The language we use to define ourselves can shape our life’s journey immensely. I have a fairly constant dialogue with myself and you may be surprised to know that two of the definitions I’ve struggled with greatly with are ‘Professional Photographer’ and ‘Artist’.
Although being a professional photographer is my full-time gig, the university qualification that hangs on my wall is a Bachelor of Social Work. Equally, I’ve struggled to call myself an artist, as I shoot commercial photography alongside my personal projects. And, I’d never exhibited.
I let my negative constructs of these definitions barricade me for a long time.
Now, as my first exhibition prepares to open, I’ve found myself rather reflective about the journey to this point and the meaning I place on it. In what feels like a defining moment,
I’ve married my passions, creativity and professionalism into one project.
I have learnt so much throughout this process and, ultimately, I want to encourage others who may never have exhibited before to start their journey too.
Here is insight into my mind on the pathway to the opening of the Our New Home exhibition at the Latrobe Regional Gallery (May 15 to August 1). The project was commissioned by Latrobe Community Health Services (LCHS) to explore the theme of movement across the globe to Gippsland. It captures the lived experience of refugee and migrant women in the region using digital and medium format photography — via film, environmental or doubly-exposed photographs.
Make Your Passions Part of Your Identity
I have always let my personal values shine through in my business and have remained connected to my passion for working with refugees ever since ceasing work as a social worker. This passion put me in such a strong place to partner with LCHS. Social justice fuels me and I know I need to do relatable projects to feel fulfilled.
If you believe in something, pursue it, but don’t expect projects to find you. Reach out to organisations or people that you want to collaborate with. Volunteering makes the world go around. Put your hand up: it might just lead to the most meaningful art you’ve ever created.
Am I Good Enough?
It took years for me to start calling myself a ‘professional photographer’, rather than saying ‘I take photos’, all because I placed so much power in that piece of paper on a wall. Although I first learned film photography in high school and worked in the field, I always felt that I was an imposter as I didn’t have the formal qualification.
Learning and gaining experience can be self-directed and valuable. Put in the effort, stay self-reflective and let your work speak for itself.
Build relationships respectfully and be aware of the multi-dimensional privilege you hold. It’s so important to keep checking in with yourself and who you’re photographing throughout the process. As a photographer, I hold a lot of power over people’s identity and privacy. This project also deals with the complexities of trauma and ongoing conflict zones.
If you can’t do something ethically and safely, don’t do it. If the experience doesn’t feel empowering to the subject, then you need to question why you are doing it.
I knew each woman's experience of settlement would be unique and thus I had to be flexible in how I would capture their portrait. I collaborated with former journalist and LCHS communications advisor Emma Watson. We’d meet the women in their family home, where after a period of conversation I began photographing them in an environment familiar to them. My approach was to capture individual portraits: candid documentary images of them with family (if present) followed by a double exposure in camera photograph. This last image was to explore the layering of space and time.
Will I Let People Down?
I felt a huge sense of responsibility capturing other people’s lives, especially when they’re speaking out from a vulnerable group. I shared this responsibility with Emma, who diligently and sensitively interviewed all of the women and drafted their written profiles. All of these women let Emma and me into their lives and have resiliently shared themselves. Although sharing your story can be a deeply empowering process, it can also be traumatic. The way a refugee experiences settlement in their new community can exacerbate and maintain trauma reactions, thus the power and responsibility we held undertaking this project was huge. Each of our shoots were brief in comparison to their life journey and I left each one questioning whether the women would like their photos and feel they genuinely represented them and their families. My greatest hope was that I could, at least partially, reflect back to them the resilience, courage and hope I saw in them.
Time Will Have Its Say Over You
When it comes to time frames, I dance between calling myself overly optimistic and naive. With a long-term project that involves other people, you are dealing with multiple schedules and, thus, unknowns. We started this project pre-COVID-19 and had to finish it afterwards. That saw us have to adapt to using Zoom to conduct some audio recordings and be fearful whether an exhibition could even go ahead. Thankfully, it is. Open communication, patience and a strong dose of wishful thinking helped.
Pitching The Project
I was incredibly lucky to have the support of the marketing and communications team at Latrobe Community Health. But I can say I was trembling when we went to the Latrobe Regional Gallery, portfolio under my arm, to pitch the exhibition. I still didn’t feel worthy, but what gave me confidence was the women. I was pitching for the women, not me as an artist.
As I sat at the large table watching the curator gaze over the proposed images scattered over the table, I was unsure which way it would go. As I spoke about how it would feel for those women to be able to walk into such a prestigious gallery and see their stories on display, I saw a sparkle in his eyes and I felt hope. We had a chance to really give them a voice and say ‘I am here’. I’ll be forever grateful for them for staging this exhibition.
Be Friendly with Your Providers and Other Trades
Multiple people are involved in creating an exhibition, each working hard at their particular craft. Make the time to have conversations with everyone, learn what they need from you and be clear on the timelines. I was open about being an ‘exhibition rookie’. It can be easy to go from what feels like 10km to 200km p/h overnight in the weeks leading up to opening. I gained so much confidence knowing I trusted who was involved.
Don’t Burn Out
The catch with personal projects is you have to fit them in and around all of life’s other commitments. For me, that includes two children, a second business in the startup phase and the pressure of being a single income household/parent. The fact I’m recovering from a bad case of shingles isn’t a coincidence.
It can be bloody hard, so ensure you have good support to lean on when needed. I did, from both the Latrobe Community Health team and my family and friends, and this has gotten me through this adventure.
As I eagerly await the moment I stand in the gallery with Emma and the other women, I feel that imposter syndrome–laden voice creeping in again, ‘Am I good enough?’. But now, rather than the definitions of words, I am focusing on the moments. I believe in following my passions and am confident to be vocal about my values. I’ve also had enough people believe in me, which means I keep going — as a photographer, as an artist, as a human.