Poppy’s River – conversation between Adrian Hatwell and Lea Schlatter

AH

How did you discover Kaeo? What did you know about the town before you started your research, and what was it that appealed or interested you as a subject?

LS

Before I started this project I had gained prior knowledge of the town through my friends who grew up there. I understood Kaeo to be a small township with hills on either side that often fills up with water as it was built along a floodplain. I became fascinated by the idea that I was connected through these second hand stories and wanted to experience Kaeo through memories from others as I was introduced to locations that were affected by the floods. My intentions were to learn how members of the community connected with these areas of the landscape.

AH

What is the state of the town now? They have had several floods and related problems since the big ones that put them in the news in 2007 — where’s the flood-protection process at, what’s the state of the affected area, and what are the attitudes of those that live there?

LS

Yes, there have been several smaller floods and parts of the town are a bit run down. It is not unusual for the town to flood after heavy rain. The local high school often closes because people are not able to exit their driveways and cannot use the roads to get there. There was much debate for a while around what should be done to solve Kaeo’s flooding problem. The large mounds of soil or stop banks that the council put into place this year reduced some of the impact of moving rapids and has proven to be a success in reducing damage to homes near the river. I got to know Hiria Hona, who lived in one of the evicted homes next to Sanford’s, the fishery, which stopped running since the great floods in 2007. I met Hiria at the homes. This was also her first visit since she was forced to relocate. We walked through and she explained what had happened when the water was pouring in, as well as what it was like to live there before that time. The big flood was scary she said, but people are used to it and her kids were even playing in the water as it happened.

AH

How did you connect with Hiria? What did she think of your plan to photographically explore the town, and the damage done to her home?

 

LS

I connected with Hiria in my second visit. After the flood seven years ago, Hiria had relocated only a short drive away from the houses. This is where I showed her a set of images that I had already taken, she was intrigued by these and the way I saw the town. As seven years had passed since the flood she was okay with me, a stranger, having access to what was a traumatic event in her life. I began to relate our meeting with Dorothea Langes documentary work during the years of the great depression as she similarly situated herself within communities and tried to find ways to connect with her subjects. The resulting image became a combination of the subjects voice and her own. Before I photographed Hiria, I realized it is difficult to maintain a comfortable atmosphere during a portrait session. The consequences of having a camera present, is why I spent the majority of the afternoon talking to her so that this experience and relationship would be present in the photograph itself.

 

AH

There’s the school of thought that photojournalists, like Lange, should be working towards an objective report of whatever they are covering. That the photographer and their relationship to a subject shouldn’t come through in their images. It’s interesting that you relate your work to Lang, one of the most influential photojournalists, yet explicitly strive you have your own experience and relationships, have a sense of yourself, come through in the images you create – which flies in the face of the tenets of (at least in a broadly understood way) photojournalism. Why is that important to you? And do you worry that by adding or working with those elements the images might lose the kind of claim to authenticity valued by traditional photojournalism of documentary work?

 

LS

Photojournalist’s should document an event as accurately as possible, yes I agree, but how do you do this? Whether the photographer’s presence should be projected within the final picture is a constant debate that I have had with myself while exploring Kaeo. These conversations are interesting to me and I hope they are revealed in some subtle way to my audience? Is it even possible to avoid including ‘the self’ in a photograph? I  find something very beautiful about what Jonathan Kahana stated about Dorothea Lange’s documentary coverage of America:

 

It was as if the motion of these travels would, when narrated, bridge the gap between Antonio Gramsci’s contemporaneous terms, “intellectual-cerebral elaboration” and “muscular-nervous effort”: making authorship socially meaningful, in other words, by identifying it with the physical labor of travel and the migrant worker’s experience of dislocation (2013, p. 57).

 

Although documentary photography is “such an indirect discourse” as Kahana also states, I believe that it is necessary to connect with your subjects in order to tell their story accurately, and I would like to think that this subjectivity does start to leak through, at least in my own images. The same objective/subjective argument exists within archaeological photography and is something that I have been interested with in the past.

 

The portrait I took of Hiria was taken after several hours of engagement with her. The idea was that by this point she will have revealed her complete self to me. Even then, it was slightly awkward after I pulled out my camera. Almost like a barrier keeping our story from viewers of this image. This process was important to me because I thought that this attention paid to Hiria would make my images more authentic.

 

Reference: Kahana, J. (2013). Intelligence work: The Politics of American Documentary. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

 

 

AH

Can you tell me about those hours you spent interacting with Hiria and how you see that time affecting the portrait you produced? It seems that your status as an outsider to the town is rather central to the project, having started with those second-hand experiences of Kaeo – were you trying to move beyond being an outsider looking in by spending time there and getting to know Hiria? Or is the photographer’s position as someone foreign to the situation somehow intrinsic to making the coverage “socially meaningful”?

 

LS

Hiria was interested in where I had come from and I was also interested in her past. Trying to move beyond being an outsider through connecting with Hiria was definitely what I was doing but this was not at the forefront of my mind while I was getting to know her. It is something that I became aware of further into the project. I remember I showed her a photograph that she was particularly fascinated by. A picture I had taken of a weed mat in a garden. I enjoy that this was a physical object that we could both relate to. She was both confused and intrigued by the photo’s structural forms and sense of disorientation. This image is a marker of our growing relationship. In this project I wanted to make a genuine connection with Hiria. You ask whether maintaining a distance is intrinsic to making the coverage “socially meaningful.” Perhaps in some cases, but in my project it was certainly important for me to make a transition from being an outsider.

 

I see my interactions with Hiria as a way to question my thinking about the town, to question my place here and at the same time allows me to see Kaeo through a different viewpoint. I am interested in concepts of collaboration in my work and how this affects each person involved. I think spending these hours with Hiria has helped me to convey more insight for an audience.

 

Screen shot 2014-11-06 at 4.59.07 PM

 

 

AH

So how did your thinking about the town change during your time there? You must have arrived with your own preconceptions, but it sounds as though your time spent in the community has allowed you to transition from the outsider role — how do you think this is borne out in your images?

 

LS

I grew up in a rural area in Tauranga and many of the places I encountered in Kaeo felt quite familiar, less extreme than I had imagined in prior conversations. Before i arrived, I fantacised about the rundown landscapes and my imagination formed a more surreal depiction of Kaeo. After meeting people like Hiria, my outlook began to change from viewing the place as a neglected town with interesting structures to a place that I felt very close to. My images became more about the everyday and the normalcy of my situation or my attempts to connect. I think my later images express a certain warmth and a closeness. Of course connections between people have been difficult to bring through in my photographs, and there are many hidden stories linked to my photographs such as the garden image that Hiria related to. I like that my images provoke a sense of exploration, encouraging a viewer to ask questions. Perhaps because I grew up in an environment that felt similar, or because I felt welcomed by particular members of the community, my growing connections naturally come through in my work.

 

 

AH

How does the flooding and its effects fit with your feeling of familiarity and belonging – similar as Kaeo and rural Tauranga might be, the recurring trauma to the community caused by the flooding is something (I assume) is a foreign experience to you. Do you feel not having lived through the town’s shared distress and frustration limits the extent to which you can truly transition from being an outsider, or does enough empathy on both sides get the job done? A lot of photographers covering conflicts and tragedies struggle with the idea that their work is somehow inherently exploitative of those suffering from what they are covering; to some extent your reason for being in Kaeo is the flooding, were those sort of issues a concern for you during the project?

 

LS

I was able to relate on several levels but only those who have lived through a similar experience of loss can truly relate to the community’s relation to the flood.

 

Following the traumatic event in Hiria’s life and aftermath of the flood, I was very careful that my work would not exploit the people I met. The flooding was more of a starting point and does not sit at the forefront of the project, rather the relations that I formed around my investigations are at the centre of the work as they helped me to work toward an empathic response. Jennifer Blessing has talked about empathy in Rineke Dijkstra’s video installation Krazy house where Liverpool teenagers dance to acid house and rave music. Deijkstra’s work parallels mine, in that the process is almost more important than the outcome. I did not live through Hiria’s experience as Dijkstra shared the experiences of her subjects, allowing her to truly empathize. These are struggles involved in my project that has resulted in a constant shift in my sense of belonging.

 

My feeling of familiarity works in contrast and offsets this balance at times. I think building our relationship on these other levels and through understanding Hiria’s character, I was able to talk to her about the floods in a particular way in my continuing attempt to empathize.

 

 

Reference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFeBRCk3xns

 

 

AH

You were able to directly share some experiences with the wider community through the workshop you put on at Whangaroa College. You had first-hand experience of the attendees creating and destroying their Kaeo Eggs. That sounds as though it could have served as a final piece of the ‘belonging’ puzzle, moving from second-hand knowledge, to individual personal relationships, to engagement on a community level. How did that experience go for you, and how do you see it fitting into the framework of your project?

 

LS

The workshop has developed gradually over time and is still an ongoing component of the project. The actual process to make these sculptures involved a lot of preparation and a very long drying time in between, meaning that I have had to make several special trips to Kaeo. Firstly, I had to gather materials for the workshop where I worked closely with Veronica Gell, art teacher at Whangaroa College. I then introduced myself to the kids to begin making the sculptures with them which was a new experience for me and interesting in itself. I recently returned to smash the sculptures open once the geodes (Kaeo eggs) were rock solid to make the smashing experience as realistic as possible. This was almost a ceremonious kind of act for the kids and I, where we could work closely with a material that came from the river. Now I am working on ways to exhibit these sculptures that the kids have made. I have shown them in the museum and am looking for more ways to reveal them to the wider community. As I have said, this is still an ongoing part of the project that would like to draw out to the community through organizing more events and exhibitions.

 

I wanted to open up my photographic practice this year. I think this has started to happen through some of these more relational elements. My engagement with Hiria challenged the way I was used to making pictures and at the same time has allowed me to explore my chosen medium further.

 

AH

With process and experiential elements being central to the project, what do you see as the ideal way for an audience to experience it? Do you have any specific hopes for how viewers might relate to the project or what they might take away from viewing it?

 

LS

The most successful outcomes for me come from work that resides in Kaeo as these are traces that I have left behind from my visits. The workshop was initiated for Hiria and others that I have engaged with in order to give back to her and the community. It was also a strategy to open up the conversation to a wider audience. The relational elements within this project are new to me but I have enjoyed the challenges that I have been confronted with as a photographer.

 

Successful results are those that reflect an honest insight into my process. I am still working on the ideal way for an audience to experience this but I do not believe there is not a singular solution, rather I see this body of work as an evolving pool of information that can exist through different forms and in different places. I would like viewers of this work to draw something of importance from my travels and perhaps key into some of the ideas that we have discussed regarding my interactions with Hiria.

 

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