Just over a month ago, works by numerous world-renowned documentary photographers were scheduled to appear on large outdoor screens at Sydney’s Circular Quay as part of the Vivid Festival. The exhibition of projections was a collaboration between Vivid and the Reportage Festival, now in its 11thyear, which celebrates Australian and international documentary photography.
At the last minute, a government body censored the works of 18 of the 35 photographers, deeming their images too distressing for the general public. Culled images included photos of the aftermath of the 2009 Victorian bushfires and the 2005 Cronulla riots, plus international contributions like James Nachtwey’s 1994 photo of a survivor of Rwandan death camp, consistently deemed to be one of the most iconic documentary images of the 20thcentury.
The government agency that pulled the photos is Destination NSW, whose role, according to them, is to promote Sydney as ‘the world’s premier tourism and events destination’. In the face of outrage both here and overseas, Destination NSW CEO Sandra Chipchase stuck to her guns, and was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald as saying: ''What we don't want is children walking around the corner and seeing pictures of dead children”.
In fact, there were no images of dead children, and in response to the idiocy of the whole debacle, Reportage have launched a new exhibition, titled Reportage: Censored. From now until July 3, the full, uncensored works of the 2013 Reportage Projections are open for public viewing in three shipping containers in Sydney’s Hyde Park.
Under each photo is the question: ‘Do you find this image suitable for public viewing?’ and feedback will be compiled and presented to Destination NSW and to Reportage.
I had a chat to Reportage’s Assistant Director Anna Maria Antoinette D’Addario this morning to get her take on the situation.
VICE: How many photographs were pulled? Did you end up showing any of the ones that were deemed appropriate?
Anna Maria Antoinette D’Addario: Many photographs were deemed too distressing or offensive and were pulled. Only around 40 percent of the work went up on the screen on the Vivid LightWalk. These was also due to entire works being pulled by the photographers, who were unwilling to compromise their narratives or were outraged by the level of censorship. Some stories were targeted more than others, with many images being pulled from the one story.
What was your initial reaction when you heard that the images were censored?
Disappointment and disbelief. We had been in discussion for just under a year. The images that the genre represents are not shown to the viewer in rose-coloured glasses. It covers human rights issues, social concerns, environmental issues, political conflict – moments of beauty and tenderness are often highlighted but often on the confines of the normal and what is ‘accepted’ in society.
Reportage does not consider that the images included in the Projections fell short of what the Festival represents. It believes that while the images were challenging and stimulating, they remained suitable to audiences of all ages and were not likely to cause distress or be offensive.
What do you think about Destination NSW's argument for pulling them, that: ''What we don't want is children walking around the corner and seeing pictures of dead children." and 'We think it is threatening to families."
If that is a direct quote from them I’m not sure, but I had heard the mention of dead children come up a bit in the media and this was absolutely untrue. There were no dead children in the final projection edits; the stories were not put together to shock but to narrate.
We agree that there may be certain images that are not suitable to be screened in an unrestricted public place, which may be viewed by minors. However as we understand both the Festival and Destination NSW had a duty to ensure that the event was appropriate to viewers.
It was Reportage’s understanding that DNSW invited it to be part of Vivid and the Light Walk because of the challenging and stimulating images it represents. Reportage also understood Vivid Sydney to be a festival that was about lights, music and ideas and was not primarily a family-friendly festival. It should celebrate the city, but our cultural events should be appropriate to all members of the community, and they should also stimulate and challenge us.
There should be a varied and researched review system in place such as the Australian Classification Board for such cultural and art-based events that are actually determined on research and progressive public opinion.
The Reportage: Censored exhibition seems like a great way to harvest some of this opinion. How is the exhibition going so far? From some photos I saw this morning, it looks like you're battling some bad weather.
Ha! Although the containers are a little humid they’re built so well, it’s all working in its rustic way. It’s strange actually: we have had a massive response and numbers of people coming through although it has been raining every day. The containers are a good excuse for some cover and mental and visual stimulation at the same time so actually perfect!
Perhaps there would be even more visitors on a sunny day but we are happy with the numbers and the response we have been getting from the public. Being on site and talking to people has been quite inspiring.
It is actually a very positive way to end the Festival in light of what happened. The work is on the streets being seen, people are curious, they are engaging with it and we are learning from the whole process. This exhibition is not an attack aimed at Destination NSW; it is a valid discussion we felt we had to have. We take for granted our rights in this country and it is a way for us to really assess what it being decided for on our behalf and the censorship being put into place in the Arts.
Above all it is an opportunity to highlight the amazing work that was part of this year’s Festival that hasn’t been shown.
Reportage Censored runs daily from 10am to 7pm until July 3 Hyde Park Sydney, Central Avenue near the Archibald Fountain. The official opening and discussion is at onsite at 3pm Saturday the 29th June with guest speakers including Director of Photography at The Global Mail Mike Bowers, Oculi photographer David Maurice Smith, Festival Director Stephen Dupont and MP Amanda Fazio, who brought the issue to the attention of NSW Parliament