Photography by Suzanne Phoenix
Text by Suzanne Phoenix & 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 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.
Mim, Andy, Nina, Dusty, Storm Boy, Baby, Petie, Bob and Turtee: “Lockdown has had so many feels and emotions. Varying from deep contentment to such a lack of personal space. Such a great time to access our values. Lots of dog walks and now school is back it feels VERY full. Finding new routines and rhythms after 4 weeks of slow, slow days. I am looking forward to seeing the positive changes in the world this COVID-19 has brought about.” Mim, Isolation Portraits 1
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.
Rich: “This seemed so grim at first, but I found once I’d adjusted to more complete isolation it wasn’t so bad. It was just an extension and intensification of my current situation. I was trained already and now one of many unwilling hermits.” Rich, Isolation Portraits 1
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.”
Roberto, Luciana, Matt, Lucas and Izzy: “Our closeness has deepened: we’ve had lots of special times, just simple things like sitting longer at mealtimes together, working outside in the garden together, boys chainsawing and chopping wood. We’ve been tackling long awaited building projects. I hope that when this is all over, the end result of this pandemic will be lasting changes in human attitudes and behaviours that will benefit our planet and all beings who live here.” Roberto, Isolation Portraits 2
Freddie Merkin: “COVID-19...A time where we adjust, adapt, compromise, slow down, reconnect, disconnect, feel useless, move with purpose, frustration, relaxation, no job, no money, beautiful surroundings, food in the belly, be positive, be thankful, heartbreaking, missing the faces of friends and family, embracing the unknown.” Freddie, Isolation Portraits 1
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.”
Jodie, Maya, Tony and Zali: “When COVID initially came to town, it struck us all as something quite surreal. It was very much a wake up and see what the hell has unfolded while we were asleep situation.” Jodie, Isolation Portraits 1
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.
Jacqui, Jake and Aleah: “We have a daughter who just turned 8 months old and we have been in isolation for 6 weeks. I am a nurse and know that I could be of good use at the moment back at work, however I am enjoying the first year of being a full time mum. I feel like it’s what I am meant to do with my life.” Jacqui, Isolation Portraits 1
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.
Monique, Marcus, Asher and Oliver: “It has been 9 weeks so far and this time has been wonderful. It really has opened my eyes to how much unnecessary activity we actually get up to, so much driving around! My life will never return to the way it was and I am grateful for that. It’s been simply exquisite.” Monique, Isolation Portraits 2
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.
Ned The Wobbly Wizard and his handwritten message. Isolations Portraits 1
An initial concern Suzanne had to overcome in this project was the prospect of people included in the project dying from coronavirus. This worry subsided for her for a while but has now returned again with Victoria in a second wave of coronavirus and stage 4 restrictions now in place in the metropolitan area of Melbourne and stage 3 restrictions in the remainder of Victoria. As of 2 August all Victorians must wear a face covering when they leave home.
Suzanne will be continuing this series partly because it is a rare opportunity to document, but also because it keeps her photographing. She lost all of her photography business when COVID hit in late March. She thinks that her photographic future will look more like this kind of planned work, and she is pretty happy about it. Though she does miss the live music and festivals, she doesn’t miss her grueling schedule and the 1.5 hour drive home from the city late at night. “I think many of my artist friends have no choice but to reevaluate everything, and this time is extremely difficult. I acknowledge my privilege right now and if I didn’t have other part time permanent employment, I would be in a very different position.”
Claire, Chris, Eloura, Jasmin, Orlando & Indira: “We started again. Stopped trying to keep up with the school work, dropped the pressure of our personal goals to do something of worth and worry about money, and just hung out with the family. Letting the dreams of each day lead us. Relationships were re-energised, sisters started helping each other rather than poking each other. It was incredible how much more peaceful the kids were when we just spent time in their world.” Claire, Isolation Portraits 2
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.
Cover Image: Bron & Saxon
The self-published magazines “Isolation Portraits 1” and “Isolation Portraits 2” by Suzanne Phoenix can be bought online. 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.