• © Matt Abbott. A kangaroo flees a terrifying firestorm that enveloped the South Coast township of Lake Conjola in NSW, 31 December, 2019.
    © Matt Abbott. A kangaroo flees a terrifying firestorm that enveloped the South Coast township of Lake Conjola in NSW, 31 December, 2019.

Two decades in and Oculi is just getting started

One of Australia’s longest-running collectives, Oculi, recently passed a major milestone – its 20th anniversary. To coincide, it announced the single-biggest intake of new members in its two-decade history. Capture spoke with its founding member, Dean Sewell, along with both old and new members, about the future of the collective.

What were the driving motivations behind the formation of Oculi?

Dean Sewell: The foundations of Oculi are steeped in the traditions of newspaper photography, and it was towards the end of the 1990s that ideas of collectivism were already circulating throughout Sydney’s photojournalistic fraternity. Of a generation that had cut its teeth on
the major metropolitan mastheads of the day, and those across the United States of America, the idea of the single image narrative had given way to more considered, long-form photojournalism, and it had felt that newspapers held neither the means nor the will to follow us on this journey.

These ideas collided with the awakening of the age of the Internet and the confluence of the euphoric states of both an Olympic year and a brand-new millennium. The air, it seemed, was pregnant with possibility. We would become the first real generation of photographers in Australia to fully embrace the Internet as a means of dissemination of our works. Being young and ambitious, we were no longer intent with being mere passive observers, but instead wanted to contribute to the global narrative of humanity and share with the world, stories from Australia and its neighbouring nations.

How can photographers, regardless of their area of specialisation, benefit from being in a collective?

Alana Holmberg: There are some obvious benefits, such as shared knowledge, contacts, gear, and resources. Having a group of experienced and passionate photographers to call on for almost instant advice and insight is invaluable, particularly at the beginning of your career. For me personally, being part of Oculi gave me a lot more confidence to navigate opportunities and relationships with clients, editors, and other members of the industry. I feel far better equipped to negotiate better conditions for myself, backed by the knowledge in the group and shared understanding that we all have to work together to keep our industry thriving and viable.

The collective provides you with a team. The team can be supportive, but, of course, with any group it can also be very challenging. I have found that there is a lot of value in that challenge and plenty of lessons to be learned in navigating differences, having constructive conversations (instead of yelling from your own echo chamber), and learning from perspectives different from your own.

Matt Abbott: For me above all else, it’s the comradery and generosity of members sharing knowledge and skills. This became most apparent for me during the ‘Black Summer’ fires, when some of the more experienced bush fire photographers – Nick Moir, Dean Sewell, and Jeremy Piper – took some of us under their wings, teaching us how to photograph and get access to fires safely. I couldn’t have taken the images I made without them. The other major benefit is to discuss media rates, usage, and conditions that are constantly being eroded for freelancers – and in this way Oculi is like a union.

Abigail Varney: Being part of a collective you are more accountable and you get to know your own practice more intimately, and from other perspectives. I would never have had this experience without Oculi. You also get the insight into others’ work through building personal connections beyond the people in your direct industry circle. The influx of new members has really brought in a range of diverse practices to photojournalism and documentary photography, and this will broaden our learning. Connections will start from the ground up and hopefully flourish and strengthen as the years pass.

© Abigail Varney. Jimmy and his pigeons, from the series, Rough & Cut, 2017.
© Abigail Varney. Jimmy and his pigeons, from the series, Rough & Cut, 2017.
Do you feel that collectives are more or less relevant in a media landscape that is geared more towards individualism, and why?

Dean Sewell: I think that collectives, FOR the need of collectives, is more relevant now than in any time before. It was traditional media empires that bore the brunt of training and guiding young photographers into genres of concerned photography. If we were to look at some of the greats of mid-20th century Australian photography and beyond, like David Potts, Olive Cotton, or David Moore for example, most, if not all, were reliant on the mainstream press of the day. But with the steady decline of the traditional media over the past two decades, due to the flight of advertising revenues and ever-shrinking profit margins, these once-fertile grounds for training and development have given way to mass staff redundancies and self-imposed austerity measures that have more or less absolved those institutions from this once, time-honoured obligation. In this, a massive void was created.

Filling the void, we have witnessed the exponential growth of both private and public institutions offering courses, master’s degree and doctorates in documentary genres of photography, and in an era of a rapacious social media sector that fosters individualistic pursuit, grass roots collectives like Oculi have a place in that void with the responsibility to nurture and develop a new wave of practitioners.

Matt Abbott: Purely for the sake of discussing freelancer rates and conditions that have eroded in recent years, I would say yes, absolutely they are necessary. This doesn’t apply to everyone – we are a diverse bunch of photographers, and many of us are not working in traditional media.

You are right that carving out one’s path is very prevalent now due to social media. Oculi members can still pursue this direction, but at the same time belonging to a group where there are no pressures to promote or seek likes – a place where actual critical analysis of work takes place – is something that is sorely missing on social media.

© Dean Sewell. Sheep and cattle manoeuvre around a dam as a raging grass fire tears across the land in catastrophic fire conditions as a result of the Sir Ivan Fire, 2017.
© Dean Sewell. Sheep and cattle manoeuvre around a dam as a raging grass fire tears across the land in catastrophic fire conditions as a result of the Sir Ivan Fire, 2017.
Given the significant changes the world is currently experiencing, and has experienced in the last decade, how has this impacted your work, along with your approach to photography?

Dean Sewell: The global resurgence of identity politics over the past decade has made us all have to consider more deeply our involvement in narrative-based visual storytelling. As documentary photographers, telling either personal stories or those that feed into a larger, national, or global narrative, we hold an extremely privileged position that carries with it much responsibility. Whether one subscribes to the ideologies of identity politics or not, we have all had to recalibrate our ways of thinking and approaches to issues of agency and representation. For someone like myself, whose work sits at the nexus of the social and environmental, I often find myself at the coalface of others’ lived experiences, and with this comes a whole new set of perspectives through which one must apply their gaze.

For photographers, myself included, who still rely heavily on mainstream editorial outlets, the continual contraction of the market and its migration to online poses its own new set of conundrums with the disappearance of adequate funding for long-form projects and ever-shrinking space within those more traditional platforms. While we may have witnessed exponential growth in online, few independent media organisations carry with them budget streams that can afford the procurement of serious documentary photography. Funding opportunities now sit outside the square of conventional thinking and this will remain a challenge as we move forward into the future.

Alana Holmberg: I am thinking critically about my work, particularly the places and cultures I have documented that are not my own. I am intentionally making work closer to home, particularly with my art practice, and committed to exploring contemporary issues within Australia and my own socioeconomic group. Conversations about representation, diversity, and privilege have challenged me and taught me a lot about the issues prevalent in our profession, and my own work. I am in the process of adapting and shifting my practice accordingly.

Matt Abbott: I made the decision in 2014 after returning from covering the South Sudanese civil war and humanitarian fall out, that as an Australian, I was in a far better position to comment and make nuanced work in my own backyard. I believe the media landscape is going through its largest change since the Internet and digital photography. The idea of the ‘best photographer’ has been challenged and the question now is, who is the best photographer to tell this story? This means using more local photographers who have an intimate knowledge of the country.

Abigail Varney: My approach to documentary photography has seen the biggest change. Expanded documentary has allowed alternative ways of storytelling that weren’t as easily considered as before. Widening these constructs has pushed me to think more conceptually in all aspects of production. I’ve also learnt to analyse my motives and objectives in my practice, and to reflect on the position of my visual voice.

© Alana Holmberg. “Greta in her kitchen, 36 weeks (2018) from an ongoing series documenting my family.”
© Alana Holmberg. “Greta in her kitchen, 36 weeks (2018) from an ongoing series documenting my family.”
What skills do photographers now need to run a successful practice, and how has this changed from a decade ago?

Dean Sewell: Merit is no longer the sole prerequisite for successful photographic practice. In today’s world, and for those who will be the leading voices of tomorrow, one needs to possess an entrepreneurial mindset, be versed in a multi-disciplinary skill set, have a firm grasp on technological developments, be a writer, editor, videographer, and publisher. The possession of acumen in the fields of law, business, economics, and politics will also separate the wheat from the chaff.

Alana Holmberg: I’d say an entrepreneurial mindset in addition to good work is important. An ability to sell ourselves, our ideas, our work, and connect with others. An understanding of how clients, editors, curators think and work. A thick skin. A clear vision. A side hustle is handy for the lean times, and an ability to shut out all the noise and continue making work. Easy! A mentor and former Oculi member once told me that a photographer needs a hobby outside of photography to stay sane. More and more I think she was spot on.

Matt Abbott: To be a successful photojournalist in 2020 you must be able to think like a journalist and anticipate what editors will be interested in. This means having life experiences, skills such as writing and marketing, and having a keen interest in politics. Without this multilayered approach you will not be able to engage in stories in a meaningful way. Being a great photographer is not enough any longer.

Abigail Varney: While you need to be across all aspects of image making and output, it’s just as important to nurture your authentic voice so you can work with conviction. A fully realised original will always attract attention in an already flooded market. I’ve only been working as a photographer for 10 years, so I’m still in the process of understanding where my strongest skills sit. This exploration has ensured I’m chasing the right work, working with the right people, and delivering my best.

What do you view as the greatest threats, and opportunities, for professional photographers?

Dean Sewell: Of course, that will vary greatly across different genres of photography. Those working in hostile environments – war zones or regions where resource conflict has become entrenched – face added risks as modern warfare has become increasingly dangerous and convoluted. We know anecdotally that many young photographers, in order to crash or crash through, are increasingly throwing themselves into dangerous conflicts with little or no backing from the media empires they want to be working for. The allure of the trophy image and a fast track into the highly competitive world of international photojournalism can be all too consuming and, regrettably, fatal. For the more general base of photojournalists and documentary photographers, citizen journalism is definitely a threat to established or establishing career photographers, and even to publications as well.

The cutting back of budgets for professionally sourced, ethical documentary work means that online entities are looking more and more at social media feeds like Twitter or Instagram to build narratives, ones they could no longer produce themselves because they had sacked most of their staff. This can and has bitten into the livelihoods of documentary photographers who react to breaking or unfolding news events. Money that could have been made and used to further documentary projects has been co-opted and repurposed by profit-driven media entities who rely on Twitter ‘Churnalism’. For the citizen journalist, the promotion of their social media handles is payment enough.

Alana Holmberg: An area I would like to explore more, particularly thinking of the collective and possible projects in the future, is collaboration. As solo operators, I think photographers close off to the idea of working with others more often than not. I know for myself it can be hard to relinquish control and allow other forces to impact the work, but it’s something I’m trying to open myself up to more. Sharing ideas and co-creating with others, whether that be creatives from other disciplines, other photographers, or with our subjects, brings a lot of richness to what we do, and opens up our field of view a little wider from what we know or applaud in photography.

Matt Abbott: Social media – both the greatest threat and largest opportunity for photographers. It’s how we choose to engage meaningfully with the rest of the world on these platforms with supporting words, etc. Posting pretty pictures is not enough.

Abigail Varney: There’s no money in media anymore, right? Everyone is a photographer; iPhones are getting really good. That said, there is so much going on from a grassroots level. You can self-publish a book and have the same level of success and exposure that traditional publishers historically have had the monopoly over. There seems to be photography festivals and community engagement popping up all over the place, so if you need help, inspiration, support, and guidance, there are many avenues for this now.

© Matt Abbott. Tourists watch as Bruce the Ram approaches the stage during the Sheep Shearing and Ram Parade at Paradise Country – an Australian farm experience theme park – Queensland. January, 2019. Shot for The New York Times.
© Matt Abbott. Tourists watch as Bruce the Ram approaches the stage during the Sheep Shearing and Ram Parade at Paradise Country – an Australian farm experience theme park – Queensland. January, 2019.
Shot for The New York Times.
What does the future look like for photojournalism and documentary photography? And how will this influence the direction that Oculi takes going forward?

Dean Sewell: So long as there is a story to tell, there will remain the propensity to tell that story, and so I believe that photojournalism and documentary photography both have an enduring and bright future. The disruptive forces that have prevailed throughout the industry over the past two decades have certainly changed the face of the industry, but the emergent millennial generation are proving to be extremely resourceful in an era where funding bases have shifted dramatically. While we have talked and debated over the past two decades of the funding crisis precipitated by the collapse of traditional media and advent of social media, the rise of the millennial generation has meant that there are more documentary photographers out there than in any time before. The entrepreneurial mindset of the new millennial class that has emerged from the wreck of our traditional media base has placed them in good stead to navigate the precarious nature of our new, hyper-casualised working economy.

Alana Holmberg: My feeling is that the future is bright. I feel we are moving away from rigid definitions of ‘documentary’ and expanding our understanding of how work can be made and presented in ways that reach and touch new audiences. A beautiful series by our new member Tajette O’Halloran, is a good example. In her work, In Australia, she uses constructed realities to explore the psyche of Australia’s suburbia. Similarly, we see Magnum photographers such as Diana Markosian and Cristina de Middel working with fiction and staging in their work too, working in the field of expanded or conceptual documentary.

For me, the inclusion of these artists amongst groups like Oculi that have been associated with a more traditional definition of photojournalism and documentary signifies an opening up to new forms of storytelling. Throw digital technologies and online tools and platforms in the mix, and we have exciting times ahead in terms of how we make and share stories to connect with our audience in different ways.

Matt Abbott: Documentary photography has never been so popular. For example, at the Deaths in custody/BLM rally [in late June], there were over a hundred photographers covering the event. This saturation of photographers obviously provides challenges to existing working photographers, in both being able to make powerful photographs, and sell the work.

Hopefully this enormous interest will eventuate with more dynamic and diverse photography from a range of voices, and we’ll
see work being made that challenges and pushes the medium further.


Oculi – www.oculi.com.au


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