August 14, 2020
Photography | Suzanne Phoenix
Words | Melanie Meggs
Late in March 2020 Coronavirus entered the common vernacular of Australians. Our borders were closed, and social distancing rules started, followed by the state government of Victoria closing ‘non-essential’ services. The places we gathered including pubs, clubs, festivals and sports were shut down. For Victorian photographer Suzanne Phoenix who is usually documenting live music and performances, festivals, street photography and daily life, her entire occupation ground to a halt. Spending the first few weeks in fear of who was going to die, and every moment being consumed by the virus, daily walks were a sanctioned luxury where Suzanne could go outside and be in nature.
On one of her daily walks, Suzanne met people from two households who let her photograph them. A man seated in his driveway who volunteered that he hadn’t had a drink for ten days and a woman massaging a sick chook that was wrapped in a tea towel. These encounters gave her the idea to document local households if she was able to reach them on foot. Subsequently, Suzanne made a series of intimate portraits and the Project “Isolation Portraits” was hatched. The photographs were made starting on 18th April and capture households located in the Upper Yarra, an area of the Yarra Valley that finishes at the very edge of greater Melbourne. Safety precautions and social distancing measures were kept, and all photos of the households capture people just as they were in isolation, no one dressed up for their photographs. Suzanne’s project documents an eclectic community, including drag kings, cowgirls, families, and their many and varied pets.
Photography for Suzanne has always been the love of her life, learning the importance of photographs from her family, especially her grandmother. “My Nana was terrible at it, always with a thumb over the lens, a shadow, or missing the subject completely,” Suzanne says fondly of her grandmother. “I now adore and treasure her photos, they are completely surreal, you couldn’t make these photos if you tried.” Photographing since before she was ten years of age, she got more serious about it around 2012. Suzanne is a self-trained photographer, learning through artist master classes with Stephen Dupont and being mentored by Kate Baker for several years.
For Suzanne, this project was a way of re-engaging with her local community after a traumatic experience in 2019, when her trust was betrayed and it significantly impacted her connection with her hometown. “This created its own challenges and many conversations were had along the way, some that I would have preferred to have avoided. But it has enabled me to reconnect and reclaim my place in my community,” says Suzanne. Connecting with the people and places gave Suzanne access to lives that before Covid-19 she normally would not have had a chance to be a part of, and she saw new opportunities that could open the door for her to work in more depth with in the future. “I just asked people," she recalls. “I started with people I knew personally and people I knew via online relationships. As I carried out the project I would ask each household to make a referral of one person or family they thought would be interesting and interested. The experience was overwhelmingly positive and although it had its complexities, like any photographic project might have, it has been very rewarding.”
Diversity and inclusion are always a priority for Suzanne as a photographer, and she struggled with this aspect of the project from a number of different viewpoints, as the Upper Yarra Valley is not a very diverse demographic from a cultural and linguistic background. Suzanne also wanted to include people who were not having a positive experience of isolation. Always conscious of the fact that the area has some of the highest statistics of family violence in Victoria, she knew that naturally the people in these situations were very unlikely to want to participate in the project. She was concerned along the way that she might not be able to appropriately represent the breadth of the experiences of the community.
She created a framework for the project for herself and a brief for the subjects, which covered consent and Suzanne’s intention to produce a self-publication and an exhibition. “My desire was to release a magazine within the month following the completion of the work that would preserve everyone’s thoughts about this unique period of time as it was being experienced, rather than written about in hindsight,” she says. “I was adamant that every household would be included in the magazine and that no one would be left out, unless they opted out, which some did. This meant I needed to do everyone justice and create images that were both publication worthy and that the people were comfortable being made public.”
From an artistic practice viewpoint, Suzanne’s preference is to work with a small camera and lens and getting up close to people, as she has a fascination for focusing on small details. The pandemic meant that she needed to modify her approach in this project, to keep her distance and use a large camera with a long zoom lens. Suzanne remembers the feeling of being alive, normal and grounded when she shot that very first portrait of the series after weeks of not photographing people. She photographed a total of seven households on that first day. Suzanne recalls being exhausted, “people wanted to talk, as for most in this project I was one of the few people who visited them at their home during isolation.” She wanted to try to keep her shoots to no more than half an hour, purely due to Covid considerations. Her process of arriving at a household, most of whom she had never visited before, and with people she had never met, making people feel comfortable and finding where to make the portraits, all in less than thirty minutes in retrospect now sounds a little crazy to Suzanne.
Suzanne photographed more than 60 households in total and made a series of portraits that included more than 120 people and dozens of animals. Every household was provided with a selection of images and Suzanne’s preferences for use for their approval. Running alongside this, everyone was encouraged to write of their isolation experience. These texts were included in the magazine without any editing. Suzanne selected a quote from each person’s words as a highlight in the magazine and in doing so was very mindful of creating a prevailing focus or feeling of each person.
Meeting all sorts of people, Suzanne learned a lot about their lives and heard stories of trauma and how isolation was impacting their mental health. At the end of the second stage of the shooting on 30th June 2020, she felt privileged to have so many households involved, but was quite physically and mentally exhausted.
Through her photography Suzanne has a ‘knack’ for storytelling, her portraits have a quietness and secrecy about them, but at the same time they are dynamic and send a powerful message. When asked about this, Suzanne says that she respects people's privacy even when she photographs them, creating a safe space so they can show her something of themselves. “I think I see them, and they see me.” Consent is critical to Suzanne. She is skilled at meeting people where they are at, and sees herself as an honest, strong and confident person, which enables trust. As a result of this project, Suzanne’s personal relationships with people she already knew, or knew of, have deepened, and she has made a few new friends throughout this project.
Ned, The Wobbly Wizard, stands out as someone who has enlightened and inspired Suzanne the most, so much so that she told him he was her new muse. At the time Ned was living in a tent in the forest and he certainly challenged her assumptions on COVID-19 being a more difficult time for those living in similar situations. He shared that the restrictions were making life better, he was not being moved on and hassled by people and could stay in one place. As he jovially told Suzanne, “finally personal space is in fashion!” Since that first shoot Suzanne has created nudes in the forest and river with Ned, a first for both of them.
Without a doubt, Suzanne’s “Isolation Portraits” has proven to be a success. The first magazine was launched online as part of Yarra Valley Writers Festival and soundbite podcasts are being created in collaboration with YVWF also. All these outcomes help raise the profile of the small region of the Yarra Valley. “Ultimately,” explains Suzanne, “I wanted to document the lives of the community through this global pandemic for historical purposes.”Within a couple of months of its release over 100 copies of the magazines had been purchased by the local community and from people all over the world. All of the portraits have been printed as transparencies and exhibited in windows of four local businesses. Being able to exhibit these images, when all galleries are closed, is a rare opportunity and among the feedback Suzanne has received, people have told her that they feel like they are connected and can see their community again.
The self-published magazines “Isolation Portraits 1” and “Isolation Portraits 2” by Suzanne Phoenix can be bought online through Suzanne's website. Suzanne is currently working on “Isolation Portraits” - Stage 3 while Victoria is in stage 3 and 4 restrictions. The Pictorial List will be thinking of all Victorians as they go through this tough time ahead. Stay safe.