Picture Yourself

In 1985 I set up a camera in a canvas booth at public events in Canberra and invited people in to make photographs of themselves.

The photographs collected by the project include individuals as well as small and large groups. Stylistically they borrow from Richard Avedon’s large format studio portraits, but its purpose was not to make art. Instead, I was investigating the idea that something interesting might happen when we ask people “who are you?”, and make it possible for them to show us (and not just tell us) a story about themselves, in one photograph, at that moment in time.

Background

In 1985 I was a founding member of PhotoAccess, Australia's first community photographic centre, and in that role, as well as in my professional work with Indigenous communities, I helped develop and deliver documentary projects and participatory photography projects that provided access to photographic equipment, resources and expertise that communities could use to tell their own stories. The documentary work I produced at that time is held by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra and in national institutions, including the National Gallery of Australia.

With Picture Yourself I wanted to do something different. I wanted to move away from the traditional documentary approach, to strip things back and to leave the image making and story-telling to the subjects themselves, something I was still working out how to do (in more complex and sensitive circumstances), in the communities in which I worked.

I was painfully aware of the contrasts between my home city and the communities I was working in. As well as the economic and social differences, the traditional owners of those places had been subjected to involuntary ethnographic and photographic scrutiny for years and had been denied the opportunity to control the visual narratives that were created by the colonisers and those who followed, in stark contrast to the philosophy and methodology underpinning Picture Yourself. My intention was to eventually take Picture Yourself onto Aboriginal missions as part of my efforts to bring a more hands-off approach to my work with those communities.

Context

The mid-1980s were good to Canberra. A new federal Labour government was implementing progressive policies and public sector employment was on the rise. The city itself was going through a period of rapid social and economic development. Compared to elsewhere in Australia, Canberrans lived privileged, comfortable lives in a modern, progressive city and community, and had a sense of confidence about the present and optimism about the future.

The collected photographs display some markers of those times, particularly in fashion, hairstyle and eyewear. Brand names and contemporary cultural references appear on t-shirts and hats. Sunglasses have a distinctive shape, and men are wearing very short shorts.

The photographs also reflect the cultural homogenisation of the community. Except for diplomats and a few refugee community members, Canberra of the 1980s was overwhelmingly white and middle class. That is reflected in the images collected by the project.

There are very few older people represented, but there is a strong presence of children and young people, either on their own or as part of family groups. It is unlikely that parents in 2022 would push their kids forward to have their photograph collected by a stranger, but the project collected dozens of photographs of children, who would be in their 40s and 50s now (and their parents, if still alive, would be in their 60s and 70s).

Significantly, the project pre-dates the selfie by some decades. In contrast to the performative nature of that style of contemporary self-portraiture, the photographs collected by PY are often gentle, quirky, honest and straightforward depictions of a community and of individuals not yet obsessed with self-image or concerned about privacy and ownership.

How the photographs were collected

The canvas booth was set up in parks and other public places, including by the side of the road during street parades. The photographs were almost all made by the subjects themselves. Left alone in the booth, they were able to make a single image, triggering the camera using a long shutter release. For larger groups I positioned the camera to make sure that it would capture everyone in the frame, but I always left it to the participants to decide how to position themselves and how to pose. 

Exhibition and publication

I'm currently looking at ways to exhibit and publish the Picture Yourself collection. Sign up below to get occasional updates on those efforts.