Sydney based photographer Tamara Dean is interviewed by Bhumika Popli on her work and her project ‘Passage of Time’ which was showcased at the Delhi Photo Festival 2013.
The ‘In Conversation’ feature is an attempt to know more about the motivations and thought processes of photographers featured on Aksgar as well as other photographers undertaking narrative photography projects.
Bhumika Popli: ‘Passage of Time’ is a finely spun subjective tale of our inner world meeting the external. It would be fascinating to discover the layered meaning behind this series. Could you please let us in on the mystery?
Tamara Dean: I have always been interested in how spirituality fits into our modern lives. ‘Ritualism’ had me questioning when I found meaning in the daily life routines as a new mother. The quiet moments where I would have a shower or wash my hands became my moments of pause and reflection, at times illumination. I started thinking about the universality of many rituals involving water as a form of purification and its relation to my own life.
‘This Too Shall Pass’ was my next series touching on the sense that lives have been led before ours and more to come after; nature reclaiming the abandoned spaces and breathing new life into them; an acknowledgement of life and death, decay and renewal. ‘Only Human’ refers to the notion that we as humans are only human. We are animals; we come with strengths and weaknesses. ‘Passage of Time’ is where these themes come together.
BP: This is an intriguing series. What / Who was your inspiration?
TD: The Australian bush has always held a special place in my heart. It is a love affair that goes back as far as I can remember. From my childhood holidays, to my teens when I obsessively sketched, painted, printed and photographed the local National Park. As soon as I was able to move out of home I moved straight out to an isolated bush-block a couple of hours from Sydney. The smells, the textures, the colours and the sounds felt comforting to me…as though they were an affirmation of my being alive within a living, breathing planet. The solidity of the trees and the rocks made life feel real.
BP: Spirituality! Personally, does it amount to much for you?
TD: Absolutely, my works are a reflection of my sense of spirituality. They talk of the importance of rituals and rites of passage in our lives as transitionary experiences.
BP: Contemporary changes in ‘Ritualism’ seem to displease you, as you explore people performing ceremonies. Your personal relationship with this changing form?
TD: I feel that there are less and less formal rituals to mark transitional stages in our lives in what is becoming an increasingly secular society in Australia.
My series is about the informal rites of passage which young people create for themselves within the natural world. The rope swings, rock drops, the places we play in nature. I see these are important transitional spaces where young people confront their fears of jumping into the unknown, and finding a newfound sense of independence.
BP: The primarily singular influence while composing ‘The Edge’ and ‘Only Human’ included in the ‘Passage of Time’?
TD: I remember in my late teens and early 20’s wanting to confront my fears and assert my independence by setting myself personal challenges out in the bush. It might not seem scary to some people but for me the most terrifying thing I could do to prove to myself that I was resilient would be to sleep alone out in the open, in a forest with no tent. So that’s what I did. I made a circle of rocks under a tree and slept within the bounds of this circle. I hoped that it would stave off all of the creatures of the night that might bear down on me. I survived the night terrors and the next morning felt a little more invincible than the night before. It was this sort of transitional experience which I wanted to reconnect with, but by engaging with other people’s places and stories.
So, with ‘The Edge’, I had people take me to their special places, the places that tend only to be known by locals, the places where they go to with their friends to explore their independence, their newfound sexuality and their physical and emotional limitations.
BP: Sydney & you. How did the growth take place vis-a vis, especially with ‘This Too Shall Pass’?
TD: In this work I pay homage to the places I play in.
The urban decay in the last of my city’s wastelands, the places I explore, the last wild vestiges where there is space to roam.
The subjects are not swamped by the landscape, they are emboldened by it, drawing their energy from the elements… the wind, the animals, the moon, the sensation of bare feet on earth. From the places where nature is clawing back.
I feel that these places are important to the fabric of a city, places which invite a sense of adventure.
BP: What does Australia mean? What does it evoke in you?
TD: Australia is a place of ironies. Sydney is a city hell bent on being a beacon of the modern world, shiny and new. Though it sits on the edge of one of the largest, wildest continents in the world and is home to one of the most ancient cultures on our planet.
We have wilderness and contemporary life virtually side by side. I think this affects Australians in a deeply spiritual way.
BP: How have the awards changed your life?
TD: Only in that they are a wonderful affirmation, and they give me a sense that what I am doing is valued, but not necessarily in any tangible way.
BP: How did the MFA help?
TD: It has helped me in terms of distilling my ideas, and allowing time in my life to develop these ideas into a body of work. Also to get a deeper understanding about what is happening around the world in terms of art, and where my work fits into this. This led to my new body of work ‘The Edge’ which will be exhibited in March 2014 at Olsen Irwin Gallery in Sydney.
BP: Do you believe in editing your work? If yes, why and to what end?
TD:If by editing you mean applying post-production to an image, I have no problem with it. Unless of course you are working as a photojournalist or documentary photographer in which case basic light-room techniques such as dodging and burning is as far as you would take it.
When I began my ‘Ritualism’ series which was my first conceptual series I started shooting with the intention to employ post-production at a later stage. But I quickly found that achieving as much in-camera as possible makes life so much easier down the track which is the way I continue to work now.
BP: You are a staff reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald. How do you coordinate between your day job and personal projects?
TD: Being a staff photographer on The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) whilst also engaging in my art practice has always struck a really beneficial balance. I find that they both inform each other in certain ways. Working for the newspaper keeps my eye sharp and ironically helped me develop my directorial skills.
The aesthetic which I strive to in my personal work in turn seeps into the work I do for the SMH. It is a symbiotic relationship.
BP: Do you employ a set criterion to select subjects? What is your approach?
TD: Due to the time of day that I shoot, many of the subjects I have chosen have been selected due to the luminous quality of their skin in the particular light I use. My friends were my subjects in my early works but now I will generally just approach someone if I see them and they instantly strike me.