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I freaked out!

by | Nov 22, 2019 | Creative Media, Erin M McCuskey |

I freaked out!

Totally! freaked out! The last Ballarat International Foto Biennale (BIFB) commissioned me to create a series of street portraits. I said yes, of course.

Then I freaked out!

This was so far out of any zone I’d usually create still images in. I would usually develop a concept, create elaborate sets, divine costumes and banks of lights. Sourcing fabulously wild locations, sensing what it could be once I’ve seen in, been in it. The talent is given a back story to work from, props, ideas and directions. Completely over the top!

The Biennale was asking me to go plain vanilla, I thought. Let the people tell their story. In the street, their homes, their Wendouree. I decided a theme of place sharing and identity would work for these people to share their place with us.

We all understand the concept of place and its relationship to who we are. We all come from a place, exist in a place, share our place. We all have a place we make our own. It may be on the street, in public places or within our homes. We create space for people and welcome them into that space. But we don’t often talk about how we share that place.

Portraiture is difficult to create, even harder to sell. The portraiture I’d been creating were for series, where the portraits together tell a story. I work hard to create a relationship of trust with the ‘sitter’*. It seemed to me it was a question of trust with these street portraits. How was I going to do that if I didn’t have time to talk, sit, talk some more?

I wanted to use miniatures. Miniatures reflect a delight of objects small yet speak so loudly about who we are. I wanted each subject to choose a miniature that whispered to them of culture, work, comfort or creative expression. A tiny object that amplifies their place in the world. Each choice expressing how they share themselves in their world, and with other people.

I’d said yes though, so I had to find a way. And my way was by creating a system to support the early building of trust.

I grabbed my beautiful friend, and textile artist Heather Horrocks and created an experiment. I wrote a ‘hello you don’t know me, but I want to shoot you’ script and tested it out on her. Below is the first transcript.

That play acting, and Heather’s generosity, gave me a way forward. Here’s the process we decided was best:

  1. Approach the subject without a big camera or suitcase of miniatures. People are worried you are trying to sell them something, so go talk to them with palms and heart open. Showing yourself and who you are builds trust.
  2. Introduce yourself by name and ask if you can tell them about a project for the community. Revealing the purpose is for community will build trust.
  3. Tell them about the theme of place, hearth and home, their idea of it; and tell them it’s for art. Tell them it will take up to 20 mins (that was the maximum time and for some it didn’t suit as they were in a hurry), being transparent builds trust.
  4. Walk with them to Heather who was waiting with cameras, tripods, lights and suitcases (of miniatures) and as you walk thank them for their time. Gratitude builds trust.
  5. Talk about what home means, how they welcome people into their spaces. Everyone does it but we don’t often acknowledge how we welcome people. As they talk they play with the miniatures and ideas spring to mind and heart. Listening builds trust.
  6. Take the portrait, very uncomfortable for most people to be in front of a camera, so work to put them at ease. Show them the images we’d taken. Sharing builds trust.
  7. Give them a calling card with all the details of what happens next. Knowing builds trust.

Such beautiful images resulted in a heartfelt exhibition of joyful welcome from the people of Wendouree. I filmed and photographed at a number of locations and some private homes. People made me feel very welcome as they shared their heartfelt responses.

I’m indebted to the valuable support knowledge and wisdom of Heather whose image was part of the exhibition.

Erin and heather interview notation.

E: What do you offer people that come into your home?

H: Probably a cup of tea. But I don’t really have people in my home because I’m a mess-merchant.

I think I greet them with shit really…

I greet people with ‘Stuff’ – The art, crochet hooks and pencils. I feel home as long as I have those things.

E: For a lot of people, they don’t have home or a places they can take people, so in light of that where are some of the places you’d take people who were visiting to say “this is my Wendouree”

H: I’d say the Pompey house at the lake, and we’re very proud of the fact that we have a view of Mt Rowan.

I do love the old colonists’ homes in Gillies street.

E: When you leave and come home to Wendouree, are there places that you look at and think “Oh I’m home”.

H: Well because I live in a prominent monument, it’s a joy to think that I live in an old monastery.

Although I’m not religious, there are some contested feelings about it.

Thank you to Maddy and Fiona from the BIFB for such a fabulously challenging commission. And thank you too to Regional Arts Victoria for your support.

The photographs are accompanied by a short film available online by scanning the QR code below. Thank you to musical duo ‘Dead Salemen’ for permission to use their track ‘Wendouree’. Thank you to Rex Hardware for permission to use the recording. Find it below.

And thank you all for coming and viewing the exhibition Hello Foto.

*sitter: the big hearted people who collaborate with me to create portrait, and who are never usually sitting.

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