Views from the Inside: Reflections on Photography, Place and Community at PHOTO 2022
Art historian and researcher Dr Jessica Neath reflects on the work of a selection of artists exhibited at PHOTO 2022 International Festival of Photography: Being Human.
Walking along the stretch of terrace houses that line Barry Street on the edge of the University of Melbourne, I am coaxing my 7-year old daughter along to catch another of the offerings by PHOTO 2022 International Festival of Photography. On the other side of the street are the hoardings of Metro Tunnel, a multi-year construction project the state government promises will transform the city, but for now cuts through the thoroughfare connecting to the Royal Melbourne Hospital. The hoardings offer a gallery wall outside and my daughter is transfixed by the photograph of a moody teenager whose gaze confidently meets any viewer. 101 portraits each two metres tall line this 150-metre stretch. Arranged chronologically from 0 to 100 years old, these photographs are the work of the British artist Jenny Lewis. Titled One Hundred Years, each portrait is of a resident of Hackney in East London and is accompanied by a small quote by the sitter. My accompanying friend comments that the community seems pretty working class with a lot of artists in the mix. I remember that Hackney and its canals were known as a cool place where artists live because of cheaper rent, along with established and new migrant communities. However, gentrification has more recently transformed the borough and many creatives can no longer afford the rent; many of the studios have been demolished to become apartments. Similar to the suburb Carlton around the corner from Barry Street, low cost housing continues to disappear.
The first iteration of this biennial, PHOTO 2020, was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and became PHOTO 2021. PHOTO 2022 arrives at a time when Melbourne is coming out of another bout of extended lockdowns. Yet like any metropolis, Melbourne and its suburbs seem to always be undergoing change, reinventions, gentrification and decline. Photography has long been a chosen medium to investigate these urban processes from Andreas Gursky’s digitally manipulated landscapes of monumental high rises, docklands and supermarkets or the surveys made by amateur photographers, detailed in Elizabeth Edwards’ book The Camera as Historian, who wanted to record the material remains of the English past at the close of the nineteenth century.
Lewis’s project grows from nearly three decades of living and working in Hackney. Finding time outside her commercial practice as an editorial photographer, she began making personal work about ten years ago focusing on the people and places around her, wanting to investigate her own place in society. “I’m an insider,” she explained. “I’m sharing that footpath and park, going to same corner shop… There is a commonality. I’m not a voyeur looking in on something and commenting on something that is not yourself.” Her first long-form portrait series One Day Young (published 2015) depicts 150 mothers within a day of giving birth photographed in their own homes and was motivated by her own experience as a young mother, while Hackney Studios (published 2017) documents 150 artists in their working environments.
Given the number of subjects in each of Lewis’s projects, there is something of a survey quality grasping at the “evidential force” of photography, what Roland Barthes termed “that-has-been”, documenting things which may be lost in order to make a historical record. Yet, the approach is far from impersonal or objective. Each project took five years to complete where the pace of making is intentionally slow. While all the subjects in Hackney Studios are creatives, they were not necessarily known to the artist as each sitter nominated the next one, and so the pace of the project followed this relational method. The portraits in One Hundred Years each include a short accompanying text which was extracted from lengthy unstructured interviews between the artist and sitter – the selection of words by the artist intended to offer a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people. “You have to go through some terrible things in this world to live you know,” says Mavis, 85 years old. The resultant portraits have an intimacy where the sitters are sharing something of their life on their own terms.
The planned outcome of each of these three series was a book allowing an extended exchange between viewer and sitter. One Hundred Years has also been installed in public locations across East London. At the newly built Britannia Leisure Centre, the complete series has become a permanent artwork in the foyer welcoming the community to the centre. Lewis considers the work a “celebration of normal people. Everyone has relevance.” In the choice of location for installation there is a similar drive to reflect the community back on themselves through photography, utilising locations in East London that are not a gallery or a museum but where everyday life happens including waiting rooms in medical clinics and outside along the Regents Canal where the artist has her studio.
Exhibiting One Hundred Years in Melbourne for PHOTO 2022 marks a further shift for the artist into this realm of public art. The installation at Barry Street presents this portrait outside the community on the other side of the globe, amplifying the human themes of birth, death, ageing, and family in a local story. Installed on hoardings that are physically transforming another inner-city suburb, the intervention provokes a reflection on how the human connections in an area makes a community or a place distinct.
Another series of portraits in PHOTO 2022 also shown outside on a busy thoroughfare is James Henry’s Kulin Generations. A major commission of the biennial, the work features prominent Elders from each of the five Kulin nations: Boon Wurrung, Wurrendjeri/Woiwurrung, Dja Dja Wurrung, Taungurung, Wathaurong (Wadda Wurrung) representing the First Peoples of what we now call Melbourne and extending to regional cities Geelong, Ballarat, Moe and Euroa. Keenly placed on the steps of the Old Treasury Building, one of the city’s early colonial buildings built soon after the 1850s gold rush, this series acknowledges that Melbourne and beyond is Kulin Country: always was, always will be, Aboriginal land.
Henry is part of the Aboriginal community in Melbourne, an artist and musician who took up photography about a decade ago to document community events. He has made significant work about the importance of family and Country for Aboriginal peoples living in Victoria, which is largely invisible in mainstream spaces. For most of the twentieth century, state and federal governments have actively attempted to dismantle these family, kinship and Country connections through policies of protection and assimilation. In 18 Families, exhibited at the Castlemaine Art Gallery in 2021, Henry began to document the families of the Jaara community, descendants of the Dja Dja Wurrung people, and their perspectives of Country. The artist wanted “to show that Jaara culture and Jaara people are here amongst us today and not just in these photographs from 100 years ago.”
For Kulin Generations, Henry sought to document the everyday life of Kulin Elders and the important relationships with their grandchildren. Each portrait is comprised of two images: one made outside and the other inside. The photographic frame pans out to reveal pockets of Country in the images made outside, placing the subjects in a detailed environment. Boonwurrung Elder N’Arweet Carolyn Briggs walks with her three grandchildren Tyson, Sario and Amina in the tiny parcel of protected bushland where the Ngaree Tree remains – an important Boonwurrung meeting place for thousands of generations – located adjacent the busy St Kilda Junction where major roads and a tramway meet. Aunty Fay Carter (Dja Dja Wurrung) and her granddaughter Neane embrace outside Aunty’s home in another photograph which gives equal attention to the shrubs, grasses and tall tree as well as the suburban brick fence and railing.
Along with a number of works in the biennial, including new commissions by other up-and-coming Australian artists Scotty So and Hannah Brönte, the photographs are presented as life size images installed on freestanding frames in prime outdoor locations. In Henry’s intervention the outside images face Spring Street, the thoroughfare connecting with Parliament House. On the other side of the frame facing Old Treasury Building are the inside images, for example Aunty Fay and Neane having a cup of tea at Aunty’s kitchen table.
There is also an audio track that accompanies each portrait generously sharing the conversation between grandparents and grandchildren but also underlining the rich oral traditions of Kulin culture, indeed First Nations cultures across Australia, interwoven between generations and with Country. I am reminded of the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi artist Michael Riley and his photographic series Yarns from the Talbragar Reserve (1998) which similarly matched portraits of Elders with their own voice reminiscing about the significance of the Talbragar Reserve to their survival.
In Kulin Generations stories about survival are also shared as experiences of racism towards Aboriginal peoples. N’Arweet reflects on constantly being challenged about who you are, “always justifying yourself in your own land” and Aunty Fay shares those experiences of having to explain how you are Aboriginal. It’s because people “don’t know our history” and this is one of her ambitions for Treaty in Victoria, to put this history in the school curriculum. Each of the five Elders featured in the series have fought for rights and for recognition of identity and culture, paving the way for new narratives and futures for their grandchildren. The series shares the sense of belonging through family and through living on Country, gently reminding the broader community that Country is all around us, even in suburban Melbourne.
There is an informality to the otherwise staged photographs by Henry that comes from the warmth of the relationships between those photographed. This warmth extends to familiarity with place and a way of sharing knowledge, including the making of these photographs, as a reciprocal exchange. Henry is also actively working against the history of photographing First Nations peoples: the ethnographic photography of the so-called dying race from late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and continuing to circulate today, media images and stories which cover the health and social problems disproportionally facing First Nations peoples as somehow inherent rather than systemic. To quote Waljen woman and Public Health Medicine Physician Associate Professor Tamara Mackean, this coverage perpetuates “a discourse of total negative deficit” and, for First Nations peoples, recirculates intergenerational trauma. These are the kinds of images Susan Sontag criticised for objectifying other people’s pain, “they turn an event or a person into something that can be possessed.”
However, as Ariella Azoulay has argued, photography serves these discourses because of the ways in which photography is thought. In The Civil Contract of Photography (2008), Azoulay explains that the emphasis on the photographed event and on the binary relationship that pits those in front of the camera against those behind – or those inside the frame against those outside in the moment of viewing – does not allow for the multiple meanings of a photograph which are produced out of an encounter with several protagonists and always exceed what was intended. Rather, we exist in a world where photography is all around us. She says, the “event of photography – not the photographed event – might take place as the encounter with a camera, with a photograph or with the mere knowledge that a photograph has been (or might have been) produced.”
The “event of photography” in Azoulay’s terms drives the work of French Algerian artist Mohamed Bourouissa who last year won the British Duetsche Börse Photography Prize. Bourouissa’s breakthrough photographic series Périphérique (2005-2008), which has been included in exhibitions across the globe, was presented for the first time in Australia in PHOTO 2022 at the Peter O’Callaghan QC Gallery. This presentation followed the artist’s major contribution to NIRIN, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney in 2020, Brutal Family Roots, an immersive installation made in collaboration with Jordan Quinqueret, Nardean and MC Kronik and living plants.
In Périphérique, Bourouissa developed a method to create a more complex image, compared to mainstream representations, of the young men living in the Paris banlieues. Born in Algeria, Bourouissa himself came to Paris as a boy and grew up at Courbevoie, a banlieue of north-west Paris. The banlieues are the outlying suburbs of Paris where housing estates were built in the post-war period, as part of a program to encourage migration from the former French colonies and attract the workforce necessary for the reconstruction of the country. By the 1980s, they had become effectively segregated communities with thousands living below the poverty line, massive youth unemployment and social isolation. Defined as a “problem of integration” residents of the banlieues have been marginalised and discriminated against by the city, media and the state.
In 2005, when two teenage boys Zyed Benn and Bouna Traoré died hiding from the police in an electricity substation in Clichy-sous-Bois, unrest erupted for weeks. The conservative government of the time took a “zero tolerance” approach, declaring a state of emergency and sending in police reinforcements with thousands of arrests made. Images of burning vehicles and buildings, riot police and hooded young men flooded the media as the conflict spread beyond Paris. Bourouissa viewed the television footage from Algeria where he was staying at the time and was motivated to create a more truthful representation. “I wanted to express the tension that I felt between a state and a population of Maghreb and African origin, between the government and this community.”
In November last year, Loose Joints published Périphérique which includes the full series of over 20 photographs as well newly commissioned texts that look back on the work’s original context and the persistent inequality and racism that continues to impact lives in the banlieues. The publication also reveals Bourouissa’s process of staging the photographs with preparatory photographs from the artist’s archive revealing the methods of observation and collaboration behind each image. Many of the images appear as fleeting moments captured by the camera in the traditions of street photography and photojournalism, but closer viewing always reveals a formal logic that is intent on creating staged tension. Made with friends and acquaintances he grew up with, the subjects are familiar with “the event of photography” and have an understanding of the power of visuality.
Bourouissa trained as a painter and the formal composition of each photograph utilises visual languages fashioned in eighteenth and nineteenth century French history paintings. The photograph ‘La Républic’ (2006), which was created at Clichy-sous-Bois where the clashes with the police began in 2005, references Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830) with the tricolour flag similarly placed in the top right-hand corner and further visual cues in the gestures and crossing gazes of subjects create a dynamic movement through the composition. The series offers a poignant criticism of the French state and the failure of the republic to enact those principles of liberty, equality and fraternity that inspired the July Revolution of 1830. The structural racism of colonialism was disregarded then, as it continued to be in 2005.
Similar to Kulin Generations and One Hundred Years the venue for Périphérique at PHOTO 2022 was carefully curated to reflect major themes of the work and attract audiences beyond the regular gallery circuit in Melbourne. The Peter O’Callaghan QC Gallery is located in the foyer for the Victorian Bar Association, in Melbourne’s legal precinct across the road from the Supreme Court of Victoria and the Melbourne Magistrate’s Court. Périphérique was presented alongside Bourouissa’s later series Shoplifters (2014) and was surrounded by the permanent collection of commissioned portraits of past and present members of the Bar including judges, politicians and Queen’s Counsels. Visiting alone on a weekday afternoon, the gallery, which is like a wide corridor, was busy with barristers making their way from the court to their chambers speaking loudly on their mobile phones. It felt odd to be there engaging with art but I was immediately struck by the stark contrast between the named portraits of men like Sir Robert Menzies (former prime minister of Australia) and Sir Leo Cussen (former Judge Supreme Court) and Bourouissa’s unnamed photographs of his friends who are overly represented on the other side of the law.
The violence of racism bubbling away beneath the legal system overpowered me that day, remembering that across the road in the courts, was an overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples receiving a gaol sentence. The statistics declare more about this state of affairs: at least 474 First Nations peoples have died in custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody published its final report in 1991, while not one police officer or prison guard had been charged. I think of the brave mother in Aunty Barbara McGrady’s photograph ‘Justice for TJ Hickey’ protesting the death of her teenage son following a police chase in Redfern in 2004. I think of Ricky Maynard’s powerful work No More Than What You See (1993) responding to the Royal Commission with photographs made in collaboration with inmates revealing isolation, solidarity, shame and pride.
The public interventions in PHOTO 2022 and choice of locations provoked a dialogue about place and what makes them distinct: the histories of change and continuity, the human connections and struggles for rights and recognition. These reflections are about the places photographed and also the places of exhibition, locations across Melbourne on Kulin land which are caught up in a reckoning with colonialism. However, the photographic works by Lewis, Henry and Bourouissa are not simple arguments for the visibility of marginalised peoples, for a need to be photographed and recognised by the outside. The works carve out space from the inside through methods of collaboration and reciprocity, for subjects to articulate their own sense of community and of belonging. The onus on viewers is to listen.
“To be a good listener is just as important as being a good talker. I mean to listen not just to hear, which means to take it in. It’s not going over the top of your head.”
Aunty Fay Carter
Dr Jessica Neath is an Australian art historian of settler descent and Research Fellow at the Wominjeka Djeembana Indigenous Research Lab in the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, Monash University. She has published writing in The Journal of Australian Studies, Arena Magazine, eyeline, The History of Photography, Landscape Architecture Australia and Fashion Theory.
 Elizabeth Edwards, The Camera as Historian: Amateur Photographers and Historical Imagination, 1885-1918, Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press, 2012.
 Jenny Lewis: The Alternative London Podcast, published 5 July 2022.
 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
 Jenny Lewis: The Alternative London Podcast, published 5 July 2022.
 James Henry: 18 Families, Castlemaine Art Museum, 19 March – 9 October 2021. https://castlemaineartmuseum.org.au/exhibitions/james-henry-18-families
 Treaty for Victoria, the First People’s Assembly, accessed 10 July 2022. https://www.firstpeoplesvic.org/
 Tamara Mackean quoted in Melissa Sweet “Is the media part of the Aboriginal health problem, and part of the solution”, Inside Story, 3 March 2009. https://insidestory.org.au/is-the-media-part-of-the-aboriginal-health-problem-and-part-of-the-solution/
 Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, London: Penguin, 2004.
 Ariella Azoulay, “What Is a Photograph? What Is Photography?”, Philosophy of Photography 1, no. 1 (2010): 9-13.
 Mohamed Bourouissa quoted in Clément Chéroux, “Mohamed Bourouissa’s staged dramas in Paris’ banlieues – in pictures,” The Guardian, 12 November 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2021/nov/12/mohamed-bourouissas-staged-dramas-in-paris-banlieues-in-pictures .
 “Disproportionate incarceration rate”, Australian Law Reform Commission, 9 January 2018. https://www.alrc.gov.au/publication/pathways-to-justice-inquiry-into-the-incarceration-rate-of-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-peoples-alrc-report-133/executive-summary-15/disproportionate-incarceration-rate/
 Lorena Allam, Calla Wahlquist, Nick Evershed and Miles Herbert, “The 474 deaths inside: tragic toll of Indigenous deaths in custody revealed”, The Guardian, 9 April 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/apr/09/the-474-deaths-inside-rising-number-of-indigenous-deaths-in-custody-revealed