Tell me about your approach to photography? Your process and general concepts…
Mike Read (MR): I’ve previously shot a lot of street photography but found when I wanted to build a body of work it felt more like a lot of single images rather than a cohesive series so developing my concepts has been a big focus lately.
Through both family history and political beliefs I’ve got a keen interest in migration, which has been a common thread in my work. While the ‘Boundless Plains’ series takes that at a much more obvious level, looking at refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia, my earlier street work was always about people moving through the frame. At it’s most basic definition migration is about movement from one place to another – I’m interested in it at both the micro and macro levels.
With ‘Boundless Plains’, because I’m based in Melbourne and the series is shot in Indonesia, the process has involved making numerous trips to Indonesia to shoot. It gives me time to remove myself from the experience while I take time to scan the film, sit with the images and identify where the series is going and what gaps need to be filled before returning to shoot more.
Your ‘Boundless Plains’ project is beautiful, the images are unabashedly honest in the way you have composed them and the stories you are telling. What drew you to this project?
MR: The project came about as a result of general despair of longstanding policies towards asylum seekers and refugees from successive Australian Governments and, more specifically, the Abbott Government’s Stop The Boats policy.
I wanted to know what happened to these people who would have been getting on the boats towards Australia. I found out about one town in the Bogor region, about 90 minutes south of Jakarta, with a large asylum seeker/refugee population. Originally it served as a temporary stopping point while waiting for a smugglers phone call to inform them a boat was ready to leave. Now that the boats have (mostly) stopped, asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia face a wait of upwards of five years as they go through the formal asylum process.
The project is still in its infancy, shot over two trips so far, there are a lot of different aspects that keep me itching to get back and explore in more depth. I want to know more about the relative freedoms – for some single people it’s their first chance to date, for many girls it’s the first time they can play sport. These are things that just weren’t possible in their homelands. But these apparent freedoms sit alongside the fact that they’re unable to work or go to university, that police could round them up or that their refugee claims could be rejected. This constant uncertainty is something I want to explore along with the way it all unfolds in a very lush green tropical setting, which for those from more arid climates like Afghanistan can act as a constant reminder of their displacement.
Can you give me a bit of background on the project and also the outcome (the exhibition at RMIT)
MR: The first time I visited Bogor I only had three days and the result of this was a short series called ‘Enjoy Your Holiday’, the name coming from the tagline of a magazine ad found on the floor of an asylum seekers house, featuring a photo of a happy smiling white family on a beach. The problem with being there so briefly, hearing their stories and photographing these people then leaving was that I felt it reduced them to victims, they became only what had happened to them in their past. It creates a dangerous line where if you’re not careful you invite the viewer to lower these people in a way that they can feel sympathy but not empathy. This was something I wanted to try to avoid, to not reinforce this idea of refugees as some un-relatable “other” to be feared.
When I returned in December/January and started on ‘Boundless Plains’ I spent six weeks living with a group of guys from Afghanistan. The first four weeks was spent sharing meals, talking, playing sport and, most importantly, sitting around doing absolutely nothing with them.
It wasn’t really until the last two weeks that I started shooting anything. I wanted to first gain an understanding of their lives in Indonesia – Obviously I’m never going to know the full extent of what they’ve been through, but it was important to spend time stripping away any of my preconceived ideas and assumptions.
I made another visit in April – the work that has been produced between December – April was shown as an exhibition at RMIT University in Melbourne in August this year. I had submitted the project in an application for the RMIT VE Photo-imaging Graduate in Residence programme and was lucky enough to be one of two people selected for it. The programme is open to graduates of the course and provides access to equipment, mentorship and, at the end of the twelve months, an exhibition. The benefit of this was that I was forced to think very early on about the direction the series was taking and take stock, somewhat, so that I’d have something cohesive for the exhibition. That being said, the exhibition was only an initial outcome for the work and I see myself shooting it for a few more years, eventually taking the form of a book.
Do you have any plans to return to Indonesia and the people you met?
MR: I’m hoping to be back there before the end of the year – before wet season kicks in too much, but it’s dependent on a few things falling in to place. As it’s an ongoing project it’s important for me to be able to get there as regularly as possible to keep appearances up and maintain the relationships I’ve built and visit the friends I’ve made.
Can you tell me about any projects you are planning for the near future?
MR: Besides trying to get back to Indonesia, I’m starting to put together a concertina book inspired by a New York Times article titled ‘The Dream Boat’. The concept is taken from the opening paragraphs that detail a nighttime journey by asylum seekers in the back of a truck traveling from Jakarta to the southern coast of Java. Think lots of black nothingness fleetingly interrupted by passing the lights of billboards, freeway overpasses and moonlit trees.
Who would be your top 5 creative inspirations – can be artist or writer or musician
MR: Paul Kelly – Singer-songwriter whose story telling ability provides an audible history of Australian life. Alex Webb – Master of composition, light, colour, everything. Trent Parke – In some ways, the photographic Paul Kelly. Lee Grant – When I started studying photography I was just interested in taking photos and was pretty ignorant to other photographers. Her series ‘Belco Pride’ came out around this time and one of my lecturers showed it to the class, it was one of my first introductions to a considered body of work. Albert Camus – Especially ‘The Plague’ and his exploration of exile and separation.
How do you feel that your commercial or commissioned work fits in with your documentary/art practice?
MR: I don’t do a whole lot of commercial work but when I do I first make sure that the client and I are the right match before taking anything on. Essentially, they know my documentary/art practice and they’re coming to me because it matches their needs – I rarely chase commercial work myself.
I pay my bills by working a few days a week in an office – it’s not overly exciting but it’s steady and allows me to create my personal work without busting my arse going after any commercial job that might come my way.
That being said, I do really enjoy commissioned work when it’s a good match and we share the same vision.
What is the difference for you with your ‘projects’ and ‘short stories’?
MR: I’m terrible at website maintenance but they were kind of just categories that I put on there with better intentions than execution. The projects sub-heading is meant to be longer-term or ongoing bodies of work, where as most of the short stories were shot in a day or so. The short stories section was meant to be more of a rolling selection of sets of images with new additions to it regularly but it just hasn’t happened that way and I’ve let it slide while I plan a complete new website.
Your ‘short stories’ series called The Edge of Town is a real departure aesthetically from most of your other work, it does not feature figures but is more focused on the patterns and language of the built environment. Is this something you will build on or is it the stories of the people that drive your work more?
MR: In 2012 I was awarded The Pool Grant, which helped me travel to Spain and create images along towns and cities that the Camino de Santiago pilgrim path goes through, for the series ‘The Way’.
‘The Edge of Town’ was shot during this trip and only came about during the image selection process.
Prior to that trip I’d only ever really shot street photographs, normally on busy intersections, and suddenly I was going through all these small towns that were void of people. The economy was collapsing and youth unemployment was huge, causing many people to leave these smaller towns – The lack of people in these images is indicative of that.
At this point, the stories of people are much more a driving force for my work. Prior to ‘Boundless Plains’ the only images I would take of people was when I was shooting street, which was a one-sided exchange.
I had never really shot portraits. I wasn’t comfortable with the interaction and the vulnerability of the process and if I wasn’t comfortable with that, as the photographer, then what chance would the sitter have!
I’ve started to get over that and have become more comfortable shooting portraits, which has coincided with me both slowing down my shooting process and being able to spend more time with the subjects before hand. I’m still making mistakes and learning a lot but the stories I’m working on are about people, so I need to be comfortable with them and them with me.