The FotoFreo Circuit – Part II

The FotoFreo Circuit – Part II

… continuing my visits to FotoFreo and FotoFreo Fringe exhibitions…

The one thing that this year’s FotoFreo Festival exhibitions won’t be accused of is being lighthearted.

The group exhibition – Timor Leste: 10 Years On – in the Moores Building brings together a combination of photographers and images that attempt to tell the story of Timor Leste pre- and post-independence. Showcased in this exhibition, which is curated by WA editorial photographer Julian Tennant, are works by Philip Blenkinsop taken while embedded with the Falinitil guerillas a year prior to the Independence vote and the bloodshed occasioned by the Indonesian-backed militia.

Blenkinsop’s argentine prints, mingled with his own blood and inscribed with china ink, tell the story of the guerillas’ year in the jungle through a series of portraits and documentary photographs. The images are intense and claustrophobic with Blenkinsop’s precise handwriting and dry blood framing each picture and ominously foreshadowing what must historically come next.

On the flip side, Matthew Sleeth’s Tour of Duty series exposes the farcical sideshow in Australia’s political relationship with East Timor during those troubled times. These images show a kind of Australian colonialisation of East Timorese spaces, with the camera giving focus to Aussie-BBQs held by and for Australian soldiers, the hard-core pornographic pin-ups in officers’ quarters, a sign that proudly proclaims that an Australian brand of chocolate milk is now available in East Timor. There is no trace of any East Timorese in Sleeth’s photographs, nor any reference to the civil unrest for which the Aussies were in Timor Leste. They could be images from a boys’ weekend taken from someone’s Facebook photo album.

In between Blenkinsop’s and Sleeth’s visions are works by Australian, French and East Timorese photographers that cover the gamut of events and experiences in the 10 years since the island nation’s independence. Particularly striking are Agnes Dherby’s photographs of home-births in the villages of East Timor — a slice of life documentary series that simple and honestly presents things “the way they are”, without asking for judgment or sympathy. Dino Soares’ series of haunting images and portraits, entitled Nightmare, give us a stylised re-representation of the dark days pre- and post-independence. Martine Perret’s portraits of transvestites and transexuals in Dili sensitively shows that even within emerging nations, the marginalised still struggle for acceptance and identity.

The works in the Fremantle PrisonSilence by Brad Rimmer and The Blue Room by Eugene Richards – are almost companion pieces. Rimmer’s photographs are of locations and people of the West Australian wheatbelt towns, particularly the place of his birth, Wyalkatchem (Wylie), while Richard’s series delves into the spaces within and around abandoned farm houses in rural United States.

Silence is, despite its title, a disquieting series of images of people and places that bear witness to an ineffable sense of loss. As Rimmer notes, the amalgamation of rural shires may mean the loss of identity for local communities in the wheatbelt. Coupled with the exodus of the young from these townships, there is a very palpable sense of stoic grief permeating the human geography in these photographs. This series holds autobiographical significance for the photographer, who finds himself losing all connection to these rural communities as, one by one, his family and relatives who have been his link to Wylie move on, or pass on.

This sense of unsettling quietude and disconnection continues in The Blue Room, where Richard’s depictions of decay and squalor in abandoned farmhouses give insight into lives no longer lived. Richards brings his lens to objects remaining in these environments – the remnants of dolls, clocks which have long stopped, old photographs in weathered frames, moth-eaten furniture, dishes discarded in long-dry sinks, a wedding dress left hanging in a dirty wardrobe – as testament to the passage of Time and the lives abandoned in its wake. Some photographs show the intrusion of the external world into these decaying museums – a shattered window creates a pile of snow on an old bed; sunlight creeps in through tattered curtains to mark out the detritus in a room with red walls; while others include a disturbing note of violence – a half-eaten sheep’s carcass frozen in a snowfield. We are left with the impression of bearing witness to something so long ago gone that all that remains are artefacts from which we can only vaguely piece together what has come before.

In the Fremantle RSL Club Wyola, on High Street, are profoundly moving photographs of Bangladeshi women by Caitlin Harrison. Harrison’s exhibition, Shundori Mahila, is part of the FotoFreo Fringe Festival, and shows us the disparity between the status of men and women in Bangladesh.

Harrison photographs and presents the stories of women who have survived domestic abuse and acid attacks by those who purport to covet them, and those who have been maneuvered into a life of prostitution from which they cannot escape. These  gut-wrenching and heart-breaking photographs, accompanied by direct quotes from these women, pack a punch: from the woman whose husband to be threw acid on her face, and who was then forced to marry him to save him from prison; to Farida who survived a horrendous acid attack from her husband; to the girl who was forced into prostitution and then gang-raped by a group of men in the red light district of Dhaka. Harrison spent five months working with various Bangladeshi women from activists to acid attack survivors and the images in Shundori Mahila give their voice a new audience.

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