Picture Yourself exhibition opening speech

Dave Wong and Gerry Orkin: PhotoAccess opening speech 17 Nov 2022 by Carolyn Young

Here’s a link to all the images shown in the exhibition.

I too would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, Traditional Custodians of the land on which we gather today, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present. I extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples here today.

I would like to offer my insights on both shows together, and individually.

On the surface, these are two very different shows. Colour vs Black and White. Film photography vs digital photography. Different scales and different intent. And perhaps most importantly, they invoke very different feelings.

However, when you look closely, there are formalistic and conceptual overlaps.

Both series are about Canberra and arise from the artist’s personal, experiential, place based approach to their photography practice. This is demonstrated through taking the studio to the ‘field’, and repeatedly visiting the same location. Dave and Gerry’s photographs respond to real world encounters, and each endeavour to learn about the world through their photography practice.

And both Dave and Gerry reference time: For Dave, the works in the show are the result of photographing over 10 years. For Gerry, the year 1985.

Firstly, to Dave Wong’s exhibition, ‘Woodlands, Forest, Life’

Dave’s exhibition of 31 works and three poems presents a story of passion, loss, fear and differing cultural values. The subject matter are woodlands and forests. His field sites are places familiar to Canberrans – Black Mountain, Bruce Ridge, Ginninderry. What we may not be familiar with, is how endangered these woodlands are. With a background in ecology, Dave adeptly combines his ecological gaze with his sensitivities as an artist to raise this alarm.

The exhibition begins with the human scale - landscape photos with the traditional foreground, middle and background. However, the trees lean away from the viewer. Are they afraid for themselves or are they beckoning you into the forest? The scale then quickly switches, as Dave switches out his wide angle lens for the macro. We imagine Dave lying on his belly with his camera guiding us to often missed wonders of Black Mountain. The animal and plant portraits fill their frame and let us know they are full of astonishment. He then makes field trips to new estates, where eucalypt woodlands and forests are being taken, broken, bit by bit. These photos show lone eucalypts behind barriers and fake place makers for what has been lost. With his daughter in tow, we are reminded of our inter-generational obligations. His portraits of people also remind us that woodlands and forests are not a wilderness to be locked away, but need human custodians.

In his essay “Terrible Prospects”, art historian Geoffrey Batchen discusses Peter Dombrovskis’ photograph “Rock Island Bend” used during the save the Franklin River campaign in 1983. Batchen discusses this photo in terms of the sublime, pleasure mixed with pain. Dave’s exhibition also works towards this duality. The pleasure is provided by the beauty of Dave’s photograph’s of the plants and animals within the woodlands, and all that signifies them. But it is a pleasure that is sharpened by their potential loss.

For Gerry Orkin’s exhibition, “Picture Yourself” we need to switch emotional gears.

Gerry set up a studio in Commonwealth Park for the “Sunday in the Park” festivals during the summer of 1985, and the images make you smile.

People wandering past this make-shift studio were invited to take a photo of themselves and consider the question, “who are you?” Gerry explains that he wanted to move away from traditional documentary photography and leave the image making and story-telling to the subjects themselves. Over this summer, Gerry amassed about 380 images.

How does a photographer work through such a volume? Gerry has approached the editing like a social scientist might, looking for common themes and grouping images into categories – families, street performers, couples, kids, parade groups - sometimes in diptychs, sometimes in grids of four. The repeated composition, the black and white square format, and the matching of tone and shadowing across the images unite the exhibition beautifully. The result is an aesthetic audit of the Canberra community; one that reveals the variety within the predominantly white and middle class people. The photographs also provide an environmental portrait, where the uncropped outer edges and shadows reveal the Bush Capital.

You get the sense that this photography experience - taking a self-portrait in a public place - was novel to the ‘sitters’ in 1985. You imagine the ‘sitters’ grappling with the multi-tasking – holding the cable release, standing in the correct spot, wondering what to do with the stuff in their hands – put it down somewhere or hold it?? And yet, faced with this novelty and the decisions, the sitters look calm and confident - they stand up straight and look directly down the lens. Gerry also reflects on this confidence as something he felt when living in Canberra.

The person holding the cable release holds the power over the decisive moment. The remaining people in the photograph often appear slightly caught out. This paradox gives the photographs a mix of the vernacular, such as the family photo at Christmas, and the formal portrait. The make-shift studio plays a crucial role in enabling the intimate and the formal. The summer light is softened by the three walls of white canvas sheets, perhaps providing a physical and mental transition as each person stepped onto the white floor and into the space.

It has been a pleasure to look deeply at the photographs in each of these exhibitions. I encourage you to come back to Photoaccess and do the same. You will find a treasure from Black Mountain, and perhaps a picture of yourself. Thank you for listening.


Out of order

Two police officers approached me as I stood on a street corner in Brisbane last week. They told me that they had received a complaint from a member of the public about me making photographs of them without their consent. 

The officers knew that I didn’t need consent to make photographs of people in a public place, but in their view, I may have interfered “with the peaceful passage through, or the enjoyment of, a public place by a member of the public”, an offence under s. 6 of the Queensland’s Summary Offences Act 2005. 

In their view my behaviour could so upset a person that it had the effect of depriving that person of their enjoyment of the public place. They also suggested that I may have impeded the passage of pedestrians on the street, also in contravention of the Act, by standing for longer than a few minutes at that corner. 

The officers referred to the current heightened fear of terrorism, and to the possibility that I might be a paedophile as further “reasonable” grounds for their concern about my behaviour. 

Given the tone of the conversation, I believe that had I kept making photos at that corner the officers would have have issued me with an infringement notice on one or both of the public order grounds they had mentioned. At the very least, they were demonstrating a willingness to invoke their public order powers to warn me off. 

Public order offences are on the books in all Australian States and Territories. They are designed to address disruption or offence to the general public. There is no implied right to privacy in public here, and it is troubling that those offences might used to effectively establish that right. 

Tania Panico is a street photographer and criminal lawyer who lectures in criminal procedure. According to Tania, police would be abusing their powers if they used an offence of public nuisance to specifically target street photographers who were merely taking photos in a public area. Unless the photographer had disobeyed a valid direction or was acting in an indecent way or in a way that offended community standards (such as making pervy photos of topless bathers) such a case would likely fail if it was brought to court. 

“Under s.6 of the Summary Offences Act 2005 (QLD), a prosecutor would have to prove that you had behaved in a disorderly way; or an offensive way; or a threatening way; or a violent way; AND that your behaviour interfered, or was likely to interfere, with the peaceful passage through, or enjoyment of, a public place by a member of the public. There’s no way they could satisfy the first element of the offence if you were merely taking photos of street scenes.” 

Hurting someone’s feelings does not mean one has behaved in an offensive or criminal manner. And it is unreasonable that an individual’s feelings should override the right to make photographs in the street, which is what the police were suggesting. 

Some public order offences can be dealt with by way of infringement notices and on the spot fines, and they are often more trouble than it’s worth to defend. That makes them attractive to police, and open to all kinds of misuse. 

While it would have been inconvenient, I was kind of hoping that the police would issue me with an infringement under s. 6. For the reasons Tania suggests I was pretty confident that an infringement notice or charges would be withdrawn before they were tested in court. While not rising to the status of a test case, it would have at least demonstrated to Queensland police that they can’t use those powers to shut down street photography. 

I’d not previously heard of public order offences being used in this way, and asking around I can’t find anyone else who has faced the same issue, but Australian street photographers would be wise to be informed about their State or Territory’s public order legislation, and about the appeal process. There are plain English guides on the internet - just search around using your State or Territory name and the words “public order offences”. 

If police use or threaten to use their public order powers to stop you making photographs in a public place, (peacefully) stand your ground. If you are issued with an infringement notice or charged with an offence contact a local community law centre, or the Arts Law Centre of Australia, for advice and support. The Centre has produced a guide to street photography and the law (mostly NSW-focussed but also refers to other jurisdictions). 

Finally, although I disagreed with the officer’s reasoning about whether I had committed a public order offence, I agreed with another point they made. While some people are assertive (even aggressive) about having had their photograph taken, It’s important to acknowledge that some people may feel intimidated by a situation and be reluctant to complain directly to a street photographer, for fear of triggering an unpleasant or confronting interaction. 

We have a right to make photos in public, and we also have an ethical responsibility not to be a dick about it. If you are confronted, try to de-escalate the situation. Try to engage the person in a conversation. People believe that we have no right to make photographs of them, so calmly explain that you do have that right, but that you also understand they might have concerns about what you are doing. Rather than being defensive, listen to their concerns. If you feel you need to justify yourself, wait until after you’ve heard them out. If need be, offer to delete the images you have made. And whatever you do, please don’t persist in making photographs when you are causing obvious distress, just because you have a right to do so!  

Street Photography’s Man Problem

When the Italian Street Photography Festival launched their April 2018 event late last year, there wasn’t a single woman named among the nineteen guests on the festival program. 

The Italian festival was not the first to launch with such a big man problem, so when Julia told me to check out the program online, my expectations were low. 

After all, male guests outnumbered women five to one at the three main European street festivals in 2017. For featured presenter and workshop leader roles the gender gap was even greater. American street festivals had a better record during the year, but men also dominated in presenter and workshop leader roles at their events.

It’s been argued that the absence of women from street events is just a consequence of the participation gap between men and women in street photography. There are more active male street photographers, so all other things being equal, it’s understandable that more men are invited to festivals, right? 

Indeed, when I’ve asked festival organisers about their man problem, they have pointed to the raw numbers as their first line of defence.  London Street Photography Festival (LSPF) organiser Dmitry Stepanenko told me that the festival wanted to feature more women, but they just couldn’t find them. Dmitry wrote:

“I completely agree that this is a problem and really hope that more women become active photographers and show their works to the public. We welcome all women photographers to take part in the festival and are going to discuss this issue at a panel discussion.”

Italian Street Photography Festival organiser Alex Liverani was a little more direct. The main problem, he explained in a recent Skype call, was that while they had invited a few women prior to the launch, they were struggling to identify any who had a sufficiently high profile in the street community, and who would qualify to be featured alongside their high status male guests. 

Alex and Dmitry were both arguing that women’s invisibility is, at it’s heart, a consequence of scarcity. If only more women were active and promoted their work, and if only some of those women were good enough to have a high profile, then more of them would be invited to street festivals.

That reasoning is rather superficial, and problematic, in at least three ways:

First, it suggests that the work already being produced by women is not of a high enough standard to merit their inclusion at festivals. 

Second, it suggests that women are solely responsible for their own invisibility, and must spend time and energy fixing the problem. 

And most importantly, it ignores the historical and social context of women’s participation in street, and the social factors that influence their interaction with the street community, and the work they make. 

It’s true that there are more men than women doing photography and that’s probably even more true of street, for complex reasons that are beyond the immediate scope of this post. And the way that internalised sexism works, women are less likely to promote themselves, enter competitions, start or join collectives or be active on social media.

But scarcity is no justification for exclusion when there are talented women already producing great work. 

Spend time at Casey Meshbesher’s Her Side of the Street website to see what I mean. Casey has tons of articles, galleries, interviews and videos of women street photographers from across the world.  In her interviews she asks her featured photographers about their experiences being women in street. Go read their responses . Casey maintains a canonical list and a map, and there’s an interview with her here where she offers some thoughts about why women may not be so attracted to the street genre. 

(In my original post of this article I neglected to link to this important piece, an interview on women in street by Siri Thompson with Charlotte Reynolds, Didi S. Gilson and Chris Moxey).

So if there are talented women already shooting street, what’s behind the gender gap at street events? What is keeping women from active involvement in the street community?

What little research there is on women in street photography has found that the genre has always been a male domain. Tracy Packer, in a BA(Hons) dissertation Where are the women street photographers?  (University of the West of England, 2012), found that women were largely absent from the published texts on street she analysed. 

Packer found that even in the language of street, masculine culture has been dominant. For example, she notes that words like “hardcore”, “guerrilla” and “elite” are used by men to describe popular Flickr groups where edgy, confronting images, almost all made by men, garner the most praise. And from the pre-internet age, Packer quoted photographer Joel Meyerowitz:

“Tough!” meant it was an uncompromising image, something that came from your gut, out of instinct, raw, of the moment, something that couldn’t be described in any other way. So it was TOUGH. Tough to like, tough to see, tough to make, tough to understand. The tougher they were, the more beautiful they became. It was our language.’(1994, endplate.) 

According to Packer, “Meyerowitz … is referring to the shared language of a kind of street photography tribe.” 

The active and influential street tribes have always been top heavy with men. And they defined the language and culture of street in their image, a legacy that is largely intact today. 

That explains why some women experience the street community as a boys club. They feel tolerated, but don’t feel like they fully belong, and that the deck is stacked against them. And that’s not just the view of women; many men I’ve spoken to are also alienated by the overtly male culture of street.

That situation isn’t unique to street photography;  it’s a legacy of history. 

It’s not so long ago that only men were considered good enough to play in orchestras or have their paintings shown in galleries. And it’s only relatively recently that women have been, to any significant degree, free to have creative lives of their own. 

There is overlap between women and men’s creative visions, and they can also be different and distinct. But historically it has been men’s ways of doing things, men’s perspectives and men’s vision that have been the standard against which creative achievements have been measured.

Is that dynamic present in street? Of course it is. By what miracle would street photography not have been touched by that kind of systemic and casual sexism? That said, I don’t believe women’s exclusion from festivals is malicious or intentional. It is instead the consequence of a kind of laziness, an absence of forethought, and the unconscious weight of tradition.

Organising a festival is complicated. And change is uncomfortable, disruptive and takes more effort. 

But gatekeepers in the street community - curators, festival organisers, online and print publishers and influential collectives - must show leadership by listening to women, thinking seriously about gender in street photography in all its complexity, and making decisions that move things forward in creative, inclusive and equitable ways, for the benefit of us all.

In the past few weeks festival organisers have let me know about some of their plans for this year’s events. They appear more informed and more committed to equity, and not just in terms of women’s participation - they recognise that diversity and inclusivity is a broader issue. 

For example, London Street Symposium organiser Nick Turpin tells me that their festival is committed to featuring women and people of colour in visible roles at their next event, and also as members of the organising group.

They are also thinking about why women might be less drawn to street than to other photographic practices. That’s a useful discussion to have, but only if it focusses on gender and street photography in the broadest sense, and not on what’s (apparently) wrong with women!

The LSPF is also moving to improve their record. So far, for the 2018 festival, they expect to have roughly equal numbers of women and men on judging panels, and plan to have a strong representation of female photographers as presenters. I hear there are more women on their organising group, too.

And in a better-late-than-never move, the Italian festival eventually sought advice and reached out to more women, and at the time of writing five have been added to the guest list, alongside the nineteen men announced on launch day. It’s a low fence to jump, but now they have at least matched the other festivals. 

Have we reached a turning point? Will the Italian festival be the last to launch with a serious man problem? 

We’ll see. 

With the future in mind, here are a few ideas that might help organisers create inclusive events, and an inclusive community. Some of these ideas have been gleaned from conversations with women and festival organisers, and some are my own:

  • Men, speak up and give way. If you are invited to feature at a festival, ask the organisers about inclusivity, and suggest that your place on the program be balanced by an invitation to a woman. If the festival has poor or non-existent policies on inclusion, decline the invitation and tell them why. Turning down an appearance will be difficult, but as a high profile male street photographer, you can make a difference by speaking up.
  • Festival organisers, seek advice and start talking with women at the start of your planning process, and launch your event with women already confirmed on your guest list. 
  • I have heard from women who received invitations some time after events were announced, but they were unable to attend at short notice. Invite women early, recognising that they might have caring responsibilities, or less flexibility to travel, and need as much notice as possible.
  • By all means invite a couple of big names to attract interest, but cut it out with the revolving door of familiar male faces. Critically examine the criteria used to assess who is deserving of a featured role, and learn why context and diversity of experience need to be taken into account in that decision making.
  • Don’t reinforce perceptions that street is a boys club, and definitely don’t select your own friends e.g. your fellow collective members, to feature heavily on your festival programs. That strategy might make things easier in your first year, but it’s lazy, and really dodgy.
  • Don’t invite collectives to feature unless there are women in that group. Featuring all-male collectives (especially in a program already top heavy with men) can tilt the balance of your program into “boys club” territory.
  • Some great photographers, including lots of women, want to speak at events, but currently lack the confidence to do so. Be encouraging. Schedule simultaneous smaller sessions so that new presenters can gain experience in less intimidating settings. Bonus: smaller sessions are good for encouraging audience engagement too.
  • More broadly, include emerging photographers on your program. Some of the most interesting work is being produced by photographers who are relatively new to street, or are less involved in self-promotion and less concerned with status. Many of those photographers will be women. Find them and recognise their work.
  • If you are tempted to forensically explore only women’s participation in street in a panel discussion, consider instead a panel that explores street’s male culture. It’s not a bed of roses for all men, either.
  • Involving women in event organising groups is great but please don’t use those women as cover to defend bad decisions about the gender balance of your program.
  • If you don’t already use anonymous judging, start using it. Anonymous judging has increased the number of art awards given to women. Who would have thought?.
  • Recognise that while the fuss is currently being made about the absence of women’s voices, inclusivity doesn’t stop with women; there are other people and voices that are near-invisible in the cultural landscape of street.