The eternally challenging aspect about photography for me is problem solving. Putting together a project or book concept is pretty much all visual problem solving. The Gold Coast was a monolith of a problem. I was essentially trying to answer the question as to why I felt so uncomfortable in a town where everybody else seemed so at ease. I was also photographing this in the present when all my misgivings were centered around events from the past. I began to work with metaphors. Each photograph I took belonged to an internal monologue that I was having with myself. This child’s room looked like a crime scene with all that doll’s hair scattered on the floor. That piano in the living room looked like a closed casket funeral. This broken tree goes unnoticed in a forest of other trees. That deflated heart shaped balloon has a cut in it that looks just like a stab wound.
I began shooting people also. They become metaphors. Mostly of me. All my subjects began to resemble self-portraits. It was my way of getting around the problem of not being able to travel back in time to photograph myself and the way that I felt living there. Instead I photographed other young people who were still there and hopefully captured some measure of their unnamed terror in a place that looks so right but feels so wrong.
Serendipitously, I happened to be at a photo book workshop with Stanley Greene and the book designer that made his book, Black Passport. His name is Teun Van Der Heijden and his practice is based in Amsterdam. I didn’t know anything about him before we met, but during the course of the workshop, hearing the way that he spoke about the science of book making and his dynamic approach to technology, communication and culture, I knew that I wanted him to work on my book. I showed him the work and he responded well to it. I asked him if he would be interested in collaborating on the book and to my absolute delight, he agreed. A month later, i was on a plane to Amsterdam and we were holed away in his studio with 800 prints and putting together an edit.
Finding the right editor for this work was quite a challenge. There are a lot of great editors out there, but what I was looking for was somebody that could understand what I was trying to say and the subtlety in which I was trying to say it. The work itself is not obvious. It isn’t about war or poverty or natural disaster. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I was trying to question what it means for us to pursue success. This upwardly mobile vision of luxury cars and backyard swimming pools and the things we were willing to overlook or sacrifice in this pursuit. It was a study on the life that we construct for ourselves to make us feel as if we are progressing… the infrastructure of self actualization… or perhaps, more accurately, the package of self actualization that we’d been sold.
In making the book, I was interested in the experience of the book reflecting what it’s like to live in on the Gold Coast. I was interested in seeing if my readers would also find it difficult to believe, that a place that looked so drenched in sunshine and wealth, could possibly be the same location as all the crimes that you find in the zine that comes in the back of the book. My challenge was a matter of social perception. My problem wasn’t proving the existence of crime on the Gold Coast. My problem was answering the question as to why the people who lived there weren’t able to reconcile their environment with their knowledge that this was a dangerous place. Teun had a way of approaching the work that showed a real understanding of what I wanted to achieve and through the edit and the building of a narrative, through the graphic choices and the structure of the book, we built a photo book that contained everything I had hoped for while shooting it.
We explored themes that had inspired me. David Lynch’s work was a huge influence, particularly the opening scene of Blue Velvet and the entire feel and premise of Twin Peaks. It was the same small town mentality, a place where everybody knew each other or knew of each other. A place of frosted icing veneers over deep rot. There were also definitely elements of Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, both aesthetically and philosophically. In the year that Teun and I were putting the book together, he sent me back to the Gold Coast to shoot another 3 or 4 times after I thought I was already done with it. He had identified a need for more portraits, more characters for my readers to identify with. Then he wanted to play more on the metaphor of crime scene investigation, so I had to go out and be more overt in my search for the sinister, find dead birds, that sort of thing. Then he simply wanted me to go back and make better versions of some of the things that I already had. He was a real perfectionist. I had a picture of a very large spider. He told me to go back to the Gold Coast and find another one, but in better light.
So in between these journeys back and forth to the Gold Coast, I listened to the soundtrack from Twin Peaks, I read the screenplay for Blue Velvet, I went back through my journals over and over again and I came to a point where I had to face something that I had been avoiding this whole time… and that was getting personal. I mean, really personal… because the centrifugal force of this book is that it’s autobiographical. And the most wicked part of this autobiography is the double murder that I was a witness to when I was 18. I didn’t know how I would include this information in the book, let alone if I actually wanted that information to be out in the world, but Teun convinced me that this information was crucial to the reader in a way that anchors the authority of my voice in the telling of this story.
It is this bit of information, that makes this story mine and mine alone, and therefore necessary. From the start I knew that I didn’t want to photograph an actual murder for the book. I thought that if I placed such a photograph in the main body of work , it would entirely overtake every other photograph in there. The solution that we came up with was to make a zine… just a little afterthought, at the back of the book, where you could read actual news articles from the local paper of the kind of sordid activity rampant on the Gold Coast. Sandwiched right in the centre of this zine is the article that features yours truly, complete with an old and very unflattering portrait of me, and my experience at the heart of this murder. The actual text of the article is too small to read but the headings speak enough.
At the very back of the zine, I have my journal entries from the week of the murders. The tone of the entries read and reflect the same tone as the book. Basically and metaphorically, one minute I’m eating lunch, the next minute 2 people get slaughtered in front of my eyes, and then the minute after that, I’m back to eating my metaphorical lunch again. The names of places that are mentioned in my journal entries are reflected in the captions of places scattered throughout the book and also in the screenplay that introduces the book.
“I chose to write a screenplay as the foreword because I felt like a first person introduction of my anger towards this place would have given too much away too soon and left nothing to the imagination. The screenplay was actually reverse engineered from the trailer for the book. I made the trailer with my sister, who is a film maker, my confidante and very much my partner in angst regarding the Gold Coast. We didn’t want to put photographs in the trailer and we wanted it to work the same way that a teaser for a film would work… as an opener, a taste, a mood setter for what is to come. The interesting thing about using a screenplay as the beginning of a photo book is that it weaves a spell and sets a scene before the first photograph is even presented. I introduce sound, characters and a sense of place. I create a mood that is clinical and sinister in description and ideally you enter the book already with the sounds of helicopters, flies buzzing and thunder echoing through your ears.”
By the time you reach the end of the book, the zine comes as a curiosity. A found object. The book feels complete without it, so you wonder if this is some kind of mistake. The zine opens to murder and real estate. Then to an article headline featuring someone that has the same name as the author. Then to the journal entries that confirm your suspicion that the article you came across earlier was no coincidence. Everything falls into place and suddenly, the town you experienced by going through the book the first time round becomes another kind of beast. You go through it again and the nice pictures recede into the background and the dark pictures move forward to take their place.
There was definitely a part of me that wondered if any of this would translate… I was essentially telling my own history in a small Australian town and hoping that the world would see and give a damn. What I worked towards was making an object where I hoped something would transpire in the reader, either in familiarity from similar places that they’d been before, or unfamiliarity where they could wonder at the abject oddness of the place. Best case scenario, they would feel as alienated going through the book as I did living there, and as horrified at the end as I felt in the glorified cruelty of its residents. And perhaps, that somewhere in this personal story of living out a life where happiness should lie in perfectly manicured lawns, and yet is nowhere to be seen, there is some thread of universality.
I think that photographers who consider themselves story-tellers, whatever the nature, be it abstract, narrative or surreal, gravitate naturally towards the photo book. I also believe that these photographers all have within them, a foundational project. Something that is very squarely about what forms them as individuals and the reasons why they come alight when they’re placed in particular shooting conditions. The importance of finding out what this foundational work is, lies in how revealing it will be about oneself. And the more you know about yourself, the better equipped you’ll be in telling the kinds of stories that only you can tell… an important consideration in a world aflood with imagery.