Tower Lockdown

I have had one or two people comment that the optics of a privileged white man selling prints of low socioeconomic housing are troubling. I want to say I’m aware of this, and I hear you. As I get older and learn more I try to really listen when people challenge me, and understand their point of view. I have thought long and hard about this and I’d like to explain my point of view. I still haven’t completely come to a succinct explanation, but I’m going to try.  I arrived in Melbourne in 2007, and lived opposite the Wellington street flats. Literally opposite. My room would get no natural light all day long because it was always in the towers shadow, and because of the super heavy duty security mesh. Living away from my home city for the first time, this was a wholly new environment for me, and I’ll be honest, it was confronting. The very white north shore of Sydney where I grew up is a very different place, especially thirteen years ago. The housing commission towers in Melbourne are an inescapable part of the architectural landscape. Go onto Google maps and in satellite view the geometric shapes stick out like a sore thumb. I remember how when I’d walk home from Fitzroy from having a beer and using the wifi to do homework at the Blackcat and you could see the Wellington st tower all the way home. This is such a stark contrast to Sydney, where the only tower I can think of is the Waterloo ones (famously opened by the Queen), whereas the rest of the community housing is just spread throughout the city, so much so you don’t really even know it’s there (I never did really, until becoming friends with my dear mate Kat who lived for a long time in a unit in Ryde).

I’m an ardent subscriber to the idea that once you make a piece of art, be it a song, a picture or whatever, once it’s out there, it’s kind of no longer yours; but the viewers. I’ve always tried in my photographic practice to present things without bias or tilt, but rather as an accurate portrayal. As much as I desperately wanted to draw a dick on Joshua Frydenburg’s forehead when I photographed him that noone would see, but I’d know was there, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, despite how much i dislike the man. I got attacked for photographing George Colombaris (“how could you??”), but it’s not my job to make these judgements.. It’s my job to portray them accurately, so people can make up their mind for themselves. I feel the same way about my photographs of these buildings. It’s been said that it appears problematic that a privileged white male would be selling photographs of low socioeconomic houses for rich white people to put on their walls, and I can completely understand that; but I feel that this observation is incomplete, not really looking at the whole picture. These photos aren’t intended to fetishise these building, but instead to show them as they are. And what they are, is frankly, uncomfortable. They were quickly built after premier Henry Bolte famously said “bad houses made bad people”, and seized and demolished 7000 homes across Melbourne throwing up the towers we now know. Even back in the sixties and seventies they were criticised as being “prisons in the sky” and a stark delineation between the haves and the have-nots. Not to mention that by the time we were building them in Australia, all around the world they were being condemned terrible, failed exercises, as the St Louis Pruit-Igoe estate, demolished in 1973 not even twenty years after its construction is a great example.

I have been constantly aware of the widespread fetishisation of these buildings while living near them, and my photographs have always been in the spirit of respectful documentation; attempting to understand and be an ally to those who live in these buildings. The second half of the “privileged white man selling prints of low socioeconomic housing” comment was that I’d be selling the prints to rich people to put on their walls, and benefiting from the social capital. I can completely understand this, and I have thought a lot about it. However, in this exercise, it’s really not the rich people that are buying prints. Many of them have gone to people who grew up in these buildings, or people who live around them and have worked in businesses nearby. A few have gone to people in Tasmania. One person remarked that perhaps my sympathy is misaligned, that the buildings produced strong, vibrant communities of overcomers (she herself was a former resident as a little girl). 

So while contemplating all of this, my conscience is clear. The art we buy often isn’t “pretty” or pleasing, but can be ugly, and uncomfortable; serving as a reminder of where we are from, and what made us. The question is often asked, who benefits from this art? The answer, is why I haven’t taken a dollar for this. By the end of this week we’ll have donated $3000 to different organisations involved in helping the people trapped in iso in the towers, and hopefully will make more. As far as social capital, I don’t really have an answer to that. I’m not doing this for that, and I don’t really see a way to sell prints publicly like this and avoid it. I’m a freelance creative with a family of three to feed, and right now we’re flat broke, but this is a way that I can send money where it’s needed. To me, that outcome is worth copping a bit of criticism, which is why I’m being completely transparent with where the money is going. The full price is going to the organisations, not the proceeds. I’m covering the costs (incredibly generously being provided at cost price by my supplier), and handling all the admin myself. I’m not seeking any praise or thanks. I don’t expect anyone to say thank you, or even acknowledge it. It’s literally the least I can do. Anyhoo. Hit me up if you want one. 

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