Revealing the Beauty, Wonder, and Struggle Within Everyday Life: Interview with “Oculi”, Australian Photography Collective

Oculi Interview

Eric’s Note: I am very excited to share this interview that I did with the members of Oculi, one of the most established photography collectives in Australia. Their members are diverse and practice many different styles of photography including documentary, fine art, reportage, street photography, and more.

Their current members are: Donna Bailey, James Brickwood, Lee Grant, Claire Martin, Nick Moir, Jeremy Piper, Andrew Quilty, Raphaela Rosella, Dean Sewell, David Maurice Smith and Tamara Voninski, with former members including: Narelle Autio, Warren Clarke, Nick Cubbin, Tamara Dean, Glenn Hunt, Jesse Marlow, Trent Parke and Steven Siewert.

To find out more about Oculi and their philosophies, read on!

To start off, what does “Oculi” mean and what is the goal, manifesto, or the mission statement the collective?

© Tamara Voninski / Oculi

Tamara Voninski: The word ‘Oculi’ is derived from Latin, meaning vision or eye. Oculi was formed in 2000 as a photographic collective to create a publishing outlet for our personal projects and images in an editorial climate where there were few opportunities to publish or present work that crosses the realms of documentary and art photography.

The “single” images are showcased monthly on the Oculi site as an insight and poetic visual narrative of the world in which we live in Australia & beyond. Our strength is, in my opinion, from the vision to represent Australia and the region beyond the stereotyped and superficial representation as well as the non-commercial artistic nature of a unique and strong-willed cast of characters who pursue their ‘vision’ and story-telling above all else.

Currently there are eleven photographers in Oculi – Donna Bailey, James Brickwood, Lee Grant, Claire Martin, Nick Moir, Jeremy Piper, Andrew Quilty, Raphaela Rosella, Dean Sewell, David Maurice Smith, and Tamara Voninski–  with different styles and perspectives working with the collective vision of an ‘art-house movement’ to expose, exhibit and promote images of contemporary Australia. Outside Australia, Oculi is represented by the Paris based Agence VU (since 2003).

Our manifesto remains this: “At the heart of our projects, lies a central conviction – to reveal the beauty, wonder and struggle within everyday life; to show the extraordinary in the ordinary.”

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What are some benefits you have personally gained by being part of Oculi – and why do you feel it is important to be part of a collective?

© Claire Martin / Oculi

Claire Martin: Oculi has, since it’s inception been the defining collective representing journalism, documentary and art photography in Australia. When trying to find my start in photography a number of years ago I met with some photography institutions overseas like Foto 8, VII Agency etc, for portfolio reviews and the like.  Many of them mentioned that as an Australian I should look at the Oculi collective. I looked at their website and felt an immediate fit with the quality, style and drive for excellence. A couple of years later I was lucky enough to join Oculi.

On the same point it is Oculi’s recognition internationally as a collective of note that is one of the largest benefits. As a freelancer this provides an enormous network of people who contact us or who I can contact, confident that they will recognize the name of Oculi. The affiliates like Agence VU who distribute our work are equally beneficial.

It’s important to be part of a collective because it can lessen the load as an individual. We have 11 people pushing us forward, not just one. Eleven peoples networks, presence, social media, ideas all coming together can be more powerful than one. It’s a solitary pursuit really, so it’s nice to have a network of good people who you admire and respect surrounding you that have the same goals.

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Describe the photography scene in Australia for those who may not be familiar with the landscape. How does the general public view street photography, documentary, as well as fine art? It is a popular and growing field, or still a small niche?

© Donna Bailey / Oculi

Donna Bailey: The photography scene in Australia is buzzing with a vibrant and creative energy and Australian photographic practitioners are imaginative, thoughtful and defiant in their approaches. The general public enthusiastically engage with all forms of Australian photographic practice and usually embrace the changes and challenges that it casts.

I am fortunate enough to be actively participating in the Australian photography scene and have done so since the late 1990s. I have had the opportunity to exhibit widely, to teach photography and to publish my work.  These sorts of opportunities exist for many contemporary photographic practitioners in Australia.

The Oculi collective comprises of eleven artists, each of whom are unique in the way that they picture the world around them.  Although we have a collective vision, what makes us stand apart is the way in which we value our distinctive perspectives. The Australian landscape features strongly across all forms of Australian photographic practice and Oculi photographers have consistently represented this land and its inhabitants via forms of street photography, art photography and documentary.

I have been a member of the collective Oculi since 2006 and during that time I have seen many changes in photography in Australia, particularly with regards to censorship.  I believe that this has deeply influenced the scene in Australia.  That is not to say that it has been restrictive, but it has perhaps offered a platform for more ideas. I am inspired by the photographic work of many Australian artists and I love the way in which forms of street photography, documentary and photojournalism keep pace with fine art photography.

What I mean by this is that the various genres and fields of photography regularly intersect and merge with one another. For me, this is one of the most appealing aspects of Australian photographic practice.

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How is taking photographs in Australia unique from anywhere else in the world?

© Nick Moir / Oculi

Nick Moir: Shooting in the southern hemisphere is very different to the north, vastly less pollution in the atmosphere leads to a harsher bluer light which really pushes you into photographing in the dawn and dusk periods. But as far as photographing in Australia, we are quite an isolated photographic community and this makes it hard to gain international attention, despite the uniqueness of Australia and of course its environment.

The ‘bush’ in Australia constantly delivers images of beauty, power and awe, but it requires skill, time, money and patience to find them in this vast continent. The intense ochre colours of inland Australia and the strong clean light lead to the contrasty, saturated colours which can be instantly recognized as of this land.

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It is reported that even famous collectives and agencies (Magnum comes to mind) have many internal debates and squabbles. What are some of the difficulties that one can experience being part of a larger collective?

© Jeremy Piper / Oculi

Jeremy Piper: Over time you do get personalities within the group that clash over internal issues and some pretty veracious debate over the direction for the group. The internal group email is a great archive of conversations over the past 12 years that have at times been quite heated, but looking back very amusing.

We have lost members because of the differing views. Issues that have surfaced from time to time would be the idea of more of a commercial “trolley cart” sales approach with a vast image bank of images for sale versus the independent artist in control over their own images. That conversation never really lasts all that long, it is usually shut down pretty quickly.

The approach of staying as a collective that shies away from the mainstream photo agency commercial model has been the key to our success over the years. Money hasn’t been a driving distraction for the group and we have structured it so there are minimal overheads that are equally split between the group when needed and that has been really important for keeping the group strong and not distracted with administration issues that can cause friction.

Oculi is full of strong-minded and opinionated creative personalities each willing to express their personal views and sometimes not in the most diplomatic way.  The process of putting together our 10 year anniversary book, our touring exhibition “Terra Australis Incognita” (now in its second year) and the rebuilding of our third website in 2010 all at the same time had a huge effect on the group.

The make-up of Oculi is spread across many members who have differing commitments and responsibilities outside of Oculi. There is the obvious juggling act to balance family life for some members, the work commitments and the on-going personal photographic projects we all do. It’s the diversity of the group that allows this to be achieved with members taking on responsibilities when others are committed.

Emails on a particular topic can bounce around between the group for months with everyone having an input or it can be left to a few members to joust it out between themselves while the others watch on with amusement. If an issue hasn’t been resolved after everyone has voiced their thoughts we fall back to the democratic process of a Yes or No vote and the numbers have it. Decision made!

Perfect example: After long discussions over the design for the cover of our 10 year anniversary book, each member submitted an image for consideration. Thinking that this could be another long drawn out process it became the quickest and easiest decision that was made over the eighteen months it took to produce. Unanimously Dean Sewell’s image of a torched kangaroo lying against a burnt landscape was an easy choice for all. It represents the group in its style with its raw honesty and respect to its subject.  It is seen to be controversial by some outside the group, but opinions have never swayed us as a group.

The basic make up of Oculi as a group is that we all want to shoot pictures, how we successfully continue to do that and grow simply comes down to that.

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Oculi published a book on the work of all the members in the collective. What were some of the difficulties of putting the book together, and what do you do differently if Oculi puts a future book together?

Oculi Interview

The book “Oculi” was published by the group to celebrate our ten-year anniversary in 2010. The planning logistics and production were quite intensive and we worked again with the fantastic designer Sasha Dobies.

The one thing we will do differently for our next book projects involves the size of the books.  Being located on the far-away island of Australia and producing a big heavy book makes the postage costs very expensive via airmail. Therefore, the “Oculi” book price includes free sea freight postage.

You can see all of the Oculi photography books here.

Since the inception of Oculi in 2000, how has Oculi changed and evolved over these 12 years?

© Dean Sewell / Oculi

Dean Sewell: When Oculi was first created, the focus of the group members was concerned primarily with social documentary and street photography genres. As we developed both personally and as a collectively, so did our acceptance of more conceptual based philosophies and practices. I think that a large part of our ongoing success has been due to our open mindedness and willingness to adapt to the ever-changing visual landscape brought about by online publishing.

At Oculi, we developed an early understanding that our survival as a group would lie in broadening the scope of what we could offer as a collective. Certainly, our affiliation with Agence Vu lifted the bar in what we would produce. Our work, procured mostly, but not exclusively from our immediate region (Australia, South East Asia and the Pacific) would be subject to international scrutiny. Perhaps one of our more enduring philosophies would be our commitment to the nurturing and fostering of emerging young talent.

We simply did not adopt a policy of cherry picking established talent. Instead we incorporate committed young professionals of promise to our stable. As natural attrition once again forces us to re-evaluate our cornerstone philosophies and validity as a collective, we answer these questions through the ongoing replenishment of our talent pool, a process that has carried Oculi for the past decade.

Today, in keeping with technological advancements and the development of new media platforms Oculi finds itself on the precipice of yet another physical transformation, and prepare ourselves, through the in-house rebuild of our site, for the challenges that await us in the new digital age.

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Oculi also works on commissions and is represented by L’Agence VU. How do you find your personal style influencing your commissioned work?

© Andrew Quilty / Oculi

Andrew Quilty: I think one’s personal style pervades all their work whether it be personal or commissioned. Essentially, we want to be commissioned because the client appreciates our work and therefore one would assume that the client is hoping to receive the work that they have commissioned in a style similar to that for which they are known. The main difference, I find is time.

When undertaking a commission, time is always tight and often you have a number of subjects to tick off with only a limited amount of time in which to photograph them. With personal work, this is less often the case because you are not constrained by deadlines, nor do you necessarily have to tick off any boxes.

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Where would you like to do your next personal project, and what would be the concept behind it?

© James Brickwood / Oculi

James Brickwood: I’m currently working on some test shots down on the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales for a trip to the Alps next March.  Like my Tempelhof series, it will be exploring how the human figure moves within its environment. For Temepelhof, the idea of having a commercial airport closed and turned into a public park is unheard of. It’s a really unique space. These days it is rare for such a large space, so central within to a European capital city to be handed over to the people. It’s also an environment usually void of human contact. For my trip to the Alps, I really want to play on the size of the Alps and what drives humans to explore such difficult terrains.

I will be shooting it on 5×4 black & white with the intention to hand-print the series. It’s a different process from what I’m used to, a much slower way of working. But one thing I’ve noticed over the last couple of years is that my frame rate has slowed down, I’m not shooting as much on a particular subject. Trying to make every frame count or at least be a little more calculated. So using large format will be an extension of that.

I just got back from a trip to Germany for three months to participate in a German language course. It was also a time to chill out and reflect. My full-time work at The Sydney Morning Herald has been rather consuming and I haven’t shot much for myself over the last 12 months. So it’s been a great time to re-energise and get creative once again. Germany is such a beautiful country and I would love to work on more projects over there in the future.

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Your recent in-depth projects focus on a world that many have little access to. What prompted you to choose this subject matter and how did you gain the access and trust to photograph intimate moments behind the scenes?

© Raphaela Rosella / Oculi

Raphaela Rosella: “We met a little early, but I get to love you longer” stems from the reaction I had when my twin sister told me she was pregnant. I was angry; I called her a slut and told her to get an abortion; all because I thought she could have a better life.

But what is a better life? I realized that my initial reaction framed my sister’s pregnancy as a social problem. Similarly, most dominant discourses do not consider that becoming a mother at a young age, under certain circumstances, may be a rational choice. With teenage pregnancy common in my hometown, each of the young women’s stories were close or personal to me in some way.

I find it hard to use the word ‘access’ when discussing my work. The moments I have captured particularly with Mimi & Gillianne were experiences I would have shared regardless of the project. For instance; visiting baby Lachlan’s grave with Gillianne and the kids on the anniversary of his passing.

The women featured in “We met a little early, but I get to love you longer” were either my family or women who I knew from my childhood or teenage years. Each of the women let me into their lives and let me tell their stories and I can’t thank them enough.

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What drives you to create your long-term projects?  Tell us about one of your recent projects and how you were drawn to photograph within this sub-culture? 

© David Maurice Smith / Oculi

David Maurice Smith: Long-term projects allow access to stories in a totally different way. The shooting becomes as much about gaining trust and building relationships as it does about seeing and capturing great images. This is part of the attraction for me to these types of projects… a genuine connection with the people I am photographing. For a long-term project to work for me there has to be some kind of deeper connection to the story and the people involved.

Intimacy is something I strive for in my pictures and while it can (and often does) happen quickly, with many stories it takes time. Sometimes I have to watch a good picture come and go without taking a shot because I just know that the rapport is not there yet and I need to be patient. There is a time and a place for an amazing single image that tells a story in itself, I guess I am just more drawn to collections of images that become greater than the sum of their parts.

Also on a different level, the satisfaction that comes from getting “lost” in a long term project is almost unbeatable. Spending weeks at a time totally immersed in chasing pictures, cutting yourself off from outside distractions and hitting a groove, I live for that.

I have recently started shooting a project in a rural Aboriginal Community in Australia called Wilcannia. It has a reputation as a very rough town with conditions strikingly similar to those found on the reserves of North American Native people: poverty, poor health, violence, abuse and gross social inequality.

Prior to becoming a photographer I was in Social Work and spent several years working with Native people in Canada so admittedly I am quite liberal and empathize with the plight of Aboriginal people. I think what has happened and continues to happen despite being complex is just a massive injustice. So initially when the chance to go to Wilcannia presented itself I knew I had to make it work. That was in 2010 and the project has since taken on a life of its own and become very, very meaningful to me.

Beyond just documenting the conditions that exist in this town, it has become about looking at the fabric of a community that although damaged, dysfunctional and flush with self-harm, carries on. There is celebration and loss, happiness and frustration, hope and despair… diverse elements of community that are hidden by the shadow associated with the stereotypes hanging over their heads.

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What are some current projects or initiatives that Oculi are currently working on?

© Lee Grant / Oculi

Lee Grant: Well we’ve just recently overhauled our website with a new look and you could say that this is reflective of a new direction as well. I’ve only recently joined Oculi, but am excited by some of the ideas that we’ve got as a group in terms of moving forward.

We’re a very diverse bunch with 11 different ways of looking at the world – which can sometimes be tricky – but this is ultimately, also our strength. So of course we all have our own individual projects that we are working on whilst also committing to projects collectively. The nice thing about making work as a group is that we have the opportunity to share our work with one another. Twentytwo critical eyes are always better than just two. But we also have the group’s historic reputation – built up over many years – to help get projects funded and going and this can make a big difference as to whether or not a project happens.

So some of the projects we are working towards include: Oculi workshops, a new group project which will culminate in a group exhibition and hopefully a digital book app (digital media is an area we are very interested in exploring further). The printed photo book is also something we love very much and we are planning a series of small, more handcrafted and limited edition books that will provide a platform for us to also showcase our individual work under the Oculi umbrella.

So lots of exciting things lined up, stay tuned and watch this space!

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If you want to discover more about Oculi, check out the links below!