January 6: Is inequality invisible? To represent in images the gulf between rich and poor, ever deepening, is a challenging assignment.
The Australian Centre for Photography opens In Your Dreams today at UNSW Galleries, Cnr Oxford St & Greens Rd. Paddington, in Sydney.
…the divide between rich and poor is widening, conflict and climate change are forcing people from their homelands, displacement and homelessness are on the rise. Despite social and technological advances, for many people in the world access to a good quality of life is proving more and more difficult.
The people and communities depicted in the exhibition are not generally seen in popular representations of 21st century societies, their complex situation relegated to the “too-hard” basket by media consumers unaffected by the harshest impacts of inequality of wealth and opportunity.
To achieve that aim they field fourteen mainly documentary artists, from Bangladesh, China, France, Jordan, Mexico, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, the USA and two Australians, mostly photographers but also a couple of filmmakers. There are too many to do justice in a blog post so I will concentrate on only a few here.
An immediate and graphic visual of the seismic economic gap is presented by Johnny Miller in his startling aerials of Unequal Scenes, no doubt assisted by the availability of drone technology that he employs alongside his other excellent documentary work from a more conventional viewpoint.
The exhibition publicity headlines Mexican photographer (*1977, Dominican Rep.) Alejandro Cartagena‘s Carpoolers (published 2014), no doubt because his motif is so iconic. They are repetitions presenting the same vertical viewpoint onto the back of work trucks and utilities (which Americans call ‘pick-ups’) in which men lie or sit on their way to or from a day of labouring.
He photographed their vehicles over a year, starting in the winter of 2011, from an overpass in the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo as they drove across the United States border to work in Laredo, Texas on Highway 85 from Monterrey. It is a brilliant idea and it makes visible what cannot be seen from the road; the men stay out of sight of other drivers as it is a traffic infringement (and unsafe) to transport people in the backs of trucks.
That they are otherwise unseen makes of the casket-like space a kind of camera obscura, furthermore the reclining figures in their flattened space are made to appear as if standing, like polychrome statues in fact. Cartagena says;
When I started to take the pictures from that point of view, that just made a whole different thing open up, because there’s issues of intimacy or privacy being expressed in a public space. There’s a sense of the invisibility of the reality of so many people in Mexico that is popping out because of the images.
The title ‘Carpooling’ is somewhat ironic since the concept is an environmentalist, or at least a first-world one, while for these men about to work together all day it is a more urgent economic necessity. Interleaved in his series, and in its book version (2013), are images that Cartagena made showing the men’s viewpoint as he travelled on his back in a truck like them.
In others of his many series he is more subjective, and this topological perspective relates to that of Toloi Havini (*1981) who is also showing. In 1964 the island became the site of copper mining by Australia’s big Conzinc Rio Tinto corporation, an incursion in which the people of Bougainville found themselves stripped of all land rights under Crown Law mining regulations and the Moroni Valley became the world’s largest open-cut mine. I have dealt elsewhere with Havini’s views from above of details of environmental damage to her native Autonomous Region of Bougainville, and her reenactment of the history of the resulting deadly conflict in collaboration with Stuart Miller.
Cartagena’s and Havini’s objective approach contrasts with that of others in this challenging exhibition, the most affecting, I found, being the series by Raphaela Rosella (*1989), probably because they are an ostensibly Australian subject, but one with universal relevance in treating the complex and cyclical nature of social disadvantage and underprivilege that leads to entrenched inequality.
Raphaela has spent over a decade documenting women in her life, young mothers in Moree in outback New South Wales, a town that Rosella says is ravaged by racism and crystal methamphetamine use. It has an unemployment rate of 10% and significantly more children and people 40 and younger than any other NSW regional centre. Its people have low expectations due to the limited opportunities available, compounded by their dispossession and both bureaucratic and internecine discrimination, and many spiral into crime. However Rosella stresses that her work is not about this particular town, but about the many regional centres subject to what she identifies as countrywide racism and class bias. Those experiencing the complexities of poverty are misunderstood, demonised and dehumanised, she says;
I aim to create a platform for each young woman’s circumstances, choices, achievements and struggles to be heard and understood.
Such an ambition requires extraordinary compassion and a great deal of trust to achieve, and it is one that her hard-won and intimate subjectivity attains; such affecting proximity can come only through personal experience.
These are ingredients embedded in the titles of her projects; We met a little early, but I get to love you longer and You didn’t take away my future, you gave me a new one, and You’ll know it when you feel it.
These are clearly statements spoken in passion often from within tempestuous relationships, and with conviction, by her subjects, and because she is prepared to listen, they echo in her pictures;
When my teenage twin sister told me she was pregnant, I was angry. I called her a ‘slut’ and told her to get an abortion. I thought she could have a ‘better life’. But what is a better life? It was a path we were all expected to take. For many of my friends, becoming a parent young was not a ‘failure of planning’, but a tacit response to the choices and opportunities available to us.
While the conditions of refugees in the Tunisian transit camp photographed by Samuel Gratacap (*1984) in this show are more extreme, Rosella’s projects breach the outside-looking-in perspective of most documentary work; these are pictures of people she knows well…
‘We met a little early, but I get to love you longer‘ documents women in my life; my twin, my-step sister, and new and old friends as they grapple with the complexities of motherhood and the turbulent and uncertain environments around them.
Rosella’s shots, despite their circumstances and intensity, are considered and well crafted, the product of her Hasselblad, her patience and strong sense of responsibility to her subjects.
Attuned to environments that are as familiar to her as her subjects she often turns her camera to an eloquent detail or quality of light.
A powerful sign of her subjects’ trust in her is Rosella’s inclusion of photographed copies of their diaries, letters and notes, like this one from a Tammara, from jail, to her daughter Jessika, which speaks loudly for just one of many whose voices are unheard and their plight ignored across the rift between privileged and ‘underprivileged’;
I never imagined my girlfriends would be incarcerated. Growing up, it was usually our boyfriends. It’s easy to grasp now when I consider, women, specifically First Nations women, account for the most significant growth in Australia’s prison system.
In Your Dreams is a landmark in documentary photography for Australian audiences who see such images in the media, but whose creators are often anonymous to us. This show, curated from a such a variety of images and national origins is rare here, and is a welcome introduction to names to watch; the other participants are; Jessie Boylan, Samuel Gratacap, Tanya Habjouqa, Samsul Alam Helal, Maria Kourkouta, George Osodi, Andres Serrano, Sim Chi Yin, Zhao Liang and Mary Zournazi