Despite living on opposite sides of the globe, Melbourne-based, First Nations (Māori) J. Davies and Berlin’s Florian Hetz share a connection: photography. Though different in approach and technique, both dabble in the intimacies of the human body and the form and emotion it creates.For the past few months, Hetz has been working as Davies’ mentor (a term Hetz is hesitant to use – rather he sees it as a collaboration), made possible through PHOTO 2022, an International Festival of Photography running from April to May (with some shows extended through June) in various sites around Melbourne. Through numerous Zoom calls, across the world yet face-to-face, the two have shared their photographic processes, lives, interests and their objectives as artists.
While Florian is quite particular, constructing scenes in line with his own vision and in a world comfortable with the notion of nudity, Davies’ approach is more organic, letting their subjects re-enact intimate moments in spaces they feel comfortable, in a country (Australia) where many, Davies’ says, are still unattuned to the concept of nudity.To see how their lives and photography differ while sitting somewhat on the same wave, VICE joined the two in conversation to talk activism in photography, cultural differences and photographing people in intimate, and often nude, spaces.VICE: Going through both of your photographs there’s this focus on intimacy, the human body and these quite sensual moments. Being from separate parts of the world, how do you think that affects the meaning of your content?J. Davies: We’ve spoken about this briefly but the way that sexuality and queer sexuality is viewed in Australia is quite different to Europe. So from my perspective working within the realms of intimacy has been a moment to really learn. The idea is that I’m trying to work through ingrained shame and stigma and work through bodies and people that we didn’t see celebrated. So that’s one of the things that differs between us.Florian Hetz: I have a different approach. The idea of intimacy is really normal. I don’t think about stigma, actually, at all. I came from a place of growing up, living in Berlin, everything is very free and open. And I’m not talking only about sexuality but generally there’s a positivity surrounding the body and nudity engrained. So it’s more a normality. I’m not documenting, I’m reproducing what’s around me without having to work through it. My journey is really a part of my photography.
Why do you think it does differ so much between cultures and how does that affect your approach to identity and sexuality?Hetz: In the early 1900s there was this whole movement of body positivity, body culture, about being outside, working naked. That was part of our culture - whereas I think [Davies’] background in terms of religion is a bit more strict. It has a similarity to the UK or the US. For us, it’s quite normal for us to see our parents naked. Whereas here it is completely different, you go into a sauna and you have to wear clothes, it doesn’t make sense to me.Davies: I also think there's a huge difference because there's so many things happening between all the cities in Europe. People are moving about all the time, people are seeing new things, people are pushed to think about things differently. And I don't think that's the same here yet. As an artist that's worked in Melbourne – and Melbourne’s definitely one of the most progressive cities in this country – I still don't think there's an understanding or a comfort for things that make people uncomfortable. As soon as people are met with discomfort, it's ridiculed. People aren't pushed to think about it differently. There’s not as much want for understanding other people: queer people, marginalised people, people of colour. We're trying to have our own stories but it's not celebrated the way that it is in other parts of the world.
Hetz: You think that’s still happening? Do you think these groups of people are getting more visible or do you think it’s stagnating? Davies: I think the general conversation is changing a lot more than it has previously, and I think there are more queer people, there's more indigenous people, there's more people with disabilities that have platforms that they never used to either. We’ve weaved our way in so people have to listen to us more.
Hetz: Do you see your work as part of activism?Davies: I wouldn't ever say that, but I suppose in the same way that being trans is political, that pushing against the grain is making a statement then, yeah. But I wouldn't say that I'm making it in the hopes of starting a revolution.Hetz: In the sense it is political, like you're really clear of what you show and what you don't show. And so therefore it opens it up to society. So I think that is, for me, technically, a part of activism. It’s important to show our lives also to confront people, which is a good thing. Florian, have you ever felt like your work could be seen from an activist point of view?Florian: I think it’s similar to J. I do a lot of activist work for different things but I don’t necessarily see it in my photos. Occasionally, I’ll have a reply on Instagram from someone in Iran or Pakistan, thanking me saying, “Thank you for showing us this is possible. This gives us hope”. So in that way it’s a tiny little bit of activism.
It’s a good reminder that we don’t just work in our little bubble, in Europe or Australia, but worldwide through digital media. So in that sense I think there is always activism in our work.
When it comes to the actual process of the images. Both of you shoot in incredibly intimate settings. How do you conceptualise the session with your subject beforehand? And how do you approach people to be involved?Hetz: For me, I'm quite lucky that I only work with people that come to me instead of the other way around. I need someone to have an idea of what I do or what my work is about. Then the next step for me is I want to meet that person in a neutral space. The people I shoot with are not models, they’re real people. So most of them have not been in front of the camera, so there’s a lot of nervousness. I give them the space to ask questions. There’s a lot of laughter, nothing is too serious. It sounds stupid to say but in the end, we’re taking photos, it's not curing cancer. I'm quite precise with what I see and what I want and there's not much movement, there's not much possibility for the models to express themselves. But that’s my process.Davies: I suppose I’m very different to Florian. A lot of my process is trial and error. I'm still figuring out what ultimately makes me feel comfortable and what makes the person I'm collaborating with comfortable, because I’m a relatively socially anxious or socially awkward person. So a lot of the way that I prepare is to make sure that the person knows that I'm nervous about it, too. And then I always suggest to the person to find some outfits or some underwear or something that makes them feel sexy. That's a good start with feeling confident.
So you’re quite different. J, you capture personality while Florian’s more precise? Davies: Yeah, I started shooting nudes and bodies probably about 10 years ago. And then I stopped for a long time. So I would say I’ve been working like this for three years now. My entire perspective has changed. I never used to shoot people in the house. Now it’s in people's bedrooms, their safe spaces, their bathrooms, their sharehouses. A big part of the way that I'm working is learning about intimacy, and also learning about intimate spaces and how people carry themselves when they feel comfortable. That's a big part of what makes up the work. I predominantly only shoot people that I've known for a while, good friends, friends of friends or lovers. People that I already have some kind of established relationships with.In retrospect - and also going into the future and thinking about your separate works - how do you hope the public reacts to them? Or is it less about the public and more about what it means to you?Florian: I think my work speaks for itself. I’m my main audience. Everything I do, I do it for myself and if I’m happy with it and I release it out into the world, then the reaction, it’s not that it doesn’t matter, we’re all happy if things are well received, but if someone’s not happy I’m not shattered at all.
I hope in 50 years time my work still has relevance.
J.Davies: Last year I was in a really hectic work accident and nearly died but had to have facial reconstructive surgery and was in recovery. I remember my mum asking me what would happen with my archive of images if I had died and I hadn’t really thought of that before. It was kind of a wake up call. The archive’s huge. I’ve archived my life quite thoroughly for a couple of years now but the idea that the images wouldn’t be seen because no one could access them was the thing where I was like “Oh, shit”, I want people who want to see it to see it. If people can connect with it from the other side of the world I want people to see it. As much as I don’t think I’m trying to represent a certain thing, a lot of my work is about connection and community, so even if I was dead I’d still want it to be about connection and community, in however way that would work.
Both J. Davies and Florian Hetz work will be showing at PHOTO 2022 International Festival of Photography, running from the 29th of April to the 22nd of May ewith some exhibitions extending into June in Melbourne and across Regional Victoria.Florian Hetz’s Augmented Reality exhibition ‘Haut’ will be showing at Angel Music Bar until Sunday the 29th of May.J. Davies work is part of the PHOTO 2022 exhibition ‘Queering The Frame: Community Time Photography’ running until the 12th of June at the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Melbourne.Follow Julie Fenwick on Twitter and Instagram.Read more from VICE Australia.