The next essay in the series ‘The Haze: On Australian Photography’ explores the interplay between landscape and industry and the role of documentary photography as activism.
At the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra – by far Australia’s worst institutional curatorial space, a gaudy pop mix of good and bad photographic and painted portraiture, where the good is defiantly washed out by the bad – I stood between two similar portraits, staring each other down across a vast room. One was of the novelist Tim Winton, the other of the surfer Mick Fanning. Both photographs feature the men standing with their backs to the ocean in order to create a sense of scope and nod towards their professions; but wouldn’t they be better off facing the ocean? Both men make their livelihoods considering the ocean on some level: Fanning by entering it, and attempting to tame it through artful surfing; Winton by considering the novelistic and essayistic potential of the ocean to inspire fiction and describe environmental impacts and threats of degradation.
Instead, these two men stand on coastlines on opposite sides of the country, staring into the room, their eyes not quite meeting the other’s, saying nothing about the potentially powerful curatorial subject of water.
In the same way that Fanning and Winton turn away from the ocean, so too do we turn our backs on really approaching, from an intellectual point of view, the very water that defines us. As an island nation girt by the stuff, as the crusty anthem goes, Australia must also somehow reconcile with it, and yet perhaps it is fear that prevents us from doing so.
Every time we look out to the ocean, we must consider what is contained within, and what it might carry with it on its surface. Our national political conversation has been fixated on the idea of boats for over a decade now. So, water is political; photography, too. The war against the proposed Franklin Dam in Tasmania was aided in no small part by a striking photograph by the late Peter Dombrovskis. Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend, Franklin River doubles as both art and activism. To state natural beauty through extraordinary photography is to partake in a very public act of persuasion.
To state natural beauty through extraordinary photography is to partake in a very public act of persuasion.
The photographer David Stephenson – whose works are currently showing at the Art Gallery of NSW, under the resonant title Human Landscapes – continues Dombrovskis’ line of viewing Tasmania, and its diverse waterways, as having great photographic potential. But Stephenson’s practice goes to the straight sublime, where political meaning can be harder to grasp, but the poetic emerges. Stephenson is an American by birth, and moved to Tasmania in 1982 to work at the university. His photograph from that first year of living in Tasmania, Lake King William a Derwent River hydro electric development, Tasmania, shows, across three panels, a levelled landscape, trees felled and surrounded by water. It presents a picture of what might have become of Dombrovskis’ Franklin River: a potential wasteland.
The most recent work in the small exhibition is a photograph of the zinc works from Store Point in Hobart, a sight familiar to those who have caught the ferry down the Derwent River towards’ David Walsh’s MONA. Long exposure lets Stephenson reflect the industrial zone in the water, lights stretched out and appearing as flames; but it’s a cold photograph, with Mount Wellington in the background and a dusky haze settling over the steel frames of the site. Stephenson has tasked himself with grasping the industrial presence in nature, how its shapes and figures can contour and limn large landscapes. There’s no sense of pollution nor contamination despite the presence of steam coming from the smelters, but the cleanness of the image has an uncanny effect that doubles the mind back to just what kind of industry takes hold of Tasmania’s imagination.
The Art Gallery of NSW seems intent on rendering Stephenson as somehow apart from the environmental movement of the time – perhaps in order to connect to higher art practice and thereby warrant the well-deserved exhibition. The gallery goes so far as to isolate a single quote from the photographer in order to prove its point: ‘I was more interested in being a historical witness and giving testimony to the changes taking place.’ But giving testimony can be its own form of activism, and the witness is never purely objective observer. Documentary photography is no gesture of standing by idly; it contains within it editorial participation.
Documentary photography is no gesture of standing by idly; it contains within it editorial participation.
Stephenson’s work in photography is often mentioned in relation to the philosophy of the sublime. Indeed, one of his books – collecting his photographs of European church architecture – is titled Symétries Sublimes = Sublime Symmetries. The sublime is typically evoked to express a sense of awe within nature, but awe can slip easily into fear, and perhaps that is no better experienced than when thinking about water. As Edmund Burke write in his canonical 1757 treatise Philosophical Enquiry into Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful:
A level plain of a vast land, is certainly no mean idea; the prospect of such a plain may be as extensive as a prospect of the ocean; but can it ever fill the mind with any thing so great as the ocean itself? This is owing to several causes, but it is owing to none more than this, that the ocean is an object of no small terror. Indeed terror is in all cases whatsoever, either openly or latently the ruling principle of the sublime.
It would seem that the vast environmental photography of Australia needs some engagement with water to effectively convey the terror within our particular brand of sublime, and to capture the plain as it encounters and intersects with water. The emerging photographer Kelvin Skewes understands as much, as he demonstrates in his series Nauru: What Was Taken And What Was Given.
Skewes published his documentation of the Micronesian island in 2013, with an exhibition held the following year at Counihan Gallery. The publication and exhibition seemed to ask a straightforward question: We talk about Nauru endlessly, but do we even know what it looks like? Skewes provided us with the answer, showing us a site which has dominated Australian political conversation and debate for years, but which few of us have properly laid our eyes on.
The importance of Skewes’ survey, then, is in depicting a space that is only imagined by Australians – on both sides of the political divide – giving a rare chance for the island to be revealed in a documentary photography project.
We talk about Nauru endlessly, but do we even know what it looks like?
Writing in her sharp essay ‘In The Water’, published by The New Inquiry, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio notes that ‘an immigrant in the water is a story or a lesson, but an immigrant on land is our responsibility – they might become our neighbour.’ Is it any wonder that the Australian government constantly attempts to keep the conditions on, and the very nature of, Nauru a secret? Many workers on the island sign gag orders as conditions of employment; most of the Nauru government’s communication with the Australian press comes via a PR firm based in Brisbane. Villavicencio goes on to write that ‘images of migrants on boats are painfully easy to conjure, because the European refugee crisis has been photographed extensively.’
If only it were thus in Australia. Obfuscation is the government’s modus operandi; the Immigration Minister speaks mistruths on a daily basis around what occurs on the island, so that the asylum seekers imprisoned there remain, as Villavicencio suggests, stories or lessons rather than responsibilities, neighbours and humans. It seems a deliberate choice by Skewes and his publishers to use the newspaper print format to present Nauru, a broadsheet view of the island that largely isn’t seen in mainstream newspapers.
Much like David Stephenson, Skewes is gifted in his ability to locate the precise intrusions of humans onto a landscape. The cover of Nauru is an aerial photograph of the island itself, roads cutting starkly across the small amount of cleared land. Industrial machines reign within Skewes’ images, acting as incursions on the landscapes. The residential zones are barely indistinguishable from these markers of industry – large white concrete boxes, looking like above ground bunkers, left to rot following the mass exodus of mining workers.
Australia may be tarring the island nation with an ongoing philosophical and actuated immorality, but there has been a history of physical and environmental degradation on Nauru at the hands of Australians too. Failure to rehabilitate areas ravaged by phosphate mining during Australia’s administration of the island saw the Nauruan government take legal action against Australia in the International Court of Justice in 1989. In the settlement, Australia was to pay Nauru over A$100 million to rehabilitate the land; Skewes’ photographs of the areas designated for this rehabilitation show stark landscapes of grit and rock, small tufts of green making their way through the dirt. He writes elsewhere in the collection, in one of the few notes that attend the photographs, that:
After the phosphate deposits have been extracted what remain is a landscape populated by fossilised coral pinnacles… the landscape cannot be traversed let alone inhabited, some limited vegetation does return though.
The landscapes look about as liveable as the surface of the moon. Nauru is ‘mined out’. The country had, at one point, the highest GDP per capita in the world – but its limited resources were exhausted in that economic boom. The majority of Skewes’ images are of washed out businesses and markers of dying industry. There is a faded quality to the photographs, as if to give the sense that they too might disappear, along with their subjects. Some of this faded look can be directly attributed to the phosphate dust in the air, stirred up in local processing factories.
The power of Skewes’ project engages with the ideas present in Susan Sontag’s body of work of photography criticism, in both her seminal On Photography and her later book Regarding The Pain of Others. Sontag’s scepticism and pessimism in relation to photographs of atrocities was well stated throughout her career, and came with heavy projections:
A photograph that brings news of some unsuspected zone of misery cannot make a dent in public opinion unless there is an appropriate context of feeling and attitude.
For her part, Sontag was mostly concerned about the desensitisation of the public to images of war as represented in the mass media. But what about the effects of a self-published work that blurs art and journalism, and which doesn’t directly provide images of the atrocities? Skewes’ photographs can surely go some way to providing context, feeling and attitude, particularly when documenting something largely unseen. What have we seen of Nauru to date? Press photographs of the inmates on Nauru are taken as blurry, unofficial snaps; a sense of illegality in their shaky covert style. Either by choice or lack of permission, Skewes avoids human portraiture for the most part – but the removal of the subject of an atrocity as a physical figure does not remove them altogether. They haunt in their absence. The only clear human figure is that of Clint Deidenang, a prolific local tweeter, activist and photographer. Deidenang contributes a photograph to Skewes’ book, taken the morning after a riot at the Main Regional Processing Centre, dust in the air. It is eerie, the way Deidenang’s photograph fits into Skewes’ aesthetics, and the way that the dust from the riot mimics the phosphate kicked up by the mines.
The power of Skewes’ documentation of Nauru isn’t to expose the horrors of the island as prison state, but rather to normalise the landscape on which that prison is set. Nauru is a sovereign nation in and of itself, not just Australia’s dumping ground. Skewes’ previous work was largely documenting the Australian suburban mundane – the very streets and houses where opinions about Nauru and Manus are formed – far from the terrifying sublime of the waters that surround Nauru and form our political position. There is no sensationalism in Skewes’ view, no skewering of the content – and that makes the photographic view so much more powerful. There is simply no turning away.
Nauru: What was taken and what was given will be shown at the upcoming Self-made: zines and artist books exhibition at the State Library of Victoria from 11 August.
Kill Your Darlings thanks Kelvin Skewes for kindly allowing us to reproduce his photographs for this article.