Sarah Pannell's Photos of the Mundane and the Exotic

We talked to the Melbourne photographer about shooting in Turkey and being respectful of other cultures.

by Sarah Pannell
May 22 2015, 12:00am

All photos by Sarah Pannell

Sarah Pannell has been busy since we spoke with her last year. The Melbourne photographer took out the People's Choice award at the Independent Photography Festival two years in a row, and has traveled through enough countries to make customs suspicious. We recently bought her a coffee and got her to sit still for 20 minutes to ask her about the 2015 iteration of IPF, her first solo photo book, and photographing a culture that isn't yours.

VICE: IPF is expanding this year and running a fundraiser at the moment, what changes are you expecting?
Sarah Pannell: I think it's got the capacity to get a bit bigger, the momentum and audience is there. I think it had a good energy last time and so it's only natural for it to grow. Hopefully more people from interstate are involved too.

So you're hoping it'll be more of an Australian thing than a Melbourne thing?
I think a lot of people made the trip down for the week last year, and it was definitely worth it, but I think it'll be even more worthwhile this year. It's unique to Melbourne, but it's inclusive at the same time.

You released a book in February, Şehir. Can you tell me about it?
It's a focus on Istanbul and how it's changing, things are pretty turbulent there at the moment. I don't feel I'm the right person to make a comment on Turkish politics, but there are a lot of changes on every level in the last few years. Şehir is a comment on the physical changes, within the neighborhoods, between old Turkey and New Turkey, and how it's becoming more Westernized but the Westernization is also going against the direction of their politics.

Do you find it difficult to convey change in your artwork? It's a concept that can be difficult to photograph.
I think more it's something that happened subconsciously, and I saw it when I looked back and started editing down my shots. That's generally how I work: just combing through hundreds of shots and being able to put something together you can digest and is interesting.

Is travel an essential part of your creative process?
Yeah definitely. I love Melbourne and I'm always motivated to shoot. But going away, going somewhere different, I find it energizing. It doesn't have to be overseas, can be in Australia or even within Victoria.

Like walking down a street you haven't walked down before?
Yeah, I'm about to move house and I'm really excited to live in a different neighborhood. When I go to work I always take different ways and cut through random back streets, you just never know what you'll see. I'm not good with routine, I need to switch things up or I get bored.

A lot of shooters take photos overseas. How do you elevate travel photography into something more?
It's something I've been thinking about a lot lately. I see a large volume of what people are shooting through my work at Hillvale. It really makes me think about how I can separate myself from just being a tourist. It's not something I can explain, I guess it's just about the way your train your eyes to pick things up. It's probably being able to recognize something that is actually interesting and hasn't been photographed a million times. But at the same time, everything's been done.

When you're shooting overseas, how do you balance a natural interest in the exotic, with making sure you're not just tokenizing someone else's culture?
I think it just comes down to being respectful. It's almost common sense. Just in general if you're going somewhere foreign, I think you need to have respect and understanding of a different culture.

To help IPF go global, donate here.

Sarah's book Şehir is available now.

Interview by Ben Thomson. Follow him on Instagram: @benjamin_thomson