Picture Yourself

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

Stylistically the project borrows from Richard Avedon’s large format portraits, but its purpose was not to make art. 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, not just tell us.

As a founding member of PhotoAccess and in my professional work with Indigenous communities I was already working on participatory photography projects with marginalised groups, with the aim being to improve access to training and tools that could be used to document their community and to tell their stories. While the Canberra community could not be described as marginalised, I was keen to conduct a kind of photographic audit of my own community, which was going through big changes at that time.

Put simply, the mid-1980s were good to Canberra. A new federal Labour government was beginning to implement 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 safe, comfortable lives and had a sense of optimism about the future.

The photographs collected by the project reflect some markers of those times, particularly in terms of fashion, hairstyle and eyewear. Brand names and cultural references occasionally adorn t-shirts and hats. The photographs also reflect the cultural homogenisation of the community. Except for diplomats and a few refugee community members, in the 1980s Canberra was overwhelmingly white, Anglo and middle class. As a consequence, there is very little cultural diversity among the participants whose images were collected by the project. 

Curiously there are also very few older people 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 2020 would push their kids forward to be photographed by a stranger, but the project collected dozens of photographs of children without their parents. Those children would be in their 40s and 50s now, and their parents would be in their 60s and 70s.

The booth was set up in parks and other public places, including by the side of the road during parades. The photographs were mostly made by the subjects themselves. Left alone in the booth, they were able to make a single image, triggering the camera using a long bulb shutter release. For larger groups I sometimes helped position 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.

I’m currently scanning about 400 of the images collected during the project and plan to make a book and possibly an exhibition. I'm also working to identify as many of the people in the photographs as I can! You can sign up below to get occasional email updates about the project!