Your story in few lines, with a peculiar hint on your formative age
I was born in Fiji (in 1965) to Australian parents. My father was a radio technician at Nadi International Airport, my mother a nurse at the Hospital where I was born. My first memories, very happy ones, were from there. My family lived many places in and around Australia throughout my childhood, remote and isolated, wonderful places. Highlights were living in Papua New Guinea and also on Cocos Keeling Islands. It was there I really became aware of the natural world around me. I recall vividly, next to our house, a little lagoon with perfect white sandy beach, part of the reef that surrounded the entire coral atoll. The reef was absolutely completely alive, it teemed with abundant tropical sea-life of every colour and shape, endlessly beautiful. We caught fish easily with bare kooks, there were so many. I returned there 30 years later, the beach had been replaced by massive concrete blocks from Hauser Contractors, the lagoon had gone, the reef was all but dead and the sea-life scarce. In 30 years, natural perfection and abundant life that had taken millions of years to form had been virtually destroyed. This had quite an impact upon me.
Picturing is recalling but also understanding and some time with one picture you have the responsibility to create a first, and comprehensive, understanding.
At a certain extent, photography could be a memento to help in impossible missions. You (and another Melbourne photographer, Heath Campbell) engaged in a massive collection of people portraiture in a special archipelagic state, and UN member, Kiribati (Oceania) where your art will be supporting a population of more than 100.000 directly threatened by climate change, forced to a quick displacement due to the rising sea level.
Is Your Brother, Your Sister, your non-profit initiative, also a way to proof that independent photography is very able to make a change?
The most a photographer can hope for is that their images can bring about awareness and/or help people to think and feel differently. By that mechanism, images can and have changed the world. Photography should be done responsibly and thoughtfully in my opinion. Heath and I took our cameras to Kiribati, admittedly with some loose plans in mind, but it took us both several days to start shooting. First we wanted the place and people we met to ‘guide’ us as to what was right for us to shoot. It’s a bit hard to put into words, I like it when the camera is a small part of the experience. The I-Kiribati are among those most at risk of climate change yet least able to do anything about it. It is imperative that we in more developed nations are aware of the impact our way of life has on the most vulnerable. I have to add that the effects of man made climate change are definitely not the only danger. We have chosen to document a cross section of contemporary life as a means of raising awareness and hopefully reducing the threat.
Donating to your project is helping also the Tungaru Central Hospital. Which kind of need the population has in practical terms today? And when the massive displacement will start?
Kiribati is one of the poorest countries. It receives a lot of aid which keeps it functioning and their government does a very admirable job in using its limited resources to prepare for the future. It’s clearly not easy, there are many challenges. Fresh water is the most urgent, there seems little doubt about that. Others include, food sustainability, sanitation, population growth, education and employment opportunities, pollution, the list goes on and is long. You can hire lawyers for employment discrimination charges from here!
You spent intense days picturing in a simple way happy people who were maybe unaware about the fact you’re bringing their stories – and their joy of living despite all – in the place where the governments decide their death or life: the Paris summit on Climate Change, today when this interview is happening.
How many days you worked on site – and why mainly on daytime?
Will you report back to them on how the reaction of the other part of the world has been?
I’m not the first photographer to be surprised by how happy the people are. I have travelled extensively and the I-Kiribati I encountered (please excuse me for generalising) are the most fun loving, happy, warm, generous and kind I have met. I have thought a lot about this and a few ideas stay with me. Living in the moment and enjoying themselves seems ‘normal’. Also, being very close to family and community, lack of greed, sharing responsibilities, being very active (children especially are so dynamic and agile), not dwelling on negativity. We were completely clear about our project and felt truly welcome and appreciated. We shot for 7 days, it was wonderful but exhausting. Some of the day is too hot and the light not pleasant, we would rest and edit photos. Getting around is harder than I had anticipated, there is really only one road on the main island of Tarawa and it is under re-construction. It can take over 2 hours to cover 30 kms by crowded and hot minibus. Nighttime is very dark, no street lights and generally hard to work in.
Which could be the next step of the project after the Paris exhibit?
We will exhibit in Australia and New Zealand. We have had great support from the Kiribati government, we hope they will also display our images and help distribute prints to people who appear in them. Within 12 months we will photograph for the project in other similar parts of the Pacific and return to Kiribati also.
How much are you conscious to be a poet of the unknown when you undertake humanitarian or health self-commissioned works as the Kiribati reportage?
For me, poetry, like music, emotion and feelings can permeate any working experience whether documentary or artistic in nature. Like an aether within, travelling through experiences with me, guiding, helping me to really appreciate and comprehend, sometimes to comfort. Some of what I have photographed is confronting and shocking and ‘processing’ what I’ve witnessed can take time later. Poetry can be a great source of comfort and way of appreciating that my experiences and that of the people I have photographed are not in isolation.
Which is a good way to start reportage photography for those begin today during the widest crisis of traditional publishing systems?
I’m hardly the best one to give advice but I would say, don’t worry too much about where the images will be published, concentrate on getting great photos. Learn what you need to from wherever you can then let your interests, concerns and feelings guide you. Choose some subjects you are drawn to and start building on bodies of work, be versatile though, it could be a while before you can live on shooting only what you love. Make projects for yourself, keep adding to and improving those bodies of work then it will be easier to get them published.
How is hard to start and keep on as entrepreneur in your field today in your city, or in general, in Australia?
Digital photography is like a double edged sword, easier in many ways, harder in others. Like any field though, very hard work is essential for most of us. I think there are fewer ‘millionaire’ photographers around and this means the work is shared among more. I am a supporter of the ‘stop working for free’ principle though and believe fair payment for good work is very important everywhere. Charity is also important but there’s a difference known as capacity to pay.
Which encounters do you normally have in your daily work routine? Please make a portrait of one of these
My days are very varied. I find if I am not too busy, I can enjoy any aspect of photography. Being organised helps keep me working at an enjoyable pace.
Which is the most important achievement after you started to work as photographer? And as being one of the people from this world?
Realising that even if it’s only in a small way, if what I am doing is (overall) benefiting others then I can love doing it and somehow it leads to more and is sustainable.
How do you combine the slowness of the family life and the ‘schizophrenia’ of your peculiar activity?
They actually work well together, balance each other out. My wife is wonderful and I couldn’t do it without her help though.
Describe a fantastic happening you have had in recent time?
Waking up. Not really, people say stuff like that but I’m not a morning person at all. Many things but watching my three daughters grow up (they are 7 and twins at 5) is too fantastic for me to describe. The Kiribati experience was filled with fantastic moments, communicating with people there, especially the kids actually, really great energy. I recently photographed a young boy who (after eye surgery) was able to see for the first time. That was quite emotional too.
What your city is giving to you and vice versa?
I think ‘how’ I am is more important than where I am. Melbourne is a fine city but it is vital for me to be in other places fairly often.
Which is your favourite wine or drink?
Definitely water, coffee next.
Which is your music or the book(s) with you now (and on which kind of side table or desk the book(s) lies down now)?
I like well played cello, I’m crazy about it, nothing quite compares. Hildur Guðnadóttir is very well appreciated. This moment I’m listening to Atomos X11 by A Winged Victory for the Sullen. I don’t read very often, there is usually a National Geographic nearby though, somewhere on our gigantic sofa.
In which way do you try to live “slow”, if you like to do so, in a city as yours?
I find it very hard to do so, we have a young family. Again, escape to where I can’t access any images to edit. Find deserted beaches.
Which is a talent you have and the one you miss?
I’m not sure yet, I may not have any. I wish I could play cello (or even guitar).
Where do you see yourself within 10 years?
That could spoil the fun. Close to my family of course.
What have you learnt from life until now?
Be aware that your actions have consequences and that you are responsible for those consequences. Get yourself to interesting places and be where you are.
To learn more about Darren James and Heath Campbell’s Your Brother Your Sister project and to donate to help or to buy archival quality prints: