Bio. Offer us a short, snappy (not-copied-from-your-website or any publication), fun biography. Who are you?
I’m a Fijian–Italian kid who grew up in Melbourne and rebelled against her ballet-teacher mother with a camera and a skateboard at 15 years old. I ended up dropping the skateboard, getting a degree in commercial photography, then moving to New York 13 years later with 200 lbs of camera gear, some clothes, cowboy boots, and a leather jacket—thinking that I’d be a fashion photographer. (Boy, was I wrong).
I’m a film photography nerd. A Polaroid expert. A commercial photographer turned rogue social justice warrior. And I follow my heart pretty much blindly. Oh: and I can still do a double pirouette flawlessly.
Becoming. Can you identify when you first started calling yourself a photographer —when you felt comfortable naming yourself as such? How did you morph from someone who takes pictures to “photographer”?
After high school, I went to a small photo college where it was just black and white film photography in the first year and then colour film in the second. During this time, I was editing, writing, and photographing a weekly double-page column on skateboarding and other extreme sports in a metropolitan street paper called BEAT Magazine. I think back then it had a distribution of about 30,000 copies weekly. I had to call myself a photographer at 19 to gain entry and respect amongst the guys (and it was 99% guys) I was photographing for the paper.
Being. What are you working on now? Where? How? Why?
Right now I’m working on so many things. I’m at a time in my life that I’m most inspired and capturing a lot. I’ve never been busier.
I recently finished a narrative on two cancer patients who shared their stories to help others find ways to ‘live’ with cancer as opposed to ‘dying’ from it for a show at Photoville. I’ve been embedded with the Women’s March and a number of action organizations that have been fighting the Kavanaugh confirmation over the last month. I am in the midst of completing a project with Paola Mendoza and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis—taking on the current administration’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy of separating children from their parents at the border. (No, this is not over. There are 13,000 children without their parents in a tent city in Texas). I’ve been working on a piece about Women’s Rugby and I’m about to start an 18-month long community engagement, portraiture, and public art project in North Carolina, among a few other things. I’m also working on finding the time to clean my apartment and update my website.
Borrowing. Tell us a little about your artistic lineage. Who are the artists and/or works that influence you? Who or what inspires you and why?
My entire family is comprised of artists. Mum was a ballerina and has a ballet school. Dad was a graphic designer. My sister is a fashion designer. My grandfather was a musician, and his brother a renowned Italian singer. My great-grandfather was a painter, sculptor, and musician. I was doomed from the start.
I was always influenced by photography, although I may not have understood just how much I was influenced by visual art. At 15, we studied the American Civil Rights movement in our history class and I was so affected by the images from photographers like Gordon Parks, James Karales, Danny Lyon, Ernest Withers, and others. It wasn’t until I started creating social documentaries in the U.S. that I noticed how their influence flowed through my work.
My biggest influences, however, have definitely been women photographers. They carry sensitivity and depth that even now I find makes women’s work stand apart from men’s. Carrie Mae Weems, Tina Modotti, Barbara Kruger, Mary Ellen Mark, Nan Goldin, Annie Leibovitz, Sally Mann. And so many more.
Between. Discuss the relationship between you and your subjects (whether people, objects, land). What is the nature of your relationship with the things you photograph or film?
I try to put a lot of effort and time in to photographing my subjects. If I have the opportunity to spend some time with the people I’m photographing, then I usually won’t bring my camera out for quite a while—until I feel we’ve created a rapport. Of course, there isn’t time in a lot of situations, but relationship building is really important to me. I’ve realized more and more that I’m an empath. I feel and am affected by people and their stories. This can take its toll on me at times. Last week’s Kavanaugh hearings and the actions around it were particularly hard on my physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing.
Blur. Boundaries are tricky business. Can you tell us a story about the blurring of them—about the sometimes complicated ethics of photography?
Good question. We’re in a time in our history where photography is particularly important. There’s been a lot of conversation of late amongst peers and editors on non-partisan photojournalism in a time when the truth and facts are being misrepresented by the people in power. How do photojournalists and media cover one of the most divisive times in modern American history? What are the ethics behind the images you capture now? We are all artists in our own right—how do we make a decision to represent someone within a frame that isn’t tainted by our own personal viewpoint?
I’ve noticed a lot of photojournalists of late that, despite their assignment, will create images in unflattering or flattering light depending on their point of view. Or they’ll focus on a particular pose or facial expression of a subject that leans to a certain message. This could be in part the role of the photo editors also. Nevertheless, there has certainly been a shift in mood in terms of what photojournalists are putting out there. There are also photographers right now who are working really hard to balance that line despite their political leanings. I’ve talked to some about it. It’s not easy.
Me, I’m relatively new to this country. I’m also relatively new to documentary photography and I’ve struggled with the notion of having to choose between furthering my career in the photojournalism world (pursuing work for major media outlets) or following my heart and capturing imagery that I feel elevates the voices of marginalized communities and creating stories that fuel human connection: imagery that drives change so that one day we may all be seen and treated equally. My heart always wins. I’ve taken sides. I’m ok with that.
Better. How do you work towards continuous improvement, on honing your craft?
Keep shooting. Keep looking at other people’s work that moves you and try to understand why it moves you. Work on thinking of ways to make work that is impactful. Look at where all the other photographers are shooting from and find somewhere else. It’s never ending. I’ll never stop learning and honing this craft. I will always need to work to be better than I was yesterday.
Business. Can you talk a bit about the business versus the art of photography?
Oh it sucks. Ha! I hate the business. This is a constant talking point amongst my photo friends. We’re never taught that we need Service Agreements and Licensing Agreements with our clients, or how to copyright our images. And we’re not taught how to negotiate. And for the most part, as young photographers, we’re always so grateful to get the job that we don’t assert ourselves with confidence about our worth and we end up giving away rights to our photographs. It’s taken me years to learn all these things while being taken advantage of along the way. All I ever wanted to do was just take the pictures. I didn’t realize at 18, 23, 27, 30 years of age I’d end up spending 60% of my time in front of a computer editing and or negotiating or putting together and reading contracts and invoices. It takes time away from creating and I hate that. But I’m much more confident in the business now. And at the end of the day, I need to get paid. I gotta pay my bills.
Balance. When you are not photographing, what are you doing that keeps you grounded? What (else) do you do for fun?
My husband grounds me, as does surfing. In winter I go a bit crazy without the ocean. So we try to travel somewhere warm with waves. The ocean is really the only thing that re-sets and calms me. I haven’t had the opportunity to get in the water that much this year. I’ve been really overwhelmed.
Best. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever heard? (It doesn’t need to have been given to you personally or be about photography specifically).
The portrait photographer, Chris Buck, once refused to hire me as his assistant when I first moved to New York. Best thing anyone’s ever done for me. I almost cried in his living room as he told me that I was a photographer and I needed to get a job anywhere but a photo studio—so that I would spend all my free time shooting. He said to me, “The first year, you’ll be eating ramen noodles every day and pretty much living in the gutter. The second year will be a bit better, but not by much. If you haven’t made it in four years, it’s time to try something else.” I told him that “there isn’t anything else.”
I’m not sure exactly what his benchmark for “making it” actually was, or what mine is for that matter. But I’m surviving. I still love photography and that I can “kind of” live off of it. And I’m still living in and loving New York City after nine years.
I tell a lot of young photographers about this experience, then follow it up with, “You gotta really love it. Follow your heart.”