Where I Lay May Head
#Dysturb’s latest campaign explored displacement, belonging and family. And it happened in Melbourne.
Recently international photojournalism organisation #Dysturb returned to Melbourne to paste large-scale photographs in the streets, this time with a parallel exhibition at the brand new Hillvale Gallery in my neighbourhood of Brunswick, in the city’s northern suburbs.
Poetically named Where I Lay My Head, the campaign highlighted the increasing numbers of displaced persons around the world with a particular focus on how families and communities are affected.
As one of two local photographers featured in the gallery exhibition, EveryDayMigration asked me write about the experience, a task that inspired insightful conversations with fellow Australia-based photojournalists who were also part of the campaign — Barat Ali Batoor and David Maurice Smith — along with Madz Rehorek, curator of the exhibition and #Dysturb’s Asia-Pacific Manager.
Below is an edited, mashed-up version of our conversations, spilling across in-person chats and Skype calls, traversing the peaks of our individual experiences both in the campaign, the flatlands of our own work, and the dark valleys of the Australian media landscape.
Alana: Madz, what was the motivation behind bringing a major #Dysturb campaign all the way down here to Melbourne? Did you miss home?
Madz: Through photo festivals and guerrilla campaigns, I’ve been part of quite a few #Dysturb campaigns in different countries over the past year. A big part of me was definitely drawn to come back home and be part of developing the photography community here. Melbourne has such a diverse community and there’s this really DIY attitude to helping each other out and working on projects. Having said that, with all the potential Australia and Melbourne has, I find that visual journalism isn’t fostered here like I’ve seen it in other cities, so there’s so much room for more.
Alana: The theme for the exhibition and the street installations was displacement, with a particular interest on the impact on families and belonging. It seems an obvious choice for a photojournalism project to focus on this issue in these times, I wondered if you considered other ideas or how you arrived at on the specific angle?
Madz: #Dysturb did a huge campaign in Europe about the refugee crisis but we hadn’t brought that theme to Australia yet. I worked in the communications department of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre here in Melbourne in 2015, we found that the Australian public wasn’t seeing much in terms of the human side of displacement.
We focused on the families, communities and everyday life of people who are displaced and the journey leading up to that in the hope that it may spark a discussion or deepen an understanding on the topic.
Alana: Barat and David, you both had work in the #Dysturb campaign that focussed on the experiences of refugees coming to Australia via our closest neighbour, Indonesia. In your opinion, are Australians connected to issues related to refugees and Asylum Seekers, particularly those impacting close neighbours?
David: Sometimes being a photojournalist, or anyone working in a somewhat liberal career I guess, I feel you can end up in an echo-chamber. It feels like people are quite sensitive to asylum seekers’ needs based on the opinions of those I surround myself with, but when you get outside these liberal enclaves, perspective can change quite quickly. There are still a lot of places in this country who are not open minded about what these people are going through, who are not interested in what asylum seekers offer this country.
Barat: The research I’m doing as part of my honors program links to this issue. People are usually influenced by media. The people who are negatively influenced find it difficult to differentiate between the different groups such as immigrants and refugees. The middle group of people can be one side or the other. The third group are activists. These are the people who are been in touch with refugees, they know about them and they get first-hand stories from refugees themselves or they get the stories directly so these are the categories. This is how I see it.
Alana: That’s interesting, so if we consider pasting images in the street as #Dysturb does, versus images in traditional media, how do you think it influences people? Do you think it can influence people more? In my mind this side-steps the barriers the traditional media put in front of us.
Barat: It is really helpful to educate, to let people know what their [asylum seekers] conditions are and their stories. It is really helpful in terms of influencing people as they make their minds up and make their judgements — kind of balancing or counteracting the information or images they are getting politically.
David: We are not seeing images of asylum seekers who are trying to reach Australia because the Australian Government has put in mechanisms to make it next-to-impossible for any journalists to have contact with those trying to get here through asylum.
Everything associated with the refugee crisis we’re getting visually from the US or from Europe, people don’t realise that there are thousands and thousands of people risking their lives to get to Australia. But there’s basically a PR exercise to keep us from seeing that and understanding that.
When you look at paste-ups and getting this work out there, particularly work that is focused on asylum seekers getting to Australia, it’s some of the only imagery Australians are seeing of that, that I’m aware of. A pedestrian environment where everyone is going to see it is important — whether they’re a liberal, a redneck or undecided, they’re going to walk past an image.
Alana: Barat, your image of asylum seekers in Indonesia — made while you were personally making the journey, just a year before David visited as a photographer — was pasted up in Dandenong as part of the #Dysturb campaign. Dandenong is a culturally diverse suburb with large communities of people who came to Australia as refugees. As a resident yourself, how was the experience of pasting up your own work in the suburb you call home?
Barat: Dandenong is very multicultural. Many people have come through [to Australia] this way, they have been in the same sort of situation as these men and myself, and connect to it well. Sometimes it is difficult to explain to others how they have felt or what they have experienced, so these stories help. If any asylum seeker has friends from other communities or ‘Aussies’ who are not familiar with the journey of asylum, these [stories] can help make it be easier to explain to them. It’s a good way to start the conversation and raising awareness.
We are reaching to a wide audience that is accessible to everyone. It is not being exhibited in a traditional place that is open at certain times, everyone can connect to it. They can read the story, they can ignore it, they can favour it, they can oppose, some can think a while and it can raise questions in their minds. I find it inspiring.
Alana: Yes, I agree. This reminds me of Australian video and multimedia artist Lynette Wallworth, who makes incredible work — her latest a VR film called Collisions takes her audiences to the land of indigenous elder Nyarri Morgan and the Martu tribe in the remote Western Australian desert. I went to her artist talk when the filmed showed here in Melbourne and she said something that really resonated with me: “I just want to give people a new thought, that’s all.”
It’s so simple and unpretentious, but powerful. Somehow I think it really relates here. What #Dysturb does is facilitate the opportunity for new audiences to simply have a new thought. To stop and engage in something that surprises them visually, via the image itself, or geographically by appearing in a place they don’t expect. I attended a couple of paste-ups through this campaign, my feeling is that that a paste-up spark curiosity and (hopefully) greater empathy for people in the images.
Madz: It’s kind of surprising when you see people on the street looking at a paste-up. People seem to give it the time of day, I guess it’s so different to the scrolling we are used to online, being right there in front of you.
Ideally we would love to paste it all over Australia, but to be honest we had the resources to do it in Melbourne, plus a group of friends who put a lot of time and energy into making it happen.
But generally I think that new approaches in journalism is important for Australia, with the recent strike by Fairfax media following the company’s decision to cut a quarter of the remaining journalists, and the grey area we are in with journalism worldwide. We want to get these stories to the wider Australian public and not just the small percentage who, for example, might follow NYT on Facebook.
Alana: Madz, tell us about your experiences in curating the exhibition. How did you arrive on the photojournalists featured? What kind of factors influenced your decisions?
Madz: This was a hard task. We were lucky enough to collaborate with the Instagram community team, who helped us in sourcing diverse photojournalists with diverse perspectives.
Factors I looked at within the show were the way different storytellers told their story — balancing softer, gentler storytelling approaches with scenes full of narrative and action. For example, we included quite classic photojournalism from Turkish photojournalist Emin Ozmen and his work from the border of Syria and Turkey. Printed and laid out in a similar way but on the opposite side of the room we also had a series from Amr Alfiqy, an Egyptian living in exile in NYC who informally documented his daily life through selfies and daily experiences.
It’s so easy to place yourself far away from a scene on the other side of the world. Some of the work in the show, like Amr Alfiqy’s work, was more relatable and I used it to break that flow up a bit whilst giving different perspectives and help give a broader scope on the theme.
Alana: I spent a couple of afternoons in the gallery while the exhibition was up, as well as opening night, and it was interesting to see how people moved between work, revisiting some for a closer inspection. People seemed equally drawn to the different types of storytelling, don’t you think?
Madz: There’s always that fear that as soon as you put photojournalism or documentary work up in a gallery space they become objects of art and that the story may get lost, so when I was manning the show, I noticed people took a lot of time in the space and read the captions. I think it helped to use varied storytelling approaches. For example, Ashley Gilbertson’s images of Manus Island detainees — including a portrait of a man climbing an enormous tree — kind of makes you wonder ‘Who is he? What is he doing?’ then leads the eye to reading more about the story.
Everyone has different taste and has favourites and I find that really interesting. I also think people don’t want to be lectured. So feeding people a variation of stories with space to draw on their own ideas and thoughts is what interests me in curating.
Alana: Tell me about the mix of local photographers, stories from the Asia-Pacific region and international stories. Was this something you were conscious of as you curated? How do you think the two played off against each other?
Madz: Since Pierre Terdjman and Benjamin Girette (#Dysturb co-founders) visited Australia for the first time in 2015, they have been pushing to source and show Asia-Pacific photojournalists. This particular campaign featured four stories in the Asia-Pacific region involving stories from the Solomon Islands, Indonesia and Nauru, locations that are often underreported.
Barat Ali Batoor was chosen for his very intimate perspective on the asylum seeker journey. His Instagram series — which was featured on the gallery walls and in a paste-up in Dandenong — shows landscapes, street scenes and portraits from Pakistan, Afghanistan and then Australia — all from his perspective as someone who has done the journey. The images have a really beautiful melody to them, and we sprawled them on the gallery wall to draw on that, and loosely represent the journey.
We’ve used David Maurice-Smith’s photographs quite a few times, I remember pasting one of his photographs up from Myanmar in a University in Colombia while the Melbourne team pasted the same image at McKinnon High School last year. He’s an example of a regular contributor who brings Asia-Pacific stories to our campaigns globally.
Alana, I consider your imagery and storytelling devices to be gentle, approachable and multilayered, often incorporating multimedia, which is something that was also important for the curation both in diversity in approaches and balance when housing so many stories under one roof.
In collaborations focusing on our digital content, like this one, I also thought it was important to include a VR, especially featuring work from the Asia-Pacific region. The topic of relating to audiences in new, different and innovative ways is #Dysturb’s backbone, and we are always discussing ways to incorporate more digital elements to complement our street actions. Your work centred on a story about displacement in the Solomon Islands that is quite different to the rest.
Considering it’s Australia’s close neighbour, having children in the gallery space watching the VR and relating to children of their age who have been displaced because of civil unrest, was a really special addition to the show.
Alana: We’re always so touched by people’s responses to that film and the four others we made in that series — they take off the goggles and ‘re-enter’ the real world, blinking a few times and often take a long, deep inhale, almost gathering their thoughts after being completely immersed in the story that’s been so carefully crafted for them.
In my opinion, no other storytelling medium comes close to that kind of captured engagement. And as a storyteller, it requires far more consideration by the storyteller for the audience experience, I love that flip.
The Solomon Islands film — a collaboration between World Bank and S1T2 — begins with a young girl paddling a handmade canoe about 100 metres off the coast of Guadalcanal Province, where her village is located. The team rigged up the VR camera in the canoe, so in the opening scene, the audience find themselves in the boat with the little girl, bobbing up and down in the water as she laughs and shouts to her family on watching from the beach.
On opening night at Hillvale Gallery, I saw a young boy put the goggles on and start waving immediately, calling out “HELLO! HELLO!” to the girl ‘in front’ of him. He plonked down abruptly, sitting cross-legged on the floor (or as he experienced it, the bottom of the canoe) and stared intently at her. It was quite incredible to see him so captivated in that world.
Madz, have you received any feedback about the campaign since it’s been up in the gallery and on the streets? How as the response been locally and online?
Madz: Paste-up wise, the best response was when we put Laura Boushnak’s paste-up of a Palestinian student at the Rafah border trying to get to Germany, on a wall in a hallway of McKinnon High School where students flood through in between each class.
It was really great to see so many Year 7’s engage with the paste-up workshop then see their fellow students looking up at the paste-up curious about the caption.
Last weekend a group of bikies came into the gallery and spent a good hour checking out the work and one of them made the comment that he’s not used to seeing these stories from the ‘horses mouth’, pointing at Amr Alfiqy’s work. Another guy came in, looked through everything and then went home to drag his housemates over to look at it all. I was honestly surprised that so many people came into the space, let alone take the time to read through everything and talk to us about it.
We also collaborated with the community team of Instagram who featured Barat Ali Batoor’s work on their feed, meaning that this particular story and topic reached not only the streets of Melbourne and Hillvale Gallery, but almost 800,000 people online where people interacted, commented and could be linked to more.