Review of the Moran Photographic Prize

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Juniper Hall, Sydney 2019

I made many photographs of the work at HeadOn to write a review later. The Moran prize was not one of the exhibitions I recorded. The longer I thought about what i had seen the more disturbed I became.

The Moran photographic prize presents itself as a visual investigation to ‘tell a story of their (the photographer’s) experience of living in Australia’. As I looked that the images on the wall of the Juniper Hall in Sydney I saw an Australia that I remember from my Childhood not the one i was living in now. The venue is an inspired choice for this show, being a symbol of Anglo cultural and economic domination in Colonial times, this fits with the images made by Australians who all seem to have European family names, who like to photograph European dissented people outside the major population centres, and when an image comes up of a non-European, the title or descriptions invokes their otherness. They ‘sort asylum’ (Anna Maria Antoinette D’Addario), ‘immigrants’ (Adam Ferguson) or ‘indigenous cowboy colleagues’ (Sean Izzard). To be fair D’Addario, acknowledges that the African family have now got Australian citizenship, though the narrative is not about ‘Australian-ness’ but about being an outsider accepted to start the journey to be Australian. Worth noting that that in the 2016 only 380,000 Australians were born in Africa, and many of these people are of European descent.

In Ferguson’s work we are not even sure if the family is becoming Australian or if they are just temporary visa holders. That the boys are Filipino is also interesting to unpack. Filipinas and Filipinos form a disproportionate proportion of the nursing community. Moran Group is a health care business. Keep in mind that 16.5% of the Australian population who answered the ‘country of origin’ question in the 2016 census, are of Asian descent.

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Perhaps Izzard’s is the most unsettling. The title ‘Cowboys’ is inclusive but the statement then others the indigenous man while fore grounding him. The description leaves me with the impression that there are tensions between the stated ethnicities, and that is the reason for the space between the singular indigenous man and the four/five white men, who look more comfortable and confident. Do carry the understanding of their entitlement?

Tamara Dean’s winning image ‘Endangered’ breaks with the other images, here there is a man of non-European descent who is not commented on, who appears in the image without clarification or contextualisation, who is presented in a group of bodies that represent Australia/n.

Max Howes’ ‘Directions’, ponders the multi-cultural nature of Australia with a landscape photograph that makes no reference to any culture but to urban sprawl and over the natural environment, waiting for cultural ownership to be written. There is only one image that firmly places itself in a city, Sam Ferris’ ‘King Street, November 2018’, yet for the vast majority of Australians this is their experience of being Australian. The cities are where diversity in population and culture started and are strongest. This is sadly missing from the ‘Summer Bay’ (1990s) version of Australian culture presented by the Moran Prize. This prize holds itself as the given-to-be-seen of what Australia is, yet this year and each other year, has a narrow focus. If this is due to the images entered, then the Moran Prize needs to expand how it gets the message out to a more diverse group of photographers. If this is not the issue then it needs to choose a more diverse group of judges. The prize has been been around long enough to get the images it wants. One can only assume that those who run this prize are comfortable with resulting selections.

For many readers it would be jarring to read that I have called out the whiteness/European descent of the Australians represented here as photographers, subject and judges. To us they are just ‘Australians’, that is an unmarked category, single description, no need to add anything. Not like the ‘Other’, people who are marked other, Indigenous-Australian, Asian-Australian. This allows we white Australians to power, privilege and entitlement, being assumed and not questioned. This is at the heart of the basic riff in politics. The Left traditionally believes in the humanity of all together and equal. The Right believes in tribalism. The right needs to mark categories, in order to assign tribes. For most of us on either side we barely notice who is omitted unless it is our tribe. Omission is a passive/aggressive form of racism. The images selected here form a political statement; Australia is a tribe of people of European descent if the subjects of these photographs are not white, we must explain their relationship with Australia and its inherent whiteness.

As humans we see discrimination when we are personally confronted with it. In a bank cue a Chinese Singaporean was muttering under his breath about the how anglo Australians were being attended too instead of him. A Malay Singaporean behind him, could not contain himself any longer, ‘for me it is just the same, you are not used to being a minority’.

The Australian art scene as a problem with the diversity that is in our society. Name a single well known image that places an Asian male in the Australian landscape? Artists are been allowed to challenge the notion of their otherness, the work of William Yang and Owen Leong. These representations for the most part mediated by curators of European descent. We (the curators) use these images show our bonfires as inclusive, despite the homogeny in curatorialship. Australia comes with a lot of baggage when it comes to ‘race’. Though this term use references a mix of ethnicity and culture, the word is not very useful as a description of someone. In photo-media we have come to a comfortable position regarding indigenous people they are usually represented in any collection or prize, the singular easy to identify representation here is unusual as it is singular. Regarding those of us who are of African descent, we became comfortable very quickly. Perhaps this is due to American cultural influence, and the large number of images we already have in the given-to-be-seen of photography. Those of us who are of South American descent, unless they read as being of European, and those of us who are of Asian descent, particularly men, are omitted.

In his judging comments, Stephen Dupont comments, that ‘D’Addario takes us inside the suburban refugee family home showing us the beauty and strength of multicultural Australia.’ Stephen I love your work, and the way you show us the world, but to hold up a single image (yes you could have held up the Filipino immigrants as well) out of the selected images and say that makes a case for the reality of the lived experience of most Australians, and then they are fenced off from the rest of the culture, just shows the opposite. It shows a culture that is not comfortable with who it is and seeking a ‘white wing Australian nostalgia’.

The Moran prize is very political. It is a representation of Australia for people who grew up in a white Australia, whether that was during the policy or in the years after before people of non-European descent moved in then out of our cities. This prize affirms to these people, that real Australian experience is the experience of whiteness in this landscape. Whiteness is tribe Australia. Further it places regional and rural as the ‘real Australia’.

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