won’t take the shot”.
“So I very much focus on my two daughters, but I am now letting friends creep into shots because we don’t live in a vacuum and as they get older those outside influences come in more so you will see with the second series – The Middle of Somewhere – hints of that and the third series, which doesn’t exist yet, will probably feature that more. Each series the concept evolves.”
He says his daughters, who are 14 and 9 years old, swing from being “quite proud, to being embarrassed. They only like pictures where they think they look good and that doesn’t always apply to the experimental shots. Some of the stuff I don’t show them, but their attitudes do vary”.
The challenges of documenting your family extend beyond teenage vanities and shifting moods says Harris. “You’re shooting in the same environment for a lot of the time so how do you avoid repetition, how do you find new ways to approach things? Also when you work at home, when are you on and when are you off? This work is spontaneous and a lot of it has to do with the light. Often that comes at the end of the day when as a family there are lots of things to do. But sometimes I have to step away from what I am doing and take a photograph and my wife has to be very understanding,” he smiles.
As with many photographers Sam is exploring various avenues in the bid to get his work seen including Instagram, which has proven a worthwhile venture in terms of building an audience and gaining exposure.
Last year (2013) he was invited to take over the Instragram feed for The Photographers’ Gallery for one week. “I was really excited and honoured to do that. Instagram is a lot of fun, it gives you a chance to share images in real time with an active audience and you get to communicate with people all over the world…It’s a bit addictive,” he confesses.
After The Photographers’ Gallery he picked up “some very cool followers such as Kathy Ryan from the New York Times magazine, as well as curators and other galleries. I’m not in New York so I can’t go and see editors or curators, so for me it is definitely a good way of reaching people”.
As his number of followers increased so did his ranking. “One morning I posted a picture and looked at my feed and I had several hundred likes. Before that I was averaging around 30. I was thinking, what’s going on? While I was looking all these notifications were pinging in and I’d jumped from 350 followers to 800. I was perplexed until I received an email from Instagram saying congratulations we’ve selected your account to be featured as a suggested user. We think your work is unique and deserves a wider audience.” Two weeks later Harris had 21000 followers.
Those following his Instagram feed will have seen photographs which are now part of his second series, The Middle of Somewhere, which coincidentally was published on Burn Magazine today. Below are photographs from this new series.
Harris says his passion to continue photographing his family is fuelled by a desire to capture the moments in his daughters’ lives that may ordinarily be missed. “As I witness my daughters’ transformation in what feels like the briefest of moments, I’m compelled to try and preserve something of our time living together”.
Stop Press: 21 February, 2014 – Majid Saeedi Wins 2014 FotoEvidence Book Award.
To see more of Majid Saeedi’s work visit his website here. In 2014 Majid was the third recipient of the Lucas Dolega Award. All photos (C) Majid Saeedi
Batoor is one of the lucky few. He survived the ordeal at sea, managed to stay out of the clutches of the Indonesian prison system and finally was granted asylum in Australia. He arrived in Melbourne in May ready to start his new life, but ever mindful of those he had to leave behind.
When I first spoke to Batoor in February he was in Indonesia living with other Hazara refugees, all awaiting their fate while bureaucrats shuffled paperwork. To keep busy Batoor began to document the lives of those around him, many of whom were young men who had left their homes with the burden of knowing they could never return.
His photo essay, the “Unseen Road to Asylum,” is a harrowing tale (for which he won this year’s Nikon-Walkley Photo of Year and Feature/Photo Essay Awards). Batoor hopes that by putting a human face to the asylum issue the wider community will have a greater understanding of the conditions in which these people are living; not just physical but psychological. He knows how fortunate he is and often thinks of those who are still living in limbo.
“My aim with this photo essay was to document the journey that I am taking, this risky route and to show the real difficulties refugees are facing and have faced for the last decade. Escaping from their country, hoping to find a safe place after risking their lives.” He pauses for a moment before continuing and his voice drops. “I have known many who have drowned, in some cases almost whole families have died, and still people are willing to take this boat journey. I wanted to show the people and what they are going through, why they are fleeing and why they don’t hesitate to take this risk when there is such a high chance of dying.”
Batoor’s journey took him from Afghanistan to Pakistan and onto Thailand. “After Thailand I started my illegal journey entering Malaysia and there I was locked up in a house by a smuggler for three nights. Then we were taken to a speedboat, 16 people, and we travelled in the dark for four hours to get into Indonesia. From there it was a 20-hour road journey. We travelled in the back of cars sitting on the floor, on the metal – there were no seats. We were not allowed to look outside, and told to keep our head down to our feet so people outside couldn’t see us…” He trails off, but I don’t need to hear any more details. It is clear that this is a treacherous route and that these desperate people are at the mercy of profiteers that are enabled by onerous government processes that leave people in limbo. It is not only the Australian government that is weighed down by its bureaucratic processes, but also the United Nations Human Rights Council, through which gaining refugee status can take years. And even if you are granted refugee status often there are protracted periods before the applicant knows which country may open its doors.
Asked why he had to leave Afghanistan Batoor says in part it was because of his affiliation with the Americans, and other foreigners with whom he’d been working. But the event that tipped the scale was the publication of his photo essay on the ‘Dancing Boys of Afghanistan’ in the Washington Post. “This photo essay raised a lot of questions inside the country and that was what made me leave Afghanistan”.
The ‘Dancing Boys’ are known as Bacha Bereesh (Boys without Beards). They dress as women, wear make up and jewellery and dance for men at private parties. Many are orphaned, or have been abducted from villages. They become ‘wives’ to the men who ‘own’ them says Batoor. “It is a very sad story. These boys are really vulnerable, they come into this practice at the age of seven or eight and they grow up in that environment.” Once they get too old to sustain the interest of their paedophile masters, they often become pimps or descend into drug abuse.
Having worked with organisations concerned with child rights Batoor assumed they were aware of the ‘Dancing Boys’ and would be able to assist him in gaining access. “But unfortunately I came to understand that none of them had ever met any of these boys. When I did this story everyone was amazed and surprised that this was going on”. It took Batoor eight months to gain the confidence of the boys. “I didn’t shoot anything, I was just trying to reach them. Then one of the boys took me to a party”.
I ask if he thought it was risky to tackle such a controversial subject, after all paedophiles rarely out themselves, their despicable acts kept well from view. “I didn’t know that it would be so risky that I had to flee the country,” he says pragmatically. “I was thinking the risk would have been when I was shooting, but it was only after it was published that the threats started coming in and my problems began”.
Now settled in Melbourne Batoor is keen to get on with his life. He laments the fact that he will never be able to return to Afghanistan, but is resolute that he must take full advantage of the opportunity he has been given; he’s seen too many people die to waste this chance at a new beginning.
“I want to pursue my profession as a documentary photographer. I want to be the witness,” he states. “And I would love to see again those people that I met along the way and find out what has changed for them.”
Louise Whelan in interview with Alison Stieven-Taylor
Posted 11 October 2013
Sydney documentary photographer Louise Whelan lives in Avalon, a suburb she describes as “one of the most Anglo, blonde hair-blue eyed on the northern beaches”. It is ironic, she says, to have embarked on a project that initially involved documenting more than 180 nationalities that live in NSW from a bastion of white Australia. But that is exactly what Whelan has done and part of her exploration is presented in the newly released book, ‘New Settlers’.
With so many migrant communities spread across the state, Whelan says she wasn’t sure where to begin. Initially she approached refugee and migrant support and settlement services, “but with minorities groups within minorities” Whelan quickly realised that making the right connections wasn’t going to be straightforward.
Undeterred by the enormity of the task, Whelan decided to start close to home. “I knew there was a large Tibetan community on the northern beaches. So I spoke to a friend, who spoke to a friend who put me in touch with Jimmy, the head of the Tibetan community”. When Whelan contacted Jimmy he told her “today is a very good day, all of my community is together. Can you meet me at the Entertainment Centre?”
On arrival Whelan found herself amidst the Tibetan community’s private audience with the Dalai Lama. “It was really amazing. Tibetans had come from around Australia. They were dressed in their beautiful traditional clothing to meet with his Holiness. Jimmy had arranged clearance for me, but when I went to enter I was stopped. So I phoned Jimmy and he came out straight away. He put his arm around me and told the security guard, Louise is with us, she is very trustworthy” and from there she had free access.
After her experience with the Tibetan community Whelan was jubilant. “Since then it’s been a very organic, and also quite spiritual process. I feel like this is really important work and in some ways it is almost like I have been guided to do it”.
Whelan’s portraits are rich, not only through her use of colour, but in their celebration of the courage of those who have left behind everything they’ve known to make a new life. As the Dalai Lama says, we are all the same human being, we all have the same desire to live without suffering, and this essence is captured in Whelan’s intimate portraits.
Whelan says those she photographed hold a strong desire to assimilate into Australian society and to contribute, but they also want to honour their traditions so as not to forget their roots. “They have a great sense of community, of helping each other also. Something the Anglo Celtic culture seems to have lost”.
Her project has taken her across NSW, as well as to WA and Queensland. “The diversity of cultures in Sydney alone is extraordinary. In one day I traveled to Liverpool to attend the Hmong celebrations to usher in the New Year, and later drove to Epping for the Icelandic Christmas feast where guests ate prawns from their native waters, which were bought from Ikea! I’ve attended the end of Ramadan festivities and shared food with the Congolese community. In fact there’s been a lot of eating,” she laughs. With so many communities still to document, Whelan says the project will continue to evolve, “just as we are as a nation”.
Former High Court Justice the Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG says in the foreword to ‘New Settlers’, that Australia is “the first continent on earth that celebrated and protected multiculturalism”. Today we are one of the most tolerant and compassionate societies in the world. That’s certainly worth upholding.
New Settlers – Louise Whelan
Published by: T&G Publishing
Posted 27 September 2013
“Unseen is unique to Amsterdam, and I dare say the concept is unique to the world,” says Sasha Stone, whose background is as an art historian majoring in photography. “Amsterdam is in the DNA of Unseen, we say that as a joke, but Unseen is entrepreneurial, a cultural enterprise driven by the idea of the art market and these are themes that are rooted in Amsterdam’s history.”
Sasha StoneUnseen was born from the desire to have a platform where new and mainly young photographers’ work could be showcased. “There is no place in the world where there is a combination of a fair and a festival that is really focusing on young talent,” explains Stone. “Foam (who is a partner) has a strong focus on young talent, and our third partner specialises in cultural events and entrepreneurship. So it was a logical combination of three parties with a shared desire to bring the photography that they know exists into the limelight and to also create a commercial stage for these young artists”.
Galleries who are invited to participate – this isn’t a fair where you can just buy a space – are required to show at least fifty percent of new work from young photographers. “They can bring work by established artists also, but it has to be new work, not the big names that you see at each fair or festival, but work that will be a new experience”. This year 53 galleries, two thirds of which are from abroad have been invited by the directors of Unseen.
Unseen is held at Westergasfabriek, a large 19th Century gas works site that has been converted by the owners and the municipality into “a really big cultural park. In summer it is completely crowded. Children playing, and adults, there’s pingpong, lots of restaurants and bars and a lot of events on site and galleries here also”. The park is dotted with huge former industrial buildings that are used for conferences, fairs, exhibitions, and events. “But Unseen is the only event that encompasses the whole site. That’s why we call ourselves a ‘fair with a festival flair’ because through the whole park we have activities”.
Stone says that the Unseen concept involves programming one major exhibition next to the Fair. Last year it was an overview of fashion photography from the Camera Work collection. “This year we have JR’s Inside Out Project”. JR, a French street artist who was awarded the $100,000 TED prize in 2011, has created a portable photo booth in a truck.
“With this project you become artist and artwork at the same time,” says Stone. Members of the public can have their portrait taken and then place their large instant print on the exhibition space which encompasses the festival forecourt and moves into the massive Zuiveringshal West (West Refinery). This is the first time the JR Inside Out Project has been held in Europe, the first installment was in May in New York’s Times Square. I watch JR’s team hang portraits on the wall, from the ceiling to the floor. It is a massive undertaking that is a living artwork.
In addition to the Fair, which is housed in the Gashouder (Gasholder) a massive round structure with a soaring roof, there is also the Glasshouse. Here artworks can be purchased and have a ceiling price of 1000 euros, which is designed to engage a wider audience in collecting work. There is also the Unseen Theatre where speakers and films are on offer, the Unseen Book Market for independent publishers and the Unseen Living Room, which Stone describes as “a meeting place within the meeting place that Unseen is for all photography lovers and professionals. In the Living Room there is a programme of talks and films, but it is more laid back and you can walk in and out”.
Last year Unseen attracted around 22500 visitors from The Netherlands and abroad. Unseen has a special VIP programme that has been developed in collaboration with other cultural institutes in Amsterdam including the phenomenal Huis Marseilles (the photography museum), the Rijksmuseum and Academy which recently reopened, the Stedelijk Museum and others. The programme is designed to attract VIPs from abroad and “to really make Unseen Amsterdam the place they don’t want to miss”. It’s on my calendar for next year already.
TIM PAGE AND THE ZEN OF PHOTOGRAPHY
Posted 30 August 2013
(C) Marty Williams 2012
Tim Page has been on my list of photojournalists to interview for as long as I can remember. My desire to meet the “legendary Tim Page” as he is oft referred, was driven by a mixture of curiosity– what was the wild child of war photography who inspired Denis Hopper’s character in Apocalypse Now like in his sixties – and respect for his incredible body of work that is far more extensive than just the Vietnam War photographs that made him infamous.
Interviewing someone like Page is tricky. There is already so much written on his Vietnam War days and triumphs such as the book Requiem that he and fellow war photographer Horst Faas published in 1997 as an ode to the 135 photojournalists who lost their lives in Vietnam and Indochina. While I am still interested to hear Page’s war stories first hand, I decide to focus on what he’s doing now, which involves teaching as well as working in Cambodia on de-mining projects. He’s also been trolling through an archive that contains more than half a million photographs. And he’s still determined to get to the bottom of what happened to his mate, and fellow photojournalist, Sean Flynn all those years ago back in Asia in 1970 when Flynn disappeared without a trace.
While the idea of university courses for photography irritate him, Page has taught these very classes in the past. “My approach? The first thing I do is look around the class, there’s 30 of them and the first thing I ask is “how many of you have got a camera with you?” One? Okay. The rest of you can fucking leave. Photographers carry cameras. If you don’t have a camera, fuck off. And I go through their contact sheets and pictures and I say, that’s garbage, that’s absolute fucking rubbish. Well they have been used to platitudes and thinking they are going to pass and they expect mediocre work will get them decent grades…”
He continues. “When a student asks me for an extension, or to give them another chance, I say fuck off you’ve just failed. There’s no second chance out there. I couldn’t in the middle of the fucking Vietnam War say excuse me, could you stop firing for a moment so I could reposition this guy and just move that fucking fighter bomber underneath, hold, hold, hold, hold…okay thanks. Wake up”. He sips his coffee and grins. “Sorry I am Jurassic Park,” he says.
Mentoring, on the other hand, is something Page finds more relevant to photojournalistic practice than a formalised university course. He tells he’s been mentoring young photographers since the early 2000s when he did a project for the Indochina Media Memorial Foundation. In 2009 the UN asked him to run a similar mentoring masterclass in Afghanistan with a small group of young photojournalists who were to cover the elections that year.
We move on from Afghanistan to Cambodia where he is currently engaged in several projects including a land-resettling programme with FINNMAP. The project was meant to last 21 days, but Page is now into his fifth month. While in Cambodia a German aid organisation “poached me from the Fins to work on a resettling project upstream on the Mekong.” The week after our interview Page headed back to Cambodia to shoot the next phase of the German project. He was also in Phnom Penh in February along with other veteran journalists, for the memorial dedication to the 37 foreign and Cambodian correspondents and journalists who died or went missing between 1970 and 1975, including his mate Flynn.
He’s been back to Vietnam and Cambodia so many times he’s lost count. In 1980 he was in Vietnam “when I first stumbled on the downstream effects of Agent Orange in terms of deformities and mental disabilities. We just drenched them in that shit didn’t we? We didn’t know how bad it was during the War, we drank the stuff, and were covered it in. We didn’t know it was at all dangerous, no idea. In 1984 I came back to do the first book on the country after liberation, back to Saigon ten years after the end of the war. I started to go to the clinics and the hospitals and get involved, to see what was happening with the second, third, fourth generation children from Agent Orange”. Page’s images are a powerful historical record that gives another perspective to the ongoing toll of the Vietnam War and, for me, further reinforce the import of the still photograph.
I ask him what he thinks about the role of the still photograph in a world where everything is moving and images transient. “I think still photography is possibly the most Zen of expressions and that’s what it is to me. That 125th is the perfect Zen moment, it is like throwing a piece of clay onto a wheel, or creating the perfect note and making the perfect brush stroke. When people come up to me and say I remember your picture of…and not just Vietnam, obviously I’ve been busy since then… I feel kind of a certain pride and pleasure. You can’t hang a strip of movie footage on the wall. One picture is it”.
Page still shoots film, but what does he think of the digital platform? “I am virtually a complete Luddite. I can’t type, I am mathematically dyslexic, but I can figure it with shooting. In 2002 I got a Canon D60 and a couple of lenses. Then I was given a Nikon digital to do the Solomon’s intervention in 2003. I also made a little QuickTime movie. And I’ve been playing with the Fujifilm X-Pro1 in Cambodia, which I like the feel of. But I still shoot film and have a Hasselblad XPan that I carry all the time. I am shooting less and less on it simply because everyone wants instant gratification and I can’t give them that with film. But I am going to do an architectural project on film”.
As we wrap up the interview, I ask him what his plans are once he’s finished the Cambodian projects. “I could publish a book a year and still not use the same pictures,” he says. “But I am in my last semester, I’m 68. I find it harder and harder in the field, three stents in my heart, a five-inch pin in my hip, one leg is shorter than the other, everything is working against me. It isn’t a whinge it’s just reality. It is a young man’s game out there and to go and get pictures I don’t want to fight 50 photographers with iPhones. I have no desire to be in that kind of cluster fuck. But I’ll keep going back to Asia. I love Asia because I learn about myself all the time”.
Death of a Festival – Foto Freo “discontinued”
Alison Stieven-Taylor 8 March 2013
Rumors have been circulating that Australia’s long-standing biennial photography festival, Foto Freo, was on shaky ground. This week the worst was confirmed when the Festival board announced that Foto Freo was being “discontinued”, as if it were a supermarket line that was no longer popular as opposed to an important, and respected photographic event on the international calendar.
Learning that things were not looking good for the 2014 Festival, I spoke to Bob Hewitt a few weeks ago to find out what was going on. Bob, one of the co-founders of the Festival and its long-time director, is a retired businessman who has given his all in getting Foto Freo off the ground and onto the international stage. He’s worked tirelessly from the outset, sharing his knowledge, networks and his home; Bob’s backyard is known as the place where Foto Freo had its genesis ten years ago.
Bob told me that funding hadn’t been forthcoming, the Fremantle City Council no longer prepared to support the Festival a decision which prejudiced its ability to seek state funding. Without the critical seeding money needed to get the 2014 program together, it just wasn’t tenable. Bob delivered this news in his matter-of-fact way saying “there was a lot of capital invested in the Festival, it was well known overseas, there were tangible benefits and now it all just folds”. But Foto Freo was his baby and his disappointment was clear.
The letter also cited Bob’s decision to stand down, leaving the festival without “a driver”, as another factor in the Board’s verdict. I have to say I find Bob’s impending departure as a reason to cease the Festival a curious one; with no disrespect intended, Bob is well past retirement age and his departure was inevitable. It seems shortsighted that there were no mechanisms put in place for succession.
“Vale Foto Freo” ends with the statement: “The only regret might be the loss of recognition that came with the event nationally and internationally over ten years or more of growth and development and for which there are few similar events in Western Australia, let alone Fremantle.”
The only regret might be the loss of recognition? What about the loss of an important cultural event that fostered the photographic form and inspired and encouraged photographers to push boundaries and find new ways to tell visual stories? This Festival wasn’t just a revenue raising, tourist attraction for Fremantle, it was part of the greater cultural fabric of Australia, and the region, and a first class celebration of photography. Western Australia has produced its fair share of brilliant photographers over the years, and Australian photojournalists are renowned internationally. Foto Freo brought global attention to Fremantle and showcased Australian photography to the world.
Bob said the board “in their wisdom” had decided to fold the festival rather than “jump through the funding hoop” all over again. If the Board was tired of the process they should have passed the baton. It is a shame that in this country cultural activities are left to volunteer boards that become caretakers without the time to make any real commitment to securing the future. Foto Freo’s failure must send tremors throughout the nation’s cultural community as Western Australia is the only state in the country that is experiencing economic growth thanks to mining the guts out of the land. If corporations can’t throw money to an event like this on the pretence of being a “good citizen”, then there is a much greater problem at hand. Foto Freo was not an unproven event. It had all the runs of the board. What a waste.
While comparisons might not be practical, I can’t help but think of Visa pour l’Image in Perpignan. In a relatively small town in the south of France this annual photojournalism festival is now in its 25th year, and has grown to be the most significant of its kind. Visa is loved by locals, a global photographic community and the city’s administration, who turn Perpignan into “Visa” for a month every year. Foto Freo shared many of the same characteristics including an army of volunteers that made the Festival possible. Where the difference is apparent is the lack of commitment by the City of Fremantle to support Foto Freo, but local government in this country is often crippled by councilors with their own agendas, and by bean counters who don’t value cultural pursuits. Fremantle has struggled with issues of youth unemployment and the societal ramifications that this brings. There’s no secret it’s had an image problem, which Foto Freo helped to dispel, if only momentarily.
When a festival like Foto Freo falters there will always be naysayers who rise from the shadows to suggest Foto Freo reached too far, became too ambitious, spread its program too wide taking it from a conclave in Fremantle to encompass too greater geographic area. No doubt if the reverse were true that too could be opportunity for complaint. Foto Freo was ambitious and why not? Without drive and vision it would never have existed, let alone attracted international attention.
Foto Freo Ten Years On
Last year I travelled to Fremantle, Perth’s port city, for my biennial pilgrimage to Foto Freo where I was to interview the founding members for my “Foto Freo Ten Years On” feature in Pro Photo magazine. That feature story has now become a swansong.
I remember those interviews vividly. I sat around a café table with David Dare Parker, Graham Miller, Max Pam and Brad Rimmer and listened to them reminisce about the Festival’s formative years. These photographers are highly accomplished and their works recognised around the world, but they were never too important to lend a hand and all put in long hours, especially in the nascent years, to make sure the Festival got up.
|L-R: Brad Rimmer, Graham Miller, David Dare Parker and Max Pam|
In the back room of the café the stories came thick and fast, and often were punctuated with hoots of laughter, and exclamations of “oh god do you remember when?” There were plenty of comments that certainly would never make it into my story, but were hilarious to hear, and gave me a tremendous insight into just what went on, and how deeply committed and generous the co-founders of Foto Freo were. As the discussion unfolded it became clear how their collective enthusiasm, knowledge and passion for photography had turned Foto Freo from a dream into reality. The fifth co-founder, Bob Hewitt, was too busy to stop for lunch running from one activity to the next. He and I had a chat later that day on a bus on the way to another exhibition opening, where he articulated the Festival’s history and his vision for its future with great enthusiasm.
Foto Freo was the place that you could see works by acclaimed Australian photojournalists Philip Blenkinsop, Stephen Dupont and Michael Amendolia, who were on the first Festival’s bill in 2002. And it was the place where the likes of Francois Hebel, director of Les Recontres d’Arles could be found on his knees helping Magnum Photos’ Antoine D’Agata hang his pictures on the walls into the wee hours. It was where multi-award winning Italian photojournalist Paolo Pellegrin came to open his exhibition As I Was Dying. And where Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky’s Australian Minescapes, a project commissioned by Foto Freo, made its world debut with Burtynsky in attendance. And last year Martin Parr and Raghu Rai both turned up to share their unique insights and to exhibit their work. Why did they come to Foto Freo? Because it was one hell of a festival.
|Philip Blenkinsop Foto Freo 2002|
|Antoine D’Agata Floor Talks 2006|
But Foto Freo wasn’t just about big names. The Festival gave the opportunity for lesser-known photographers to show their work. It brought together people from diverse cultures, created opportunities for photographers to learn about trends and movements in other countries and to participate in debates and forums. It was a place to make new friends and reconnect with old ones. Cafes and bars around Fremantle hummed with creative discourse and people who would ordinarily never come to Fremantle, spent their hard-earned money with local businesses.
The Last Word
On receiving confirmation that Foto Freo would not be going ahead, I called the founding members to ask them what they thought of the news. These people are not only photographers that I admire and respect. They’ve become friends and have made my visits to Foto Freo even more rewarding with the camaraderie and generosity they have shown me. Yes, I’m sentimental about Foto Freo, a festival I looked forward to and an integral part of my continued photographic education. I will miss it enormously.
But enough of my sentimentality. I’ll leave the last words to Graham Miller, Max Pam and David Dare Parker – unfortunately I couldn’t get onto Brad Rimmer, but I am sure his thoughts are similar to the others, because he was such a great advocate.
Graham: “It’s going to leave a huge hole in the cultural landscape of this country, but especially for those of us isolated out here in the West. I think back on all the incredible photographers that the festival was able to bring to Fremantle to share their stories – those already mentioned along with Roger Ballen, Christophe Bourguedieu, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, Shi Guorui, Trent Parke, Jodi Bieber, Douglas Kirkland, Phil Toledano, Sohrab Hura. Too many too mention. But what I will miss most is the lively mix of like-minded people who gathered here every two years and the sense of camaraderie and goodwill that the Festival fostered. It was inspiring”.
Max: “It’s a shame we will have no more sweet Foto-Freo. I have so many good feelings about how this event played out over 10 years. The quality of the productions, the shows, the artists who came from all over the world, I smile automatically when I pull those memories up. I guess everything has its time. While Foto-Freo was going every two years, it didn’t get much better on a global scale than this photo festival”.
David: “Foto Freo was an important photographic event that we have now lost. Unless there is someone else to fight the hard fight we probably won’t see the likes of it again, which is unfortunate. It was wonderful while we had it. Such a terrific place to share ideas and draw inspiration and hang out with colleagues and meet people you wanted to meet; one of the things we wanted to do was to bring great photography here and I guess we did that. Some great people thought this was an extraordinary event, and those photographers that came were the best ambassadors. There was always a feeling of warmth and sharing. I always made sure I was here for the festival because I got so much out of it. It’s sad to see it end”.
with Alison Stieven-Taylor
Born to Lebanese parents, photojournalist Natalie Naccache grew up in London and after studying fine art and then photography, she relocated to Beirut where she is now based. I spoke to her in January via Skype about three of her photo essays that caught my eye – No Madam, Glamorous Lebanese Weddings and Kteer Jeune (Very Young) – powerful essays that could be the work of a much more experienced photojournalist. Talented, insightful and intelligent, Natalie is firmly on my list of photographers to watch in coming years.
“What I hope to do with my work is try to change how people perceive the Middle East. We’ve seen so much of the political volatility in the region and the world only seems to hear the voices of young Middle Eastern people in times of crisis. I’m not saying that these are not important stories, because they are, but there is so much more to the Arab world than conflict and war. Through my photography I try and show the modern social issues.”
Looking at Natalie’s photo essay on Glamorous Lebanese Weddings – events that would rival over-the-top nuptials anywhere in the world with their sheer opulence, film set production values and designer clad guests – I tell her “you are absolutely right, your immediate connect with the Middle East is conflict, not these extraordinarily, well constructed women and lavish social events. This is definitely an aspect of Lebanese society I never knew existed”.
With women outnumbering men in Lebanon at around five to one, competition is fierce, but there is still overt pressure on women to marry and assure their place in society despite the odds.
“We are obsessed with marriage to the point that we had a storm recently, and they called it The Bride! The Americans come up with Sandy and Katrina, we came up with the Bride.” There’s now a lot of laughter across the Skype airwaves. She continues. “I am almost 24 and every time I go to my family they ask ‘are you engaged yet?’ All young women are expected, in their twenties, to get married. And if she is not married by 30 then there must be something wrong with her. As a woman you have to get married. If you don’t then socially that’s it, it’s like your life is ruined”.
While getting married and producing offspring is an expectation, there is no premarital sex says Natalie. “That is a huge, huge thing. If anyone finds out that you have been on holiday with your boyfriend or fiancé or you are living together, god help you. Even though billboards, and local media and music videos are really erotic, super, super sexualized, and all the women dress very provocatively, society still expects you to be virginal”. Of course there are those young couples that don’t abide by the rules, but Natalie says it is “all undercover. Sneaking away and subterfuge. Young people live with their parents and it is very rare to find young people with their own place before they get married, especially women”.
Kteer Jeune (Very Young)
Our discussion turns to Kteer Jeune (Very Young), which documents the obsession with beauty that begins at a ridiculously young age and lasts a woman’s life. Natalie says many teenagers get their noses done in time for their school proms, “so when they have their prom pictures taken they look good”. And those who cannot afford plastic surgery can take advantage of the interest free bank loans that are on offer for cosmetic procedures “so anyone can afford it”.
A central focus in Kteer Jeune is the beauty salon that caters to the pre-tweens, Natalie’s poignant photographs of little girls, who couldn’t be more than seven or eight years old, having their nails and hair done, mimicking their mothers. It’s almost painful to see these gorgeous, young faces being smothered in make up and these children being rushed into quasi-adulthood.
Before Photography there was Painting
I ask Natalie how she came to photography and what it is about the medium that attracted her. “I was actually really, really passionate about painting and was studying fine art in London. Each summer we used to visit Lebanon, but in 2006 when war broke out we couldn’t go and I was really affected by it. I painted everything I felt about the war and then I photographed the demonstrations against the war in London and painted them. I mixed the photos with the paintings and I really enjoyed photographing all the emotions at the demonstrations”.
“That year I did a foundation course at Camberwell College of Arts to figure out what kind of creative stuff I wanted to do and they had a photography course so I did that and I was like, oh my god you can actually tell stories and communicate through photographs. I didn’t know that existed because I just thought photojournalism was like news photography or the wires. I didn’t know you could really tell stories through that medium and I instantly and completely fell in love with photography.”
Natalie applied for the photojournalism course at London College of Communication and was accepted straight away. During her studies she did an internship with the Guardian, “to know how things really were in the industry. After that they hired me to do some picture researching. In my second year I worked on the Sunday Times magazine, and then in my third year Monocle magazine. I went to lots of photo events, showed my portfolio, got feedback, networked and started to build”. Then it was time to move to Beirut, where she now lives with her grandfather.
Being in Beirut can be isolating, she tells, in terms of tapping into the photographic community, but that’s where events like Visa pour l’Image come in she says. “There aren’t many photographers here at all because in Lebanon it is a very temporary place, so for me that’s where Perpignan is great. It was my second visit last year and I came back so refreshed. It is such a soul rejuvenating experience. You see all your friends there and you get inspired, I love it”.
In her latest photo essay, No Madam, Natalie explores the lives of migrant domestic maids, a controversial topic that has sparked global media interest.
“Everyone around me socially and the houses and families I visit, most of them have maids. I’ve always been really uncomfortable at the thought of having a maid in the house; she is basically living her life for you, and the maids are on call 24/7.”
While those families Natalie knows socially pay their maids, there is a darker side to the migrant domestic worker story, one of abuse, rape, and deprivation. She says after viewing a video of an Ethiopian maid being beaten up in broad daylight on the street, “I was really, really disturbed. I think a day later or so, she committed suicide and I was really enraged by that. So I did my research and started shooting the story. There aren’t any laws to protect these women, they are completely exempt from all labor laws here, and they are dying at the rate of one maid per week”.
Maids come from a wide range of poverty-stricken countries including Madagascar, Nepal, Ethiopia, Philippines and Bangladesh. They come in hope of finding work with the intention of sending money home to their families. But they are essentially trapped once they are in Lebanon, viewed as illegals if they leave the employ of their masters; have no doubt, this is modern day slavery.
“These women are the ones that hold these households together, they mother the children, cook, clean, take care of the whole house. And a lot of the time they are being abused and not being given days off or not being paid on time, or not being paid at all. I met women who were basically starved, the fridge door locked, and living in conditions that are making them ill. These women are looked down upon and there is a lot of racism towards them, even on the streets. The Lebanese see themselves as superior to them”.
“I didn’t think it would be fair just to show the negative, terrible side, as there are maids who are genuinely happy.” She says the woman pictured walking a dog is one such maid. “I wouldn’t say it is her dream job, but she is happy working, is being paid, has her Sunday off. She is being fairly treated and has her own room, even if it is quite small, and she has a TV.” When you look at this photo essay and then remember the hedonism of the glamour weddings, the inequities are obvious, and shocking.
“There were some really horrible cases, such as the woman in the silhouette who is pregnant. That was absolutely awful. She was drug raped by her employer when she was unconscious and she woke up the next morning at 10am absolutely shocked because she woke up so late. And he beat her and shouted at her ‘you told me you were a virgin, you lied’. She was ready to jump off a building before a Sri Lankan maid talked her out of it. At this point she was eight months pregnant with her rapist’s baby. She ran away from that family and now she has to work illegally. She spoke to the Ethiopian embassy and they said ‘well you can have the baby and work illegally like thousands of other illegal Ethiopians working in Lebanon.”
Balancing Freelance Work and Personal Projects
Editorial work for the New York Times, the Independent (UK), Der Spiegel and various other magazines fund her independent projects and like most photojournalists, Natalie ekes out a living following her passion. Last year she was part of the Reportage by Getty Emerging Talent Program, which she says has been good for her profile and given her valuable experience. And now she is with Getty Global Assignments, but much of her work comes through networking and making direct contact with editors.
As our interview winds up she says, “I think the photojournalism community is one of those really, really supportive communities. People really give you time and help you grow. I feel really lucky to be part of an industry that is full of people who care about your work, and growing and becoming better and telling the story in the best way you can”.
To view more of Natalie’s work please visit her website
Russian-born photographer Irina Popova’s photo essay “Moscow as a Trap” gives a fascinating and raw portrayal of a city that has grown at an exponential rate with seemingly little regard for the cultural changes and their impact on its residents. In Moscow money talks, but there is a staggering divide between those who have it and those who just scrape by. Irina has kindly shared her photo essay and story with Photojournalism Now.
“Moscow is a trap. Moscow is a city-giant octopus, which has grown uncontrollably and swallowed the whole of Russia. As a result of the collapse of the USSR Moscow finally laid its hands on the capitalistic delights, but the economical welfare is spread unequally. Though that was in the USSR times too, the world seems not to exist outside the MKAD (Moscow Circle Auto Highway). The Muscovites consider everything outside the Boulevard Ring (outside the center) as a province, and the rest of Russia seems to them some other reality, strange and even dangerous, where sometimes though it’s good to buy some property on the lake.
Moscow is politics, business, fashion, and culture. It is seen by the Muscovites as the center of Russia. In the 1980s, at the time of the Olympic games, the entrance of the city was blocked and the only ones who could get in were the Muscovites; it was like being at the border of other state. And this position grew enormously in the violent 1990s and even more in the prosperous Putin’s 2000s.
The secret wish of province dwellers to move to Moscow seldom comes true. To get rooted you need money and acquaintances, not speaking about the trivial registration. There is hardly a newcomer who hasn’t been cheated by a real estate agency or an employer. So there are many people who become workless and homeless in Moscow, and come home with nothing.
“Moscow is not made of rubber, it can’t eternally stretch,” is a favorite saying of the Muscovites who hate the immigrants equally as the provincials hate the Moscovians. Even the immigrants from the same country and from the same nation (Russians) are strangers in Moscow, because they look different, dress and behave differently, so they are considered as a different nation because in fact Moscow is a state inside a state.
According to different sources Moscow counts 11.5 to 14 million registered residents, but it’s difficult to estimate the real population, as there are many who are unregistered, including immigrants from the former Soviet Union countries. These immigrants can only find menial work, such as street cleaning. They live on the outskirts, renting one flat for up to 20 people. The Muscovites don’t consider them as equal; the capital eats them and throws them away as waste.
Moscow is a separate Universe, a whole world created by a human, but not for a human. This world has no nature and nothing humanistic. Huge buildings, everything is closed with high fences, continuous construction sites, moving along the defined routes, eternal underground tunnels, metro, highways and traffic jams. The architecture is as chaotic and ugly as the whole construction of the society with lots of aggression, showing economical power, disrespect to the past, humiliating the weak and suppressing the simple human being.
To see a piece of sky in Moscow is already an event. People even walk their dogs in the tunnels. Huge amounts of garbage, lack of oxygen and transport problems plague the city. To get somewhere you need to spend more than one hour for one way. The Muscovites don’t sleep enough and often don’t see the sun at all. The quick run in the metro, “The next station is October, and the change to the circle line is closed” says a mechanical voice in the speaker, and it’s even difficult to imagine that it was once recorded by a living human being. That’s why the Muscovites have such grey expressionless faces. In this artificial world only time and money are taken into account.
The economical boom made Moscow animal-like, with the uncontrollable, aggressive capitalism. The Muscovites get intoxicated with money, go to the expensive lounge restaurants and spa, even if they are just a middle-chain manager because it’s a part of life in the capital. They they want to look rich. The glamorousness of the women takes sometimes weird and exaggerated forms – high heels even if they have to run the whole day through the metro passages, plenty of make-up even if they are going to a business meeting, expensive fur-coats even if it’s not cold. Those who can’t afford expensive stuff use cheap and kitschy fakes, they don’t want to be plain.
And still I love this city and I feel attached to it, and I miss it now when I’m in calm and prosperous Holland. I miss Moscow’s wild impulses and weird non-humanistic landscapes. I’m already caught in the trap of this city and I can’t live a quiet and proper life any more”. Irina Popova
|(C) All above images – Irina Popova|
“Birthmark on the Map”
Alison Stieven-Taylor (C) 2012
(C) Alexander Stepanenko
‘Birthmark on the Map’, is a community blog project capturing rural Russia with a focus on Siberia. I spoke to Valeriy Klamm the project’s coordinator in Sydney earlier this year at the Head On festival where the project’s group show was on exhibition.
We talked about his decade long bid to bring a view of rural Russia to a broader audience – to tell a different story about Russia, one that doesn’t focus on war, climate or deprivation.
Valeriy works in the cultural sector in his hometown of Novosibirsk, Siberia. In 2009 he began a photo-documentary project for local authorities that involved photographing “simple stories of simple heroes captured in villages and small towns” within the 30 districts of Novosibirsk Region. The images were well received, but one person can only capture so much. To gain greater input from the regions the idea of a blog was mooted.
“I wanted to tell the story to the outside world of who we are in reality, not a polished view,” he said. The authorities liked the concept and funded the project. “It was a lucky ticket and I am very happy that the content has stayed real. The blog continues to develop and it is like an endless puzzle, an endless chain.”
(C) Ksenia Diodorova
|(C) Valeriy Klamm|
|(C) Alexander Stepanenko|
To open the rubric ‘Birthmark on the Globe’ Valeriy chose Australian Sam Harris’ series ‘Postcards from Home’, which Valeriy had seen in Burn magazine. In 2011 Harris’ book took out the prize for Momento Pro’s (Australia) best photobook of the year, the first digital book to win.
|(C) Sam Harris|
Please click here for Birthmark on the Map blog
“Edward Burtynsky – Redefining the Landscape”
Alison Stieven-Taylor (C) 2012
A river of molten red snakes its way through a desolate landscape. On either side of its banks the land is harsh, trees blackened, vegetation sparse, evoking an apocalyptic vista. At first the river seems a curious act of nature, or the stroke of an artist’s brush, but in reality it is a man-made landscape, an industrial memory from the age of mining.
This photograph features in Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky’s collection “Tailings” shot in Ontario 1996. Taililngs is one of many celebrated collections that map the course of a 30 year career.
My interview with Ed Burtynsky started in Fremantle, Australia and concluded in Toronto, Canada, where he is based. Our chat traversed a lot of ground, from the melding of both film and digital in his work, to his self-belief and commitment to rigour and some of the pitfalls of shooting in remote, often environmentally hostile locations.
The question about how he has held onto his passion for industrial landscapes over three decades comes up early in the conversation. “It’s all about perspective” he says matter-of-factly. And for the past four years he has taken to the air looking for a new one. He’s tried shooting from a small aircraft with the doors removed and Burtynsky harnessed to the craft so he can lean out as far as possible to get that shot. At present his preference is for helicopters because “they can get you closer to the ground, so you don’t lose perspective on man’s impact on the landscape”.
In his book “Australian Minescapes” Burtynsky put his aerial photography skills to work capturing the tortured Western Australian mining landscape from a height of around 400 feet. The works could be interpreted as abstract, Jackson Pollack is a creative influence, but on closer look it becomes obvious the images are of working mine sites.
“At this height I could ensure the structures on the ground, and the mining equipment like trucks, weren’t lost because of distance. I wanted the viewer to see a working mine”.
|(C) Ed Burtynsky – Australian Minescapes|
His interest in mines stems back to his youth when he worked on mine sites to pay his way through University. At these remote locations Burtynsky was given access to environments few human eyes had seen. What he found was a landscape of his time, a conduit through which he could capture man’s relationship to nature as expressed in the industrialised landscape.
“I was always interested in trying to find a language deep in the landscape to photograph. Obviously the traditional landscape has been done, the pristine landscape, what else can you do that we haven’t already seen? Trees, twigs and leaves have been covered really well.”
“And in a way I also felt there was an opportunity to bridge through my work the kind of disconnect that has occurred in our post modern society where economies are globalised, where things come from everywhere and we really don’t have any notion of the source anymore. It is a way to look at the human imprint on the land in pursuit of the materials for our urban existence and to bridge those worlds by exploring the voids.”
Today Burtynsky is one of the most respected and awarded photographers in the world with an impressive body of work held in public and private art and educational collections. He also has a number of coffee table books of his collections and regularly holds solo and group exhibitions around the globe.
I ask Burtynsky how he arrived at the concept for the Australian Minescapes collection, which was commissioned by Foto Freo festival in Australia.
“My first thought was that I didn’t want to cover the territory I’d done before. I usually say no to these types of projects, but what piqued my interest was I had covered this big iron ore mine in China some years ago. When I asked where all the iron ore was coming from now I was told Western Australia and I found that interesting”.
“Western Australia is mining, mining culture, economy and resources. It is what I am familiar with in Canada. But I didn’t want to go back to shooting large format off the ground I wanted to take a different perspective”. He wanted to fly.
Perfecting the craft of shooting from the air has come at “great expense,” says Burtynsky. “Every time you screw up you lose thousands of dollars for rental”. He tried different formats – 4×5 film and 2 ¼ – and different cameras including aerial cameras. “Every film solution I found seemed to leave me wanting”.
A perfectionist, Burtynsky decided to try digital as an alternative. He rented a digital Hasselblad with a Phase back onto which he attached a gyroscope. “I did a bunch of shots with it and low and behold I found that the quality was better than film, my lenses were faster and I could get faster shutter speed. And I could look through the camera and see what I was photographing rather than guessing”.
He continues. “It makes a huge difference when you have been flying around in the chopper and you get all your film back with crooked horizons or an horizon where you didn’t want one. All that changed with the Hasselblad”.
For Australian Minescapes Burtynsky determined to shoot from a point of view experienced at the height of 400 feet. The chopper flew him out over the mine sites in Kalgoorlie and also across the salt lakes.
“The first day I went north of Kalgoorlie I saw the salt lake and the mine operations. The way they were separated I found very interesting from the air. The next day I was looking at a huge aerial map that was dotted all over with the symbol of a pickaxe and shovel indicating mine sites. It looked like there were also mines on the salt lakes.”
Burtynsky shot the project in two weeks. On the night before the first shooting day it rained. He awoke to the most wonderful light and flying conditions. Over the salt lakes that morning great pools of still water reflected the blue sky, the damp earth added depth and the white saltpans shimmered in contrast. The weather held for the entire shoot during which he says he captured some of the most interesting and best photographs of mining he’s ever done.
His intention with Australian Minescapes was “to present the landscape from an interesting perspective, a perspective that we never get naturally, a point of view we rarely, if ever, experience”. And also to send home that irrefutable message that comes through in all his work – that human kind is making a devastating impact on the planet.
Burtynsky has covered oil fields, quarries, urban mines and shipping, but of all his collections BURTYNSKY-CHINA is my favourite. Shot over five years, it took five separate visits, one month at a time, for Burtynsky to amass enough photographs to slake his thirst. He underwrote the whole expedition, which originally started with a sole objective, to photograph the world’s largest dam, the Three Gorges Dam, on the Yangtze River.
|(C) Ed Burtynsky – Three Gorges Dam Yangtze River|
“But when I got to China I saw there was a lot more going on than I had imagined. China was a country under major transformation.” The idea expanded to chapters on manufacturing, ship building and recycling.
“One chapter led to another and suddenly I was photographing the reconstitution of the industrial age in China.”
His work on China demonstrated Burtynsky’s commitment rigour in every aspect of his craft. And for tenacity. Burtynsky will scout a subject three or four times to view it in different lighting conditions “to get it right” he says emphatically.
“But when you work in the field you need to be prepared, to be ready to react, to be a master of compromise. You are often trying to wriggle your way into a spot that gives you an interesting image you can interpret. I always look at the potential of a particular place. Quite often it is hard to find the subject that is doing what I want it to do – the view, angle, light. I shoot for a day or two waiting for the light to break for a particular image.”
And you also need a strong stomach. Burtynsky says when he was shooting a large manufacturing facility in China the stench from the filthy river that ran at the back of the facility near the workers’ dormitories, almost overwhelmed him.
“I was photographing with a hood over my head to keep out the light. The fumes were toxic. I had that gag reflex happening and was trying to shoot without breathing”.
Even though digital has served him well for his latest book, Burtynsky is a die-hard fan of film. He has bought up the last stocks of Polaroid and also of the discontinued Kodak Redipack 160 ASA.
“For me digital doesn’t have that same rigour as I have with film. A commitment with film is different, digital is committing to data, and to an image you can delete”.
But as he discovered with Australian Minescapes, digital can be a valuable tool. “For the first time in my career digital did something better than analogue. I was committed to 8×10 film and all of a sudden digital cameras are better in the air”.
So thirty years on, how does he keep the work fresh? “As an artist it is very rewarding not to have to redefine my theme, but expand it with the rigour I have practiced throughout my career. Over a long career the work is bound, a compendium of ideas, with all the images interconnected”.
|(C) Ed Burtynsky – Aluminium Smelter China|
|(C) Ed Burtynsky – Oil Fields California|
|(C) Ed Burtynsky – Quarry Canada|
|(C) Ed Burtynsky – Uranium Tailings Canada|
“Lewis Morley – The Reluctant Photographer”
On a sun-drenched Sunday morning in Sydney in May this year I had the opportunity to sit down with photographer Lewis Morley in his home to talk about his latest book, I to Eye, a weighty tome of around 400 pages that features more than 300 photographs spanning forty years (1950s-1990s).
|Lewis and I at his home May 2012|
But Morley wasn’t just a good photographer, he was far more skilled than he will admit and his oeuvre covers reportage right through to portraiture, fashion, entertainment, advertising and interior design. His photographic style is distinctive and he is undoubtedly one of the most important photographers of the 20th Century.
As London entered the 1960s Morley’s penchant for photographing actors performing on stage, rather than in static poses, became de rigueur. He was sought after by West End producers and shot more than 100 productions in that decade alone. During this time he also struck enduring friendships with his subjects including satirist Peter Cook whose Establishment nightclub was in the same building as Morley’s studio.
Of his theatrical work he says, “I didn’t pose people I would let them act on stage and shoot them so there would be action in the photos that were used at front of house. I loved the theatre and seeing the shows”.
|(C) Lewis Morley|
|Above images (C) Lewis Morley|
The photograph he is most well known for is the portrait of Christine Keeler, the young woman whose affairs with UK government minister John Profumo and a Soviet naval attaché made headlines in 1963 at the height of the Cold War forcing Profumo to resign.
Morley’s photograph of Keeler, naked and sitting astride a chair, its back concealing her nudity, became one of the “iconic nude images” of that era despite its modesty (Keeler was naked, but not nude). And it became an image that Morley could not get away from, and one that overshadowed much of his other, more impressive work.
Now nearly 50 years later he says, “The stupid thing is that it is not a particularly good photograph in aspects of composition or innovation…I used that pose for many other portraits, lots of others have sat in that chair. But I suppose with Christine it was a case of right place, right time, right person”.
I to Eye features a self-portrait of Morley at the age of 80 years, in the same chair, in the same pose, naked except for a millstone around his neck signifying the weight of the image on his career. The book also contains portraits of Dame Edna Everage and comedian David Frost in the Keeler pose. Keeler’s portrait is the cover for I to Eye.
In 1971 Morley, his wife Pat and their son Lewis migrated to Australia where he’s lived ever since. His arrival in Australia coincided with the explosion of colour film and he turned his hand to interior design photography, as well as continuing to shoot for stage and screen. But for me, it is his black and white work that is most engaging.
I to Eye has been described as “the definitive retrospective”. It is an impressive collection that includes photographs never published as well as commentary from Morley’s close friend, Barry Humphries (aka Dame Edna amongst others), Gael Newton, Senior Curator, Australian and International Photography at the National Gallery of Australia and Robert McFarlane, documentary photographer and critic.
|Photographer Viviane Dalles|
I first met Viviane at the Foto Freo Festival in Fremantle, Western Australia, in 2010. Over the next couple of years we stayed in touch, until Foto Freo came around again this year, giving us a chance to once again sit down and chat. In Fremantle Viviane told me of a new body of work she had just finished on the outback of Australia. Intrigued by the thought of a Frenchwoman documenting the rough and ready Australian interior, I suggested we do an interview and in July we hooked up again, this time via Skype.
Now, after much traveling for both of us, including a trip to Perpignan, France for Visa pour l’Image, finally there is time to share my interview about this new work and the resultant book, “Terra Nullius”, which means no man’s land, or land belonging to no one.
I always find it intriguing the way foreigners view Australia. For many of my friends who live in Europe and the US, Australia is defined as a vast land where the majority of its happy-go-lucky population clings to the sea board, while the centre of the country is lost to a miasma of heat and dust, the endless red desert home to cattle stations the size of small countries, but little more.
It is true that Australia is a land of contrasts, and for city-dwellers like myself, the middle of the country is as foreign as it is to outsiders. I’ve flown over central Australia and seen the red earth from a lofty view, but I’ve never set foot in the Northern Territory, or the Top End as it’s known, and I am yet to experience the overwhelming vastness of my country of birth.
|(C) Viviane Dalles|
Often we are more fascinated with other countries than our own. That is certainly true for Viviane who has been on the road for the past seven years working as a documentary photographer. She’s shot photo essays in India, Cambodia, Thailand, Bangladesh and Nepal in her pursuit to tell stories that are often overlooked by traditional media outlets. But it is only now she says, after completing “Terra Nullius”, her photo essay about living in the outback of Australia, that she can turn her attention to her own country, of which she admits, she still knows very little.
“I was not interested at all to photograph my people, my country, but now I feel like I really want to do so. It’s something I want to develop because I realise I don’t know my country at all,” she laughs. “I know a bit of the south, Paris, Brittany, but there are so many regions I want to travel to and explore.”
This former archivist with Magnum Photos has devoted herself to documentary photography since the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, an event that changed her life and set her on her current course. We joke that being a freelance documentary photographer is perhaps not one of the safest career choices. But we agree that when a project comes together, as “Terra Nullius” did, somehow all the hard work, financial uncertainty and sleeping on friends’ couches is worth it.
“Terra Nullius” at Musée de Millau
Viviane launched “Terra Nullius” with an exhibition held at the Musée de Millau (Museum of Millau), her hometown in southern France in July. She tells me Musée de Millau commissioned the project, which further peaks my interest. Why would a museum in regional France be interested in a photo essay on the Australian outback?
Millau is a farming community, she says. In her proposal she spoke of the familiarity of living on the land as a bridge, a common theme, despite the fact that Australia’s outback is atypical to rural France in almost every way possible. But the Museum liked the concept with its complexity of cultures, its vast plains, the isolation and the pioneering spirit of those brave enough to work in the middle of nowhere.
Australia without the clichés
In the beginning Viviane thought she’d be able to set up contacts from Sydney and fly into the Top End when everything was set up. “But it was just impossible, I felt I was too far away being based on the east coast, so I packed all my stuff and went to Alice Springs”. And that’s when the story really began to take shape. Alice Springs, or The Alice as it is called, is often described as the heart of Australia, and in many ways this town is a microcosm of the cultural challenges that face Australia as a nation.
She continues. “I figured even those living remotely at some point come to Alice Springs to go shopping, so it proved a very good base for me. But I did spend a lot of time waiting next to my mobile phone though. You have to be very patient in the outback. Sometimes it drove me crazy, the waiting. But there came a point where I decided to adjust myself to the rhythm of the people living there, to the bush time. Sometimes I had to wait three days, sometimes two weeks and then at some point it would just happen and then it was WOW, that’s why I am here”.
“When I build a photo essay like this one I really like to spend time with people. I live with them and I try to be as close as I can. For me it makes sense to do that because they forget about the camera after a while and they can be themselves. I try to document the daily life, not to influence”.
Once people living in the outback decide you have good intentions, they can be very friendly. As a consequence Viviane was able to integrate herself into a variety of situations that enabled her to photograph stockmen driving cattle across the country, a travelling boxing troupe, the cattle station owners of a vast tract of land and to take aerial shots flying with a pilot who allowed her to accompany him whenever she wanted.
|(C) Viviane Dalles|
Not only has she come away from the project with a powerful body of work. There are the stories too like the time when she’d missed the last vehicle going back to Alice Springs, a six-hour trip by car, across the desert. “The cattle station owner said to me, do you drive? I said yes. And she said, okay just take my car and make your way back to Alice Springs. I laughed and she said, I am serious, just take my car and someone will pick it up once you get there. So I drove back on my own and it was just amazing”. She laughs at the memory, which is still tinged with disbelief.
|(C) Viviane Dalles|
To ensure her photo essay was representative of the cultural complexity that exists in the outback, Viviane was also aware of the need to engage the Aboriginal community – the Northern Territory still has a significant indigenous population. Introduced by a friend who was respected in the community, Viviane was given access she would have otherwise been unable to gain, access that gave even greater depth to her story.
The Challenges of the Outback
She says battling the heat and flies were only part of the challenges. Language was another barrier. “With my terrible French accent we had some difficulties to understand each other at the beginning because in the outback they have a very strong accent”. She laughs at the memory. “Oh man, at the beginning it was like, I don’t get what you are saying. But after some time I got used to the accent and it was okay and I reckon they made the effort to speak more slowly for me”.
The outback is very much a male dominion and Viviane a very attractive woman. I ask her whether she ever felt threatened being out in the middle of nowhere with all those blokes?
“You are right, it is a male environment definitely. In a way they were curious about me, but this is not the first time I’ve worked on my own in a remote situation. The men respected me for what I was doing, and could see I am a professional. So I didn’t feel I was in danger.”
Not even when she was camping with the travelling troupe of boxers? She shakes her head. “The boxers were amazing. They gave me a swag to sleep in, and fed and took care of me. I didn’t think danger would come from the boxers. And if someone tried to come into my tent at night I was surrounded by seven dogs and the boxers, so it was okay, and I felt very safe. And I am very grateful to these people because without them I couldn’t have done my story”.
|(C) Viviane Dalles|
Seven weeks turned into two years
A project that she originally thought would take around seven weeks ended up consuming several months in total with Viviane travelling to Australia four times in the space of two years to complete the work. In the interim she shot other projects to earn enough to continue with the project, her initial budget long spent.
When Viviane returned to France earlier this year she set about finding a publisher, raising the funds for the book through crowd sourcing. Then it was time to organize the 63 prints for the exhibition in Millau. She hardly had time to catch her breath before book signings at Arles and later at Perpignan. And now she is working to organize a “Terra Nullius” exhibition in Paris as well as juggling assignments, one of which will see her in Afghanistan before year’s end.
“And then I will start photographing my own country and get to know France better,” she laughs. But as we sign off and Skype disconnects, I wonder how long it will be before her keen eye, and inquisitive mind take her to foreign shores again.
|(C) Viviane Dalles|
August 2012 Feature Article
AN OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN FROM THE MASTERS
Alison Stieven-Taylor (C) 2012
Jack has been running workshops for ten years, first for others such as the World Press Organisation and various NGOs, training their media/communication staff, and later his own. Three years ago he teamed up with Stephen Dupont.
While he says marketing is his Achilles heel, the reputation of both Jack and Stephen, the striking locations and the rigour of the workshop programs have assured fairly consistent numbers. “A lot of people come to us through word of mouth also. And we do get people who come back two or three times, but usually that’s where I draw the line”. He laughs acknowledging that turning people away probably isn’t the smartest business move, “but once you’ve done three workshops you really need to get out on your own”.
The location for their most recent workshop, Luang Prabang, is the antithesis of Bangkok where Jack is based. “Bangkok is Bladerunner city” he says. “Luang Prabang is a really special place to me, you go there and slow down. You don’t have a choice, you have to keep their pace, and even the speed limit is ridiculously low compared to the rest of Asia (26kph). It’s kind of sleepy and meditative and the people are very easy going”. To emphasise the point he cites a quote from the book ‘A Fortune Teller Told Me’ by Tiziano Terzani in which the author claims that in “Vietnam you can see the rice growing, in Laos it’s so slow that you can hear the rice growing”.
Each workshop has a theme and for Luang Prabang Jack chose “fortune”. “I always give the workshop participants a word to work with, to help them define their photo essay. They have to visually interpret the word, but it’s very broad”.
Of the workshop format he says, “People learn much faster in an intensive environment. Our workshops are a bit of a boot camp, and we do twelve-hour days. We jam a lot in, within a structured format that involves fieldwork, critiques, editing and open discussion, so participants’ work can evolve very quickly. There’s lots of energy, and sometimes tears, and by the end everyone is exhausted. But it’s an exhaustion born of hard work and achievement and that’s very positive”.
One of the hooks with the Picone Dupont workshops is the inclusion of a third workshop leader, in this instance Ed Giles, to ensure a high ratio of tutor to participant. “Ed’s great, he’s a very talented, intelligent young photographer who won a Walkley Award last year and his multi-media work is outstanding,” says Jack. Including Ed also gives the workshops a contemporary media edge.
Fujifilm sponsors the current series of workshops and Jack says their support makes a significant difference. The next workshop will be held in November in Cuba, another stunning location, and in 2013 the program will expand to draw in a broader audience. “We are now also covering documentary art photography, a genre that Stephen is well versed in, and high-end documentary travel photography,” adds Jack.
In conclusion he says, “I really enjoy teaching especially in a workshop environment where I get to work closely with each of the photographers. There’s a lot of satisfaction to see someone take a leap in their work to produce some really profound images”.
To find out more about the Jack Picone and Stephen Dupont Documentary Photography Workshops please visit http://www.jackpicone.net