Ah, it’s nice to be back!
Kicking off a new session of interviews and profiles is Morganna Magee, a Melbourne based social documentary photographer. Her work focuses on ordinary people in extra-ordinary circumstances: a young single mother raising her son in the hospital, a father in his last moments, the elderly at risk of homelessness. On the surface, these stories might seem to be about pain, loss and despair but underneath, they are about coping, finding strength and resilience in the most trying of times. These stories are about the joy hidden amongst the folds of tragedy. “Pain is everywhere, but so is happiness.” Morganna takes us below the surface.
ALOUD: When and where did you grow up? Do you come from a creative family?
MORGANNA MAGEE: I grew up in suburban melbourne in the 80’s. My mother is an all round artist- painting, sketching and glasswork. My father was a barrister. The area I grew up in was fairly affluent and very, very quiet. When I was young I would sneak out of my bedroom window, go to the park, and sit and watch the city lights. I always had the urge to escape suburbia!
ALOUD: How and when did your passion for photography emerge?
MORGANNA: I honestly think it started because I always felt isolated and photography is the ultimate way to observe from the sidelines of life. I had a strong sense of social justice from an early age and the idea of being able to show people what the world was like from my point of view appealed.
ALOUD: Has someone had an especially strong influence on the direction of your work? Is there anyone you would consider a mentor?
MORGANNA: I’m strongly influenced by artists who tell stories with their work like Diane Arbus and Mary Ellen Mark. If you can create something which is emotionally moving but also aesthetically appealing, I think you have created something lasting.
I have taken a workshop with Mary Ellen and interned in her New York studio. She is incredible not only in the work she creates but also her energy and passion. It was reassuring to meet someone who is on the same wavelength. For a long time I had trouble finding people who were interested in this way of working.
ALOUD: How would you describe your artistic style?
MORGANNA: My work is social documentary which means I use a narrative with my photos to try and form a full view into someone’s life. I want my photos to be subtle and tender, I don’t like the obvious drama shots that much. It’s a very in-depth and time consuming way of working, and it can be very emotional.
ALOUD: Do you think that there is a difference in the way female and male photographers approach documentary work? ‘Subtle and tender’ as opposed to the ‘cowboy reporter’ style we see in the media?
MORGANNA: I don’t think it is necessarily a gender based difference. In Australia there are some brilliant documentary male photographers but the media industry is dominated by men and a lot of them, and female photographers too, do what Stephen Dupont does.
I appreciate it but It’s not really what I am interested in. I want to focus on what is going on around us unnoticed. ‘Cowboys’ are interested in the event, I’m interested in the aftermath: how people cope.
ALOUD: What are you currently working on?
MORGANNA: I’ve been working with a young single mother, Katie, and her son Jaylen. Jaylen was born with an extreme birth defect that affected his digestive system and as a result has never been able to leave hospital. Katie mothers him from a hospital room. The impact that a child’s illness has on the parents is something that needs to be explored further- it’s the ultimate display of human strength.
ALOUD: I am curious about how, as a photographer, you define the relationship with your subject over such long and intimate periods of time. Are you simply an observer or do you become a friend and even a participant?
MORGANNA: Katie is very young, she is turning 21 in a couple of weeks and I immediately felt very sisterly towards her. I don’t feel like an observer with Katie – I care about her. I feel that my photos can help her because she feels so invisible in her situation. Within the walls of the hospital, she is just a number. My work is about acknowledging what she is going through. Katie probably understands my role a little bit more than I do. She wants me there to tell her story.
ALOUD: You also shot an extensive series about the end of your father’s life and his fight with cancer. This series evokes a very different type of intimacy where being just an observer isn’t even an option. What were you trying to achieve with this series and why did you decide to expose yourself in such a public way?
MORGANNA: I photographed my father from the day he was diagnosed with throat cancer through to the day before he lost his life. It was such an unstable time in my life that having a camera on me felt grounding and so obvious at the time. it’s probably the first project that made me realise that photography is central to who I am. I know why I took the photographs but I am not sure why I had this need to display them. I think that these photographs say a lot more about me at that time than they do about my father or cancer. I was trying to say something even if it was uncomfortable: I would rather make something ugly that makes people think than something pretty which people can just walk past.
ALOUD: After spending months or years photographing a subject, how do you know a project is finished?
MORGANNA: I really struggle with knowing that something is finished, unless someone tells me to go away (laughs). When I was working at the paper, I was photographing a boy who was in the news a lot in Melbourne. When he was 3, he was diagnosed with cancer of the eye and had both eyes removed within a few weeks. He is now 10 years old and I am still photographing him. If someone gives you that access to their life and you stop, then what do you become? I came into his life as a photographer, that’s what he expects from me and that’s what the relationship is.
The series with my dad finished because he died. I think that’s why it makes it so hard to look at those photos because that’s it, it’s done and he’s done… I’m done… It’s a really strange feeling.
ALOUD: What is the most challenging aspect of your career?
MORGANNA: Trying to be everything to everybody.In my personal work I am in contact with people who are often in the middle of real trauma so I struggle to be an observer whilst still being a friend. I feel that as a photographer coming into someone’s life in the middle of stress, a stranger like me becomes a bit of a life buoy for no other reason than being around. Knowing what to do with that relationship once the camera is put away is so hard.
ALOUD: What makes it all worthwhile?
MORGANNA: I just had a show which was commissioned by an organisation called Wintringham which houses people over the age of 55 who are at risk of homelessness. We had the opening and all the people who we had photographed were glowing- so many of them have been invisible their whole lives and now they were being celebrated in a room full of people. That was a pretty incredible feeling- knowing we had played a small part in making them realise how special they are.
Morganna Magee Photographer on Facebook.
If you are an artist or designer and have turned your passion into your livelihood, I would love to hear from you and help you get the word out there. Email me at email@example.com
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