Over the past ten months I have photographed hundreds of people in Sydney’s western suburb of Parramatta for a portrait project called Being Together: Parramatta Yearbook.
The yearbook portraits show the people who live, work and play in Parramatta against the backdrop of an ever-changing city.
The way a photographer and a subject come together to make a portrait is usually invisible in a portrait.
Here, instead of trying to reveal a person’s elusive individuality, I focused on the social dynamics of portraiture – what happens behind the scenes between me and the people I photograph.
As Daniel Palmer notes in his book Photography and Collaboration, portraiture is by definition relational and collaborative. In other words, the photographic portrait process inherently brings the photographer and the subjects together to arrive at an image.
As part of this project, coming together for a portrait creates playful opportunities for social interactions among strangers.
It’s amazing what strangers will share with me in the space of five minutes.
Two men reveal that they are brothers and that they have not seen each other for ten years.
A woman tells me she thinks she is ugly and asks me to make her beautiful.
Another vividly describes the floral wonders she gets from her community garden.
A man whispers that he doesn’t speak English.
Another tells me he’s in a hurry to go to lunch.
We discuss everyday things, the weather, COVID, shopping and Rugby League.
There are stories of time spent in prison and lives turned upside down.
Newcomers to Australia talk about family in distant lands, and citizens who have lived in Parramatta all their lives share their insights into the town.
These are the stories photography cannot capture in the silent stillness of the image, but that’s no reason not to continue.
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To do photography
Set up a studio in the street and invite people to pose together in front of the camera, it shows. We always had an audience of passers-by watching and it wasn’t long before they too were on camera.
If you look closely at the portraits, you will find verbose details and warm gestures: micro-movements of the body where people are touching or holding hands; the spaces between our bodies; instances where we are caught on camera laughing, chatting, and applying lipstick.
I also see myself in action. I am both photographer and subject, a stranger dressed in red, desperate to be with people, to guide them through a photographic moment, to pose and be awkward together.
When people have their portraits done, I want to know if they liked it or if they found it excruciating and embarrassing. Once the photo is taken, we walk over to the laptop attached to the camera and look at the photos. They indicate which portraits they like and dislike. I listen and take notes.
Involving people in the selection process creates instant trust.
By bringing people together in front of a camera, I realized the potential of photography to foster social inclusion, social participation, visibility and a sense of belonging and connection to place and people.
Photography is something we all do. It’s familiar and family. Group portraits activate social encounter and conversation, listening and storytelling.
The social experience of photography also extends over time. Once the photographs are taken and printed, they are displayed as a collage on a large-scale photo wall in the heart of Parramatta on Centenary Square. I like to watch people search for each other or show familiar faces.
As a passer-by said upon seeing the photo wall:
Please treat everyone equally, as if we belong and deserve as much recognition and dignity as everyone else, instead of excluding us from visibility.
These returns go to the heart of the project which welcomed people from all walks of life to offer a vision of Western Sydney far from media stereotypes.
Fundamentally, the Parramatta Yearbook serves as a model for how cultural institutions and government can work with artists to record and reflect community, create a sense of place, and produce narratives about a place in transition that highlights the creativity of its citizens before urban development. .
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Portraits from Parramatta’s yearbook are on public display in Parramatta’s Centenary Square until October 3, as well as in an 88-page downloadable yearbook from the Museum of Contemporary Art.