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Angela Blakeley and David Lloyd
Documentary photography occupies an uncertain place in relationship to art museums in Australia. Often it seems as though the straightforward recording of joy or tragedy, or simply the mundane, through the lens of a camera does not qualify to be embraced as part of the art canon. Only if there is an intellectualisation of the image, does it pass muster. Yet if such direct and challenging imagery were cloaked in theoretical justifications then the dislocation and trauma so often implied could well be muted for the viewer.
Mindful of this conundrum, Queenslanders Angela Blakely and David Lloyd articulated the exhibition of work from their fifteen year collaboration in a manner recognisable for surveys in practically any media mounted by art institutions, in this case the Museum of Brisbane. For their series of photographs examining conflict in Africa and other parts of the world (the former USSR, for example) as well as individuals in personal crisis closer to home, an intermixing of aesthetic genres was employed. Linear arrangements of text-with-image black and white photographs, focus walls sporting single large-scale colour images (some backlit), assemblages of different genre photographs in a single work, all pointed to the broadening of what used to be conceived as photo-journalism.
In no particular chronological order, the series selected included troubling topics that have particular relevance for Australia, namely anorexia, male suicide, and marginalised Indigenous youth in Mt Isa. Let me explain how these photographers, either individually or together, presented such news-worn topics in fresh and compelling ways. For her series ‘Jenny’ (1998), Blakely showed the portrait of a troubled nineteen year-old woman through a juxtaposition of three large-scale cibachromes. The first photograph matter-of-factually showed the girl’s emaciated and scarred body standing in a mental health facility in Brisbane with an intravenous drip hanging down her chest. Her head and face were not disclosed. The second photograph was a close-up of an elaborate lace-up corset popular in the 19th century, one that could easily grace the cover of high-end fashion books today. And the third comprised a scaled up shot of a pink bottle of Agarol laxative emulsion. The works were discreetly accompanied by text, written with permission of the subject; they were not overly explained and relied simply upon the viewers’ recognition of cause and effect of this body-wasting disease. Similarly, with the social effects of Australia’s high rate of youth suicide, Blakely saw herself as a trusted ‘stakeholder’ in conveying ‘Bev’s Story’, of the same period. This particular photo-narrative concentrated on the aftermath of her son Daniel’s death, a story that she wanted to have told. At MoB, inkjet prints of Bev, emotionally relaying her account of Daniel, stepped along the wall, while opposite a small snapshot of her son was framed as though for a mantle-piece. It was set alongside a large cibachrome of his memorial plaque surrounded by flowers and kitschy ornaments. These two photographic sequences may have been taken in the mid-1990s, yet the social issues they point to are still topical.
Between 2002 and 2006, Lloyd and Blakely worked together on the ‘Mount Isa Portraits’, focussing on Clive, Fabian and Dellarina, three young Aborigines with substance abuse backgrounds. They were introduced to viewers as close-up faces, like those on Flickr and You Tube, while underneath, computer-style, their personal commentaries were given. Cool and factual, the series belied the careful and lengthy negotiations the duo undertook, in advance, with community elders and local Indigenous agencies.
This consultative approach was already apparent in Blakely and Lloyd’s collaborative exhibition at the Queensland Centre of Photography (QCP), held in 2010, which in part was represented in their MoB survey. Entitled ‘Never Again: giving voice to survivors of the Rwanda Genocide’, it focussed on the so-called ‘trouble spot’ that has compelled the artists’ engagement. Here single photo-essays preceded those with text embedded in the image, and the show ended with a discreet installation work.
Obviously imagery based on political conflict and extreme suffering demands a contextual explanation. Briefly then, in 1994 Blakely and Lloyd first went to Rwanda on assignment with the first rotation of Australian Forces after the ethnic-related massacres. (This was when 830,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered by extremists and a further 250,000 women and girls were raped over some hundred days). When the artists independently returned to the devastated community in 2006 and 2008, they found that for many survivors their lives since the genocide had been irrevocably dislocated and diminished. The trauma confronting the photographers called for a re-thinking of their interview techniques and pictorial reportage.
Accordingly, the QCP spaces were paced and shaped according to the stories and tenor of the artists’ encounters in the mid-1990s, and a decade later, with one of Africa’s most conflicted countries. While the ‘subject matter’ still jolted the artists, with their translator-assisted interviewees vividly recalling raw memories of the violence, it was time to create different modalities for serving their material than that of the Magnum-inspired documentary photograph. For the opening wall in ‘Never Again’, they chose a suite of deceptively benign glossy colour poster-format photographs with explanatory texts along the bottom. These were in fact, ‘Massacre Sites’. Many were of churches, one stating: ‘In desperation, people fled to the Roman Catholic Church in Kabgayi for protection. When the militia arrived, the Archbishop stood aside. Nearly 30,000 people were killed’. Another showed the outside of a school hall, accompanied by the straightforward words: ‘The children were called out into the courtyard, separated on the basis of their identity cards and killed with machetes and clubs’. And as an instance of sexual slavery, a soft focus rosebush foregrounded a brick building with the explanation: ‘The head of the nursing school was killed when she refused to hand over the young female students as “a contribution to the war effort”’.
‘Family Tree 1’, also included in the MoB survey, comprised a long horizontal band of black panels printed with white text. Of thirty-one people of direct blood-kin, only four relatives survived the genocide. Their faces were given to us full-colour, ‘witness-like’, on panels the same-size as the memorial plaques: Sylvestre Rutegesha, 78 yrs, 1916–1994, Jenanne Umulisa, 1st child, (no details), 2nd child, (no details) 3rd child, Sebera, 33 yrs, 1961–1994, and so on. This work, in one fell swoop, justified the exhibition’s title ‘Never Again’ (a term declared by the United Nations in 1948 after the Nazi Holocaust killed six million European Jews).
As a form of symbolic closure, ‘The Crying Room’ was located at the back of the QCP and here actual physical artefacts were gathered. Rather than being mawkish or heavy-handed, the artists had placed (like a tabernacle) a clear Perspex box part-filled with paper handkerchiefs, soiled with tears that they had gathered after a memorial church service. A sound track softly permeated the space, of Rwandan people sharing their grief. It was a reminder that social documentary practice can be conveyed adeptly across geo-political boundaries as much as those of photography per se. Together with the very fine survey of Blakely and Lloyd’s work at MoB, this show confirmed that social documentary photography, as a witness to actual events and as a potent tool for provoking understanding, can do so without relinquishing aesthetic considerations.