Talking To My Country – Stan Grant

What does it mean to be Australian? Is it just living in the country? But who defines those borders? Does it mean some kind of shared “Australian” values? Who says what we value and when those change? Or does it mean some kind of deeper connection with this country, its land and its history?

These are the kinds of questions that Stan Grant wrestles with in his book, Talking to My Country, a response to the Adam Goodes “booing” scandal last year and the debate throughout the country as to whether it was racist (it was). Inspired by Te-Nahisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Stan Grant writes a personal account of his experience as an Aboriginal man growing up in Australia, and the challenges that come with that. Australia inherently treats Aboriginals differently to every one else, as Grant says “Whenever we enrol in school, apply for a job or join a sports team: there is a box to tick that asks if we are Aboriginal or Islander. No one else is asked this.”

So what does it mean to be Australian? Is it living within the country? Grant reminds us that there were hundreds of nations that existed on the land before the European came to say it was just one. Is it some kind of shared value? Grant says that government records show that the Aboriginal people have been defined and redefined sixty-seven times, values constantly shift, but who says what those values are? But if being Australian is some kind of deeper connection to the land and its history, then I think that most of us would be guilty of not being Australian.

Grant points out that the country of Australia was built at the expense of the Aboriginal people, and how history often ignores how they resisted this change and were subsequently massacred in a “war of extermination”. A history that is clearly marked by places named “Poison Waterhole Creek“, where European settlers poisoned the water supply of Aboriginal families because they were “annoyed” at the Aboriginals on “their land”, but is often ignored by the wider society despite being in plain sight.

“…because the darkness of our past often goes unspoken, does not mean it doesn’t plague us.”
– Stan Grant

As a first generation migrant, my history with this country only stretches back so long. I am neither of this country, nor of any country, a feeling that I increasingly feel every time I leave Australia and come subsequently come back. But my documents say that I am Australian, despite whatever my feelings are, and with that comes a responsibility to know what this country is. Especially now, when the country’s values and it’s place in the world are shifting under our feet. To call oneself Australian should mean to understand what Australia was and what Australia is now, so that we can properly see what is we are becoming.

Digital Dump

I’ve got a new phone with a camera that doesn’t take photos on a 10 second delay. In fact, it’s a phone advertised for its camera, but I don’t particularly care about whether it has a red dot or not, as long as it works. And it does. So I’ll be periodically dumping some photos I’ve taken with it on this blog, because hey I can do what I want its my blog.

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State Library of NSW Galleries

Apart from being a library, the State Library of NSW also plays host to various art exhibits throughout the year, usually revolving around photography or exhibitions with a historical slant. The library is hosting three photographic exhibits currently: the Nikon-Walkley Press Photography exhibition, Next Door – a series of photographs on Australian suburbia, and their major exhibit Planting Dreams – a look at contemporary garden design.

While the State Library hosts the World Press Photos event yearly, it also plays host to the Nikon-Walkley Press Photography exhibition which focuses on Australian photojournalism. Like with most photojournalism exhibitions, you shouldn’t really walk in expecting an uplifting time. This year had the usual powerful images of war zones, confronting images of poverty and violence in Australia and the whimsical and extraordinary sports photos, the standard affair when it comes to photojournalism. The exhibition isn’t really that big though, only being eight double sided boards next to the entrance to the library.

Upstairs in the hallway gallery they had the Next Door exhibit by Paul Blackmore, a series of B&W photographs of suburbian homes. Blackmore captures a variety of moments in the suburbs, some candid and others posed, but all with an intimacy that makes people’s homes feel welcoming. What impressed me the most was the range of yards on display, branching out from just white families to include other ethnicities, such as Vietnamese and Chinese, and also his subtle jab at the economic differences, shooting the front gate to one of the upscale houses, making it seem like it was the most unwelcoming of places.

The major exhibit on at the library is Planting Dreams, a look at contemporary garden design through photography and art. While most of the gardens photographed seem grand and out of reach for the person, I do enjoy a good garden regardless, as they require a high level of duty and care to maintain. The first part of the exhibition shows off large backlit photos arranged in an almost maze like manner, making you walk around explore the space much like a garden maze. In the gallery wings, there are more standard photos some very nice looking (and expensive) gardens. While landscape photography generally isn’t my thing, these photos were hard not to be impressed by. Toward the back of the gallery space, the exhibition takes a more historical turn dealing with the history of garden design in Australia all the way back to the founding of Sydney and the Aboriginal influence on gardens.

With the three exhibitions on, its hard to pass up a quick visit to the State Library for a casual stroll through if you’re in the area.

On Photography – Susan Sontag


After a certain point with photography, when I had the technical basics of photography and cameras down, I became a lot more interested in how photograph approached their work and their art. I’d previously read Setting Sun, a series of essays on photography (or around photography, sometimes they barely mentioned taking photos at all), and Araki had mentioned the writing of Susan Sontag. After stumbling upon her book on sale at Kinokuniya, I thought that was serendipitous enough to jump on.

Unlike other essays I’d previously read, Susan Sontag herself isn’t a photographer – she’s more known for her writing, filmmaking and activism. Reflecting that, her essays aren’t necessarily about the act of photography, but the implications of it. Also being an art critic, she takes a somewhat scholarly approach to her writing. But Sontag insights are held in high praise, not so much because people agree with her thoughts, but more that she helps to shine a light on the implications of our photo culture and frame the conversation around it.

In her series of essays, she talks about a range of topics such as how photography is appropriation since we “take” photos, wrenching images from the real world into the abstraction of a photograph¹, to whether photography is an art and whether that even matters. She also delves into our culture, which places so much emphasis on images that photos become the default way we experience the world, such as a tourist snapping a photo as a way to make the experience real.

There’s a lot to stew on in her essays and it often feels like she raises so many little bits of insight that deserve their own essay, but she blows past them to serve her grander point. The other frustration I have with reading this book is Sontag’s scholarly writing, filled with references to photographers, painters, philosophers and art movements that someone who doesn’t have a historical understanding of art or an education in it (like me) can often feel lost as she attempts to justify her stances.

But while it’s not exactly a leisurely book, the insights gleaned from On Photography are invaluable. Sontag isn’t concerned about the trivial matters of what or the how of photography, but in the why and implications of photography on society, and its essential reading for anyone who thinks of photography as an art.

¹ She goes as far as to say that photography is an act of “rape”, since you’re appropriating someone or something’s image for your own purposes, a notion that Araki was all gleefully happy to agree with in one of his essays in Setting Sun. And while I can see how some types of photography can be considered that, just look at Bruce Gilden’s close-up flash images of strangers on the street or the plethora of internet street photographers, but I don’t think I agree that all photography is that aggressive. This might be worth an essay on its own.