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2009 Coal Blockade of Newcastle Harbour


Friday, October 29, 2010

Me and Mahvool at Nobby's Beach Foreshore

On and off for over 30 years I've photographed candid street scenes in my hometown of Newcastle and have noticed the demographic slowly changing from mainly European to a more cosmopolitan mix yet the faces in my photos are mostly Anglo. Because I use a standard lens and stand within their midst while taking a photo I rely on the goodwill and trust of total strangers. I wondered whether I was only comfortable photographing people from my own ethnic background or if it was just because Anglos seem to be more relaxed in front of my camera and don't shy away.

My selection tends to be whatever crosses my path that catches my eye and on this day it was Mahvool and her companions picnicking on the grass except something held me back. I took a long detour photographing nearly everywhere else but avoided them for some inexplicable reason - their unfamiliar clothes perhaps. I try to document an authentic moment in time but how could my photos be authentic without showing what I was truly seeing? After going around in a huge circle I decided against my initial hesitation to photograph them.

The moment I took the photo I was vaguely aware of one woman in the group gesturing with her hand as if shooing away an insect. Then she asked if I was taking the photo for them and I was slightly puzzled - did she want me to send her a copy which I usually offer to do for my subjects anyway? Yet her tone of voice seemed unfriendly and her facial expression was hidden which made it hard to interpret the situation. "I don't think I know I?" I asked tentatively. Then she said: "Exactly, so why are you photographing us?" I told them they looked interesting and was shocked when she demanded I delete the photograph. Unsure of what to do I told her I'd think about it. She then asked me what right I had to take their photograph and I replied that photographers don't need permission to take photographs in a public space. Mahvool explained to her that this was the law here and she seemed to accept it. I went away baffled having never experienced such a reaction in Newcastle. Normally if people catch me taking their photo they either smile or ham it up for the camera except one time this Japanese surfer offered a pose of studied indifference.

Walking along the breakwater towards Nobby's Lighthouse I tried to make sense of my encounter with the lady swathed in robes (called a burqua I think). How could she object to being photographed when no one could see her face anyway? Maybe it was just a power trip on her part in trying to deny my rights as a photographer in a public place. Who was right and who was wrong? I knew that I had the legal right to take the photo but wasn't sure if it was ethical. I decided it wasn't worth risking bad karma so when I got back to the car I decided I would return to the burqua-clad women nearby and delete the photo but first I wanted to look at it more closely.

In the shade of my car I could finally see as I zoomed in on the photo that the woman's hand wasn't waving in a dismissive gesture as I had initially perceived but was more like fending off an attack or shielding herself from a blow - as though my camera was a weapon. It seemed I had misread the situation because the issue wasn't simply about my right to photograph in a public space - a right that I had taken for granted. Instead I needed to reframe the situation from their perspective somehow. As I studied the photo I began to see that I had invaded their personal space in a way that wasn't culturally normal for them. An accommodation of some sort was necessary.

So I went over and deleted the photo for them. Mahvool (phonetic spelling) asked me to sit down with her and we introduced ourselves. Once I had deleted the photo taken without their consent she was now happy for a photo to be taken of us together. Then she asked me why I had been taking photographs. I told her I do documentary photography because its part of my being an artist. Mahvool asked me if I was a "native" Australian which made me wonder because I wasn't indigenous and my mother was an immigrant. I hesitantly answered yes and then she told me that I was the only Australian who had ever spoken to her here after months of being a student at Newcastle university. We talked some more and then I left her with my card and said I would be happy to meet her again.

Later an investigative journalist revealed that in most tabloid newspapers and commercial TV networks whenever they need filler they use regurgitated stories from America to recycle in Australia. This repetitive news cycle includes miracle cures for arthritis, negative reporting of welfare recipients and burqa stories. So it seems Mahvool and I have more in common than meets the eye - we both come from sections of society subjected to regular bouts of media bashing in Australia.

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