Suzanne Phoenix is a Melbourne-based photographer capturing people and places through events, live music and performance, documenting street and daily life. Photographs punctuate Suzanne's life. Photography gives her life a rhythm, it sets the pace and provides her opportunities to just pause. Suzanne has this certain kind of magic that she brings to us through her camera lens. The camera allows her to see things without judgment and stretches her boundaries. It’s a tool to explore herself in a creative way, to not be in control or analyse and to grow as a person. Suzanne often focuses on a topic where she would like to see more representation or an interpretation by a female gaze.
When did you start getting interested in photography?
Photography has been a love of my life. My family and my Nana showed great respect and importance of photographs. My Nana was terrible at it, always with a thumb over the lens, a shadow or missing the subject completely. I now adore and treasure her photos, they are completely surreal, you couldn’t make these photos if you tried.
I have photographed since before I was 10 years of age, unfortunately it’s not one of those cool ‘my grandparents gave me their box brownie’ kind of stories. It was a red plastic Kmart job. I really only thought I could take it more seriously in about 2012.
I am mostly self-trained; I learn best through doing. I have participated in a few photography and artist/photo books masterclasses with Stephen Dupont, and Kate Baker was my mentor for several years.
I have done many and varied jobs and still do other work alongside my photography, like most artists I know. I have been a cherry picker, feng shui consultant, filing clerk to CEO, lots of work in community settings, neighbourhood houses and local government.
Where has photography taken you? I heard you say in an interview that you were a shy person. How has photography helped you to overcome this barrier?
Photography has taken me everywhere! Well not everywhere, but a lot of places. From, taxidermy championships, jelly wrestling, ute musters, sex shops, protests, dirt drag races, death metal gigs to a drag queen festival in the desert.
I will always be a shy person underneath. Putting myself out there is a skill I developed firstly by becoming confident in myself and through my working career. But photography has taken it to a whole new level. If I have a reason to be somewhere, I can be comfortable, and photography gives me that reason.
Even though you don’t like to label yourself with a certain style of photography, where does your main passion lie...what excites you?
People and place I think excite me most. People at both ends of the spectrum from just being themselves to being completely extreme. And moments, it’s all about the perfect, often unseen, moments.
How do you choose your subjects and your projects?
This relates to the previous question, the everyday and the extreme, and just things I love in life. Projects are often about focusing on an area where I want to see more representation or an interpretation by a female gaze.
Who are your favourite artists or photographers? Who has mostly influenced your style?
All these artists have influenced my style in different ways. Some influenced (and continue to influence) my approach, to know when to be brave, step forward and when to stay in the shadows and observe.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Around the next corner, in a facial expression and human exchange.
What is your favourite quote that resonates with you the best?
“An artist serves their community.” I heard this said by Amanda Palmer.
When I worry about focusing too much on things that I am close to, love and am part of and think I should be working bigger, I remember the way I can best serve is in those very places.
Are there any books that you have read that have inspired your creativity and that you would like to recommend to us?
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron changed my life when I started it in late 2019. Books that I love include Decade and Decadent - Rennie Ellis and Up Close - Carol Jerrems. The Great Exhibition book of Patrick Pound’s exhibition blew my mind on the possibilities of photography. Unfortunately, I don’t own any of Stephen Dupont’s but they have definitely been an inspiration and The Middle of Somewhere by Sam Harris I had on loan for a while. The Street Photographers Manual by David Gibson is on high rotation.
Victoria is unfortunately going through a second wave of COVID-19, and some areas are faced with total lockdown whilst other areas statewide are on level 3 or 4 restrictions ... regarding your Project ISOLATION PORTRAITS, what are your feelings and the general feeling of your community second time around?
In the second stage of the project the community felt very different. Restrictions were still in place until the end of May, and then relaxed a little in June, but we were still in isolation and encouraged to stay home. Some people were returning to the workplace and transitioning from home schooling. People seemed to be going back to the usual busyness of their pre-COVID-19 lives. There was less willingness and ability to participate in this series. Many people also appeared tired, frustrated and worn down.
I plan to commence stage 3 shortly and I imagine the feeling will be different again. I am continuing with this series partly because it is a rare opportunity to document but also because it keeps me photographing. I lost all of my photography business when COVID hit.
Has your style of shooting changed since you first started?
I’m really not sure. I probably didn’t have a style at the beginning. I try to not box myself into having just one style and keep challenging myself to learn different ways of shooting and creating diverse work.
Do you think equipment is important for achieving your vision in your photography? What would you say to someone else just starting out?
My only real comment on equipment is that I like to use a camera and lens that is small and quiet. This enables me to create imagery without people thinking I am serious; they barely notice me. And if I have engaged with them, they are not intimidated by the equipment and rarely put up a facade. It is helpful for me to have the right equipment for particular settings like music festival, but I usually just carry one camera and lens and create what I can with what I have.
To someone wanting to start out in my genre of photography, I’d just say get out there and shoot. Read books, look at the photos of the greats and the emerging and go to exhibitions. But most importantly, just shoot.
What are some of your goals as an artist?
My art helps me to navigate the world, it’s joys and its challenges. My main goal is that photography stays that way for me. To be making work I am proud of. Making a living. Not compromising my ethics. Experiencing life. Making a difference.
Are there any special projects you are currently working on?
I am working on ‘Isolation Portraits – Stage 3’ while we are in stage 3 restrictions. Alongside this I have commenced a long-term series of nudes. 2021 sees the 10th year of my International Women's Day series and I have a few big plans for this. All new portraits will have a focus entirely on BIPOC ( Black, Indigenous, People of Colour ). Other aspects of the series are yet to be announced but it will include a self-publication and look back at the past 9 years.
“When I am not out photographing, I (like to)...
...think about photography."