In 2015, the NRMA Kennedy Awards, handed out annually for excellence in journalism in NSW, had a severe mix-up when awarding the photojournalism prize – Mike Bowers was incorrectly announced as the winner for his interactive photo essay documenting the centenary of the Gallipoli landings, a kind of tricked-up ‘then and now’ look at our sacred tourist spot. As Bowers took the stage, organisers hastily stopped a video showing the rightful winner – Nic Walker’s collection exploring the rising trend of Schoolies celebrations taking place across Bali. The error was corrected with an official apology – but, like the Oscars mix-up between Moonlight and La La Land, the mistake inadvertently brought out an interesting contrast in the international subject matter of the winner and oh-shit-sorry-not-actually- winner.
The figure of the photographer as drop-in, a barely embedded foreign correspondent, is nothing new – but in most cases the photojournalist is looking at something distinctly foreign. What both Bowers and Walker look at in their work – Walker explicitly so – are the exacting ways Australians both see foreign soil and are seen when standing upon it. Gallipoli and Bali offer themselves up as such, having performed deeply important functions for Australians for decades – one as a historic space for remembrance, the other as the tourist hotspot complicated by rituals of grief. You can imagine a lot of the grommets surfing Bali graduating to walking tours of Gallipoli when they read history and get bored of the waves.
Neither [Bali nor Gallipoli] belong to us, but you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking otherwise, given the ways in which we have marked them.
Ultimately, neither territory belongs to us, but you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking otherwise, given the ways in which we have marked them with our own loud rituals and frequent, often crass, forms of tourism. It’s something Bowers seems to miss in his tribute to the centennial sentiment of modern Gallipoli. Walker, on the other hand, can see it clearly and knows just how ugly it can turn.
Schoolies has always proved easy fodder for journalistic judgements. I can remember the disapproving TV news reports of scenes of excess on the Gold Coast from when I was a kid; there’s nothing quite as fun as judging the fun of others. Since its establishment in 1979, Schoolies has called the Gold Coast home, but Surfers Paradise has lost some of its stronghold on the scene, ceding large numbers of East Coast kids to nearby Byron Bay and, increasingly, the beaches of Bali.
Walker’s Schoolies series ran under the title Rite of Passage for the Fairfax newspapers as a special report, with accompanying text by Amy McNeilage. The collection largely fits into the tradition of photojournalism and street photography. No surprise there –Schoolies, by its nature, spills onto the streets, as late teenagers, whose adult lives and decision making skills are all but inchoate, come face to face with what the strange concoction of pure freedom and ethanol does to their bodies. They pour out of the clubs, as if they’ve just been let out of their bedrooms for the first time in eighteen years, and take up way too much room in Kuta’s cramped streets. It’s pure horror.
In an accompanying multimedia video, three young men are interviewed in the back of a taxi, somewhere between being done for the night, and being done with it. They remain effusive, explaining why Bali is the best place in the world: ‘You can do whatever you want. There’s [sic] no rules. You can go out… on the mini mart, buy a drink, walk to the next club, drink it, and then go into the club.’ Amid the slurred speech, the evocation of and enthusiasm for mobility is clear – the party is the street and the street is the party. Walker has found a street scene filled with so much life it doesn’t quite know what to do with it. It overspills, like so much drink.
Walker documents them playing like kids in the rain (schoolies takes place at the beginning of Bali’s rainy season), kissing and grabbing at each other with new permission. Men elect go shirtless, aping the camera attempting to go unnoticed, and women walk in groups, often looking skyward. When things descend, they do so literally, down to street level. A young woman, overwhelmed, is consoled by close friends, as she stretches out across the sidewalk, her arms lifeless. If you came across the collection without context, you might mistake it for some kind of war photography.
Walker is perhaps best known for his portrait work of business and political figures, many of which form the covers of various inserts of the Australian Financial Review. There are iconic pictures of Prime Ministers present and past, and the humorous series The Kattle Run, which seemed to drop rogue independent Bob Katter right into William Eggleston’s over-saturated vision of 70s America (North Queensland is a striking analogue for its colourful aesthetic excesses, all lurid lime green and pineapple yellow). The necessary sheen of the commercial magazine, and the fame of the subject, can obscure the photographer behind the camera. It is clear that Walker’s skill and ambition goes beyond journeyman photojournalism and commercial studio work, as good as that work is. Trent Parke has provided an aspirational model, perhaps, going from News Corp sports photographer to Australia’s most acclaimed contemporary photographer.
Rite of Passage might have been a short assignment – a week at best– to join the schoolies for the length of their celebrations. Another photographer working outside the newspaper model might have stayed behind after they’d left to survey the scene, independent of their presence. And, as an essay it serves a weak conclusion – high school stuff, really – a photograph too obviously situated as an endpoint. A young schoolie walks ahead to her departing flight, stationed waiting for take-off at Denpasar International Airport. Heading home is easy; thinking about what you leave behind is the hard work of travel. Then, a final thought lingers: the Balinese barely factor into any of these scenes. I wonder if this is by design – in documenting the tourists we are certainly shown their own lack of acknowledgement of locals. But is this achieved by mimicking that ignorance?
The answer might lie in how Australians have approached photographing Asia as a subject in and of itself. Max Pam, through his collections Going East: Two Decades of Asian Photography, Indian Ocean Journals and Atlas Monographs, is the contemporary Australian photographer most closely tied to Asia. His body of work roughly matches the travel trends of his Boomer generation, mapping the low-road travels of the likes of Maureen and Tony Wheeler (which would eventuate in the Lonely Planet empire) with a high-art, impressionistic eye. Pam’s reading of Allen Ginsberg’s Indian Journals and Rabindranath Tagor’s romantic poetry influenced his journeys across the Asian continent in the early 70s, and the photographs have an air of the Grand Tour about them.
Pam was such an iconic traveller that the novelist Tim Winton, in his introduction to Going East, was at pains to paint himself as a homebody in contrast: ‘It seems Max Pam and I are almost cosmic opposites, caricatured polarities. He the hippy adventurer, me the protestant stay-at-home.’ To someone like Winton, then, the purpose of a photographer like Pam is to transmit images of the world back to home, but there’s something disingenuous about this viewpoint.
[Pam’s] photographs are, ultimately, less about the subjects they depict than the narrative of travel itself.
The photographs are, ultimately, less about the subjects they depict than the narrative of travel itself – it is there in the motion and blur of Pam’s prints. It also cuts through when Pam turns the camera on himself, in iconic self portraits, or in his occasional photographs of fellow white backpackers. Smoking with the Hash King and Jesus from California in Kabul (1971) might be the most honest photograph in the collection. Going East, published in 1992, has aged extremely well as an object; Pam put obvious thought into the history of photobooks and it looks quite unlike the busy, crowded designs of the time. Pam’s photographs, too, certainly hold up, but amid his best work are the piled-on stares of subject after subject photographed in the same straightforward portraiture mode, despite their formal innovations.
Travel is, of course, a luxury and privilege, and something about the power inherent in being photographer rather than the photographed heightens this sense. Some subjects rebel, of course. In one of Pam’s photographs, taken in a sweetshop in Peshawar, Pakistan, the subject gives a look to the camera that seems to be a mix of curiosity and incredulousness. It feels as if we are only at the beginning of a conversation around the ethics of travel writing, and a shake down of photography based on travel should be occurring concurrently (A rejection of the National Geographic form of photojournalism has been boiling away for years).
It feels as if we are only at the beginning of a conversation around the ethics of travel writing, and a shake down of photography should be occurring concurrently.
Pam has interrogated his own approach through collaborative works with ethnographer and creative writing professor Stephen Muecke. But that could be taken even further, particularly given the nature of the relationship and shared history between Australia and Asia. In his review of Peter Carey’s novel My Life As A Fake, John Updike stretched his usual qualitative insights to proffer:
…now that the European colonization of South-east Asia is a bittersweet memory, preserved in the words of Conrad and Orwell and Graham Greene, who will mediate this vast region for the Western imagination but the Australians? They seize it as their nearest escape from insularity, a vacationland and possible sphere of influence.
The very idea of a need for continued mediation, of course, is just an extension of the colonial project (and it certainly isn’t John Updike’s place to rule it as a ‘bittersweet memory’). This misdirected thinking could be applied in arrears to any number of tourist-photographer productions. Mediation is too calm a word for such an active process. And God forbid we ever let anyone speak for themselves.
Disrupting and redirecting the conversation around dissemination and production is essential to the future of Australian photography.
Running counter to that kind of thinking is a project like The Asia-Pacific Photobook Archive. Coordinated by Daniel Boetker-Smith and Isabella Capezio, and operating out of Melbourne, the Archive is open to submissions from across the Asia-Pacific region and is a ‘response to the European and American focus of most international discourses around photography and photobooks.’ The collection is accessible in a gallery in Collingwood and occasionally taken around the country as part of independent art fairs; the group’s online archive is also an incredible directory for new artists and festivals across the region.
Disrupting and redirecting the conversation around dissemination and production is essential to the future of Australian photography, particularly when it goes out into the world and attempts to relay images back home. The same could be said, of course, of all travel. In a video interview, asked about his long career as an Australian photographer and its future, Max Pam noted that ‘There is still a role for the classic “photojournalist”, but I think they have to share that moment, whatever the moment is…with the players who are directly involved in it.’ What that sharing mode looks like is uncertain for now, but it requires doing away with a human figure staring at the lens, being asked to smile blankly back. The ongoing problem with photography has always been that the camera has only offered a view in a literal single direction. Until the technology becomes a true mirror, perhaps, in the case of the internationalist, it is time to hand the camera over.