I came across Lee Grant through a succession of coincidences but it feels like it was meant to be. Lee is a practicing photographer whose work and life are set in Canberra against the backdrop of Suburbia. With a capital S, Suburbia is a topic which has always fascinated artists. Perhaps because it can evoke such contradictory feelings. A dream and a nightmare the size of the proverbial quarter-acre block. It is with the eyes of an artist and the methodology of an anthropologist that Lee navigates what is both familiar and exotic while questioning the notions of the other, the foreign and the overlooked. Using her camera as a bridge, Lee goes under the surface and creates portraits that are both beautiful and arresting.
ALOUD: Lee, in parallel to your work at the National Gallery of Australia as an Art Handler, you are a practicing photographer, a photography teacher and a co-founder of ‘Light Journeys’, a blog about women photographers in Australia. Could you describe where your interest in photography came from and how it became such an important part of your life?
LEE GRANT: When I was 12, my mother gave me her old camera. I was always a very active and curious person and it changed my life. In the late 70s, early 80s, when magazine culture was alive and well, I used to spend hours looking through my parents’ subscriptions. I found the idea of traveling abroad and getting to know other cultures really exciting. I followed through with it until University. I had children quite young and I put photography aside for a long time. After about 10 years, I took myself back to Art school and did a Masters, which I just finished last year. Studying for five years was a really important part of my development and it really set the tone for the kind of work that I make now. It allowed me the space to fully consider my approach and interests in photography.
ALOUD: What had you studied before Photography?
LEE: Anthropology and before that, Horticulture (I’m a bit of a Jill-of-all-trades!)
ALOUD: In which ways do these inform your photography work?
LEE: Horticulture, in a weird way, has been really useful to engage with people. They are always happy to talk about their garden. My Anthropology degree has, without a doubt, had a huge influence on the way I approach my work. I have always been interested in early ethnographic imagery when we had quite colonial attitudes towards what we termed ‘primitive cultures’. In some ways, I do apply some of those principles to my own work, not in the sense that I am categorizing but rather, presenting people in a certain way or studying how they present themselves.
ALOUD: Could you describe the themes and ideas that run through your work?
LEE: A lot of my work is based in suburbia. After working for a few years in overseas development, I started to look at my own environment in a very different, more exotic way. It felt right to concentrate on my own environment (instead of a foreign one) especially in terms of my photography. After all, I know it and it’s where I live. Suburbia is symbolic of the great Australian dream: the quarter acre block, the nuclear family, the dog, the garden. It is a very simplistic idea where everybody is able to find his or her place. I am interested in the way people organize themselves and their homes, and the way they choose to present themselves to me and my camera in a more formal and considered way.
ALOUD: In the ‘Korea Project’ you explore the theme of having a mixed heritage and the ways in which people integrate other cultures and societies. Could you talk a little bit about that?
LEE: I have always thought of myself as a Westerner, as an Australian and despite the fact that my mother is Korean, I never felt very Asian. I spent some time in Korea as a child and I’m certainly not considered Korean there but growing up in Australia, especially in the 80s, we weren’t considered to be ‘genuinely’ Australian either, whatever that means. Multiculturalism wasn’t as mainstream as it is now and as a child, I hid my heritage, which is an awful thing to have to do, but it was very much about integration. I am also very interested in the dynamics of relationships between the older and younger generations of migrants and the cultural clash that often occurs between them. In Australia, I am looking at Korean women who have married Australian men and have migrated to Australia because of that marriage. Many have then gone on to have mixed children so I am also looking at the experience of those kids. I am interested in how migrants settle and how they have reinterpreted their own culture in a foreign landscape.
ALOUD: You are also the co-founder and co-curator of ‘Light journeys’, an online gallery which presents the work of women photographers from or based in Australia. Obviously, this resonates with the concept of Aloud which also focuses on creative women. Can you explain where the idea came from and how it has developed?
LEE: Light Journeys started nearly two and a half years ago and was in part born out of a personal frustration. I briefly worked in commercial photography and I hated every second of it. It was very male-dominated and quite chauvinistic. By the time I returned to photography, I was ensconced in domestic life, with two kids, at home everyday with my whole life focused, if not on the children, then on my studies and I wondered how women actually got their work out there. I met a friend (co-curator Ursula Frederick) at university and I thought she would be a great person to share the project with. It has been a wonderful opportunity to meet very inspiring women who are all at very different stages of their photographic career. It’s really exciting for me to be able to showcase the work of someone like Robin Stacey who is an established artist in her field alongside Shauna Greyerbiehl, for example, who juggles her work with familial responsibilities. It’s great being able to support someone like that. As a mother, I wasn’t sure I would be able to do everything: be a mother, a partner and a photographer so ‘Light Journeys’ was in some ways an avenue to support as well as to inspire other women, and hopefully men, that it is achievable and that there is a lot of talent out there deserving of attention.
ALOUD: My own blog focuses on women and some people don’t understand that decision. Why was it important to you when you conceived of ‘Light journeys’?
LEE: It’s not so much about separating women out from the fold, it’s about really looking. When visiting photography blogs or websites, I was constanly astounded at how male-centric many sites are. I don’t think this is necessarily conscious but the fact is that the imbalance is there and it’s not because of a lack of women who are making incredible photographs. I’m not quite sure why this is and not everyone will agree with me, but on some level I think it shows a poor curatorial effort in showing a balanced mix of approaches. Plus I think there is a very traditional and conservative attitude about how we view genres within the medium which probably doesn’t always help.
ALOUD: Do you discuss your ideas for your personal work with other people throughout the process or do you tend to keep it under wraps until it has reached a certain point?
LEE: I tend not to talk too much about my projects until I have started them but it depends who the person is. There are people who have been a part of my evolution as a photographer and I am fortunate that they are willing to give me their time to help me grow as a person and as an artist. By the same token, I don’t want to push my work out too far until I feel confident with the way it is looking, the way it is structured and how it flows. With the Belco series, I have shown it in little trickles but it has not yet been exhibited in its full form. I’m going to publish the book next year and I’ll be showing that work at the Belco art centre in Canberra. It’s a small gallery but it’s about showing the work back to the community where the work was made, which is very important to me.
ALOUD: This idea of showing the work to the people who have inspired the photographs is really interesting compared to making the work in one place and showing it on the typical art gallery circuit. I think it has a much more positive impact on the people themselves.
LEE: The project in Belco in some ways happened by accident but without it, I would have never had the guts to meet the people I met. Most of the people I approached let me photograph them. Contrary to popular opinion, most people are good people and want to connect with one another. I guess many just don’t know how. Despite our friendliness, I don’t think Australians on the whole are culturally programmed to over-share. We value our privacy but with a camera I felt I had permission to sticky-beak and to go places I wouldn’t normally. I find a level of comfort in being able to share an encounter with strangers. The exchange is always an emotional one for me. Photographing another person can be a very intimate act that I find quite moving. It’s about as close to true humanity that I feel I can get. The important part is that you have to share a bit of yourself as well, especially when you are expecting them to give themselves to you. Everyone has a story, absolutely everybody and I want to hear and share those stories through photographs. I am very grateful for the opportunities and I’ll just keep doing it until I reach the grave!
To see more of Lee’s work, visit her photography website here. You can also learn more and support the Korea Project and visit Light Journeys for monthly curated exhibitions of women photographers of Australia. Lee was selected to be part of the Highjacked vol.2 publication.
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