Lee Grant interview

"There is no end to how interesting people can be." The Canberra-based photographer discusses suburbia, migrant experiences and the role of documentary photography.

Interview by Fraser Stanley. 
June 2013

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i.  Suburban Hedge from Belco Pride
ii.  Belco Pride from Belco Pride
iii. Alisha and Saul from Belco Pride
iv. The Duot Family from Belco Pride and Sudanese Portraits
v. Mary with her daughters Aja and Adau, and her granddaughter Nankir from Sudanese Portraits
vi. Paradise Is A Place from Belco Pride
vii. Ashleigh from Belco Pride
viii. Dan from Belco Pride

All photographs © Lee Grant 2013


What was it like growing up in Belconnen, Canberra?

I didn’t move to Belconnen until I was eight, so technically I’m not ‘born and bred’. However, having moved from France back to Australia (where we were posted with Dad’s job) Belco certainly did make a bit of an impression. The outer suburbs of Canberra couldn’t have been more different in its sensibility than Versailles and Paris where we’d previously lived!

Whilst we ended up travelling to the other side of Canberra for school (a French school of course – thanks to my upwardly mobile parents – the travelling time for which was a total pain in the arse: six buses a day!), I do remember a lot of freedom and time outside, exploring the hills (Mount Rogers) behind our house and generally cruising around with the other neighbourhood kids. No such thing as internet or computers back then, so we made do with hanging out in gangs and terrorising the streets on our BMXs (sporting the latest in legwarmers and bubblegum jeans, naturally). That, and being mallrats – especially on a Friday night (late-night shopping). For some reason, we all thought that was uber-cool. Go figure.

Did your return to suburbia trigger your interest for your Belco Pride project?

No, not directly. I returned to suburbia a little by accident.

Suburbia is impossible to avoid in Canberra, and when I came back after a separation to be closer to family, it’s automatically where I ended up. Plus, like most places, it’s cheaper the further out you live. I ended up renting a house from my mum in Belco – actually the house I grew up in, which was sort of weird at first but moving in with my own kids was a strangely cathartic experience. I learned to let go of past ghosts and create my own life there.

During this process I started seeing my surrounds in a very different way. As a teenager living in the ’burbs, there was nothing worse (particularly if you suffered from a bad case of cultural cringe, which most of my peers and I did). I got out of there as soon as I could, so going back initially felt like a step backwards; it was hard not to be a little depressed by it. However I credit my kids for helping me to see things differently. A kid’s view of the world is something to be marvelled at. Such wonderful creatures they are; they never cease to amaze me.

For me, acceptance and the process of letting go and letting myself just be, in that space – and to accept others for who they are and what they choose in life – was a massive lesson (talk about being pushed off my high-horse!). It’s really in this realisation that the seeds were sown for the Belco series.

Plus, it was all really very entertaining – I had a lot of fun making the work and meeting people that I probably would never have crossed paths with were I not making this series.

"I don’t feel that documentary should be viewed as a static medium – the genre is being redefined every day by photographers all over the world, and for this I’m very glad."

Tell us a little about your working process when you are focused on a project.

It’s very important for me that I feel energised and motivated when making work. And, since I’m human, this isn’t all the time (I’m also a self-confessed procrastinator which really doesn’t help!). Of course I have other things going on in my life, but when I’m in the zone I don’t think I’m the easiest person to be around… Try having a normal conversation with me – not so much, unless you’re another photographer and then it might all make sense! This probably happens more when I’m travelling – I’m in my own little world really, so it’s easier to focus and give 150% on a project. It’s a bit like tunnel vision; everything else falls away as your focus narrows down.

I do a lot of research for my projects as well, particularly with my latest body of work The Korea Project, which is important as I am also dealing with facts – historical, biographical, geographical etc… But it’s also important not to place too much emphasis on this aspect of my working process as it can disallow spontaneous and more emotional responses to making images. For me, one of the highs of making work is not knowing what to expect – or at the very least, having all your expectations turned on their head. People especially challenge me in this regard (I totally love how different we all are!), so I guess this is why I love making portraits so much.

What is it about documentary photography that fascinates you?

Documentary photography has probably been the mainstay of my focus in photography for as long as I’ve been making photographs (over 20 years).

In high school I was taught by an old-school Hungarian teacher, whose idea of truth in photography was black-and-white reportage (the traditional Magnum staple that we all looked to as students). Over the years though, I learned enough about myself to feel that this didn’t sit right with me personally. I have a degree in anthropology too, so the moral minefield of portraying ‘others’ has been ingrained in me from my days as an undergrad. I wanted to be more collaborative in my approach – I’m actually a bit shy but curious enough to not let this affect the way in which I engage with people in the world.

I’m still at a crossroads about the genre of documentary. I don’t feel it should be viewed as a static medium – in fact, the genre is being redefined every day by photographers all over the world, and for this I’m very glad. I’m particularly interested in the idea of slow journalism and documentary, the process of which is to really slow down, take time and to consider carefully what one is seeing and interpreting. Work by photographers such as Rob Hornstra, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, and Chloe Dewe Mathews (to name a few) has been very inspiring in this regard. I love the idea that the process of making work in this way is not only about the subject matter but also about the maker and all the points of view they bring to a project.

I don’t believe you can be truly objective – removed perhaps, but ultimately everything you shoot bears the hallmarks of your own cultural and social perspective in some shape or form. Acknowledging this, in my opinion, has meant some significant leaps forward in the documentary genre, and it’s made for much more interesting and engaging photographers and photography.

Has studying affected your image making?

Studying has definitely affected my image making – in a very positive way though. My photography is largely self-taught but undertaking post-grad studies at the ANU School of Art did allow me scope to gain confidence as well as an ability to talk about my work and the work of others – to critically engage with photography as a medium and to understand its very rich history and where I might be able to place my own work within that context. This more theoretical education was much more useful to me than the technical side of photography and has also helped to develop my interests and work as a curator and editor.

"Adaptation is of interest to me – not only of the migrant community but also that of the host community. How a country receives its new citizens says much about our ethos in life and the way in which we identify ourselves as both individuals and a society."

Could you tell us a little about
The Korea Project?

The Korea Project has been brewing in my mind for a very long time, though I probably only conceptualised it recently. I think I also had to feel emotionally ready to commit to the project, as it’s a very personal one.

My mother is Korean and migrated to Australia back in the early ’70s after marrying my Australian father. The project is essentially a personal exploration of my own heritage – one that I grew up knowing very little about, since, as a child, life was very much about integration into a predominantly Anglo society. I don’t speak Korean so this also really disconnected me from Korean culture. Plus, being racially mixed has its own baggage – you don’t belong here and you don’t belong there. A strange place to be in some ways but I think one that actually helped me become a photographer, strangely enough.

The project is divided into three parts. Though it’s still very much a work-in-progress, I’ve explored various themes common to my other work, notably: contemporary South Korea and its place within Asia and the broader Western world; the idea of ‘Korean-ness’ and whether or not this sensibility can be held onto even after migration; and also what this might look like for adoptees, second-generation and mixed Koreans. Lastly, I’m hoping to travel to North Korea soon to see with my own eyes what life is like there (rather than relying on over-dramatic media hyperbole) and to find out more from a North Korean perspective – their wishes for a united Korea. It’s an essential part of the story of Korea and I don’t feel I can do justice to this project without acknowledging it in some way.

As for my experience working in Korea, like the Belco project, this too has been one of catharsis. I guess you can’t begin such a personal undertaking without learning a thing or two about yourself and where you might fit in exactly, both in Korea and here in Australia.

Sudanese Portraits is a project of yours that also focuses on migrants and identity. Despite being a multicultural country, there is an underlying racial tension in Australian culture that you refer to in the text. Is this something you are trying to address in your work?

A lot of my work explores themes of migrant life in Australia – particularly in a suburban context, as this is where I live. Also, being second-generation migrant has gained me some insight into what it means to be from two different cultural and racial backgrounds (and all the baggage that goes with it!). I’m still intrigued as to how our cultures shape who we are, even when placed outside of that cultural and social context.

Australia is, in a sense, the perfect place to explore these interests, as the majority of Australians have a migrant background of some sort. Adaptation is also of interest to me – not only of the migrant community but also that of the host community. How a country receives its new citizens says much about our ethos in life and the way in which we identify ourselves as both individuals and a society. There have been a lot of negative and positive policies regarding our migrants and, whilst I’m not that interested in making bold political statements, I am interested in documenting the everyday lives of those who may be affected by such contentious politics.

Tell us about Timemachine Magazine. Why did you decide to launch the magazine online as opposed to the traditional print medium?

Timemachine came about after I met photographer and writer Tom Williams, whose work I’ve admired for a long time. We realised that we both had the same ideas about doing a magazine that focused on Australian photography in an international context, so we thought why not start it online to begin with and see how we roll from there? Tom has since moved on to focus on his own projects and Sarah Rhodes recently came on board as a co-editor.

One of the down-sides of self-publishing (even online) is the amount of time it takes. It’s not a paid gig (though we did attract a short-term sponsorship from Fujifilm Australia which was great) and the reality is that the project is very much a labour of love put together over Skype, email and phone calls from our respective lounge rooms.

Sadly, Timemachine will be on hiatus after the issue launched in May. The theme for this ‘last’ issue is Flux – an ironically apt title! Sarah and I are both at points in our lives and careers where we want a break from Timemachine in order to focus on our personal projects. We will definitely continue to collaborate under the banner of Timemachine but for the immediate future we are allowing ourselves some time out.

Having said this, we are still keen to publish a print version at some point in the future. We’ll see. The future is full of possibilities really… I don’t see this as the demise of Timemachine – rather just a well-earned break.

"Being true to oneself (as trite as it sounds) is very important. Otherwise, what’s the point?"

What inspires and motivates you?

I do have a soft spot for unconventional beauty that can be found in in the everyday. Sometimes this has been interpreted as a love of the tacky, but for me it’s less about that than the authenticity of the scene. It’s like human nature revealed in all its naked glory with nowhere to run and hide. This sort of vulnerability is breathtaking to me plus the fact that I’m a terrible nostalgic for woeful aesthetics! Sometimes I feel like I’m graciously being allowed to witness the manifestation of our human endeavours, like an alien discovering a new species and way of life… it’s truly fascinating. And people! They are just so fascinating! There is no end to how interesting people can be. I sometimes worry that I might not be able to capture it all but I try my best. I’m definitely driven by how weird and surreal life can be, even though it all seems so normal and obvious.

Honesty and integrity also motivates and inspires me – both in photographers themselves and the work that they make. I think this can be very evident in their photographs. I try to apply this in my own efforts as a photographer all the time. Being true to oneself (as trite as it sounds) is very important. Otherwise, what’s the point?

When a photograph really moves you emotionally, you know that there’s something special there and I love that images can still have this power over me – more so if I happen to learn something about myself along the way. Life has a tendency to present very seductive moments; I see good photographs everyday – more often when I don’t have my camera it seems! But when a good photograph is captured, I have a terrible tendency to fall in love with both the image and also the thrill of having captured it. I suppose it’s a bit like a drug addiction… Except I hope I’m never cured.