What meets the eye, Ian Robertson

My Place 
ed Glenn Busch, Bruce Connew with Uiga Bashford, Maria Buhrkuhl, Hanne Johnsen, Dean Kozanic, Tim Veling
Canterbury University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 187725729X

Assume Nothing 
Rebecca Swan
Boy Tiger Press, $69.95,
ISBN 0476004934

My Place is part of an ongoing documentary project A Place in Time, led by University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts lecturer Glenn Busch. In his introduction, Busch writes, “Our starting point was the simple idea that, together with a sense of social responsibility, self awareness is perhaps the most valuable asset a people can possess.” Through their local paper, The Press, the people of Christchurch were asked to consider one place in their life that had a particular significance to them. From this simple starting point we meet a fascinating group of people and stories, from teenage girls in the bolt-holes of their bedrooms, to a Buddhist monk in her temple.

Busch is perhaps best known for the landmark Working Men (1984), where he was both photographer and interviewer. This time he hands the camera to others and concentrates on the words of his subjects, to great effect: “It’s something I love to do. The most ordinary person will suddenly come out with the most extraordinary stories. You sit down with anybody and they have stories to tell. It’s something that never ceases to amaze me.”

As a photographer I have the propensity to flick through books. A quick look at the pictures and then on to the next one. I was stopped in my tracks and drawn in by these stories. A man finding comfort in the friendships made at his RSA, spoke of the loss of his wife in a way that was so uncluttered and poignant it brought tears to my eyes.

Many people spoke of a sense of refuge, seeking a peaceful retreat or a comfort in the familiar. For others it was a connection to a loved one or a time past. A storm water grate in a roadside gutter is remembered through child’s eyes as both a wondrous playground and a gateway to the security of home after the hostility of the school yard.

Each story is accompanied by a single image. These images are the work of students from the documentary programme of the School of Fine Arts, alongside Press photographer Dean Kozanic and photographer Bruce Connew, whose work includes On the Way to an Ambush (1989), and Muttonbirds, Part of a Story (2004). The images are a gentle, unassuming record of the person and their environment. Sometimes we engage with the person, other times they carry on their lives unaware of our presence.

The book is held together for me by the stories. In Busch’s Working Men, the images have a presence and power that enable them to stand alone. I feel the photographers here have produced work that supports and illustrates, but lacks any drama or gravitas. Many of those photographed have experienced tough times in their lives, but this is hard to discern from the images alone. Some might argue, though, that neutrality is precisely the role of a documentary photographer.

In Assume Nothing, photographer Rebecca Swan asks us to consider a group of people who don’t fit easily into the gender categories our world lays down. The viewing here isn’t nearly as comfortable as that in My Place. One of her subjects, Mani, writes:

I was born in 1953. The young nurse who first picked me up said “Oh my God, it’s a hermaphrodite”. I know this part of the story so well because it was the only time in my life that my mum talked to me about it. I was 22 at the time and I was trying to work out who I was. She was telling me the story and when she got to that part she actually started screaming. My mum was a typical woman of that generation, she didn’t show emotions and she ran out of the room. This was the first time in my life that the word hermaphrodite had been dropped in and my mother goes running out of the room. She came back about 10 minutes later and said “Oh I think it’s going to rain, I better go and get the washing in”.

 

Mani’s pictures reflect this pain. In one image, Mani’s eyes have been scratched from the negative, creating a black mask. In another, Mani’s eyes are locked with ours, the question “Whose body is this?” is carved into Mani’s chest.

Yet the book doesn’t seek to spurn the viewer or scare them off, but to draw them in. Mani describes meeting parents of intersex children:

I can only describe it as being a primal reaction to difference. You’ve got that combination of not only physical difference, but there is also the question about the child’s future sexuality. There was a woman whose reaction was vomiting whenever she picked up her intersex child. To have a different outcome, it’s going to require society to turn around and face itself and think, what is this fear about?

 

Swan’s photography style varies throughout from confrontational to intimate, from dark moody images, scratched and manipulated, to brightly lit studio portraits. This could be due in part to the project taking place over an extended period, from 1995-2003, and it does feel to me that Swan is exploring her medium.

In many of the portraits the cropping or ambiguous nature of the poses mean the viewer is left guessing at the gender of the subject. In one image, photographs of male/female bodies have been torn and overlaid to create a new being. This style feels slightly at odds with the rest of the book’s images, although in most of these portraits I feel the person in the image is never swamped by technique. Nudes manage to maintain a dignity and humanity, and are far more than mere studies in light. And always there are people’s own words to give us some glimpses and insights into their lives.

Often a contrast of words and images is all the more powerful. A classic image of Carmen, tits out and a huge smile, is accompanied by descriptions of the horrific treatment meted out by the Sydney police: “In that period in the 1950s and 1960s there were 13 or 14 drag queen prostitutes and I’m the only one still alive.” It’s not all grim reading. Some tell of the successes in their lives, and of the contentment they have found in their life choices. Georgina Beyer writes of her acceptance by her rural community, and becoming the world’s first transexual mayor. Swan writes: “I hope Assume Nothing challenges those judgements that so often spring from the fear of difference and inspires us all to be true to our hearts.”

It’s interesting to look at these books side by side. My Place is quite modestly presented, a softcover with simple layout. Assume Nothing is lush, a large hardcover with high design and production values, more at home in an art gallery setting than mainstream bookstore. Yet they have far more in common than first meets the eye.

Both give voice to people who examine their identities and their sense of place. Both aim to increase our understanding of others. And both succeed.

 

Ian Robertson is a Wellington photographer.

 

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Posted in Gender, Non-fiction, Photography, Review and Sociology
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