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POLIXENI PAPAPETROU interview

 
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Posted on Sep 9 2013









You gave up a career in law in order to devote yourself full time to photography. How did that decision come about?
Growing up in Melbourne in the 1960s as a child of Greek immigrant parents, I felt under pressure to succeed at school and then study at university. As I was not talented at drawing and felt hopeless during art classes as school, I focused on other academic subjects. After leaving school, I studied law at Melbourne University. I began my professional working life as a lawyer in 1985 and continued to practice as a lawyer until 2000. When I began my legal career I thought that it would be a good idea to have a hobby and photography seemed to a good choice.  While working as a lawyer I decided to study photography more seriously and in 1996 I enrolled as a part-time Fine Arts student at RMIT University Melbourne. My ideas in photography continued to grow and I began exhibiting my work.  I decided to leave legal practice in 2000 and have worked solely as an artist since then. The decision felt natural and timely. In 2007, I graduated with a PhD in fine arts from Monash University, Melbourne.


















As a child, did you have the opportunity to see art? Did you enjoy it?
Growing up as the child of Greek immigrant parents in Melbourne in the 1960s, in a sense we were living on the margins, living a life that was different from mainstream Australia, but also different to the life I would have had if I was born in Greece.  As both parents worked hard trying to establish a new life for themselves, there was little opportunity to see art. My mother’s brother arrived from Greece in the late 1960s and he seemed more culturally aware. He lived with us and he was a bit of a film buff. One of the most profound experiences of my early childhood was the day my uncle took me to the cinema to see Stanley Kubricks ‘A Space Odyssey’. I was about 8 or 9 years old at the time. This was probably my first art or cultural experience as a child. I didn’t see art in galleries until I was a teenager in high school.









Growing up, who were the visual artists that moved you?
This is a difficult question as I did not become aware of art history until I was much older. In my 20s of course I was going to museums and loved the painting of Matisse, Monet, Van Gogh, Manet and Picasso to mention a few. When I started making pictures I gravitated toward photographic artists and especially loved the work of 19th century photographers such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and Oscar Rejlander, all of whom understood photography as performance in the tableaux tradition full of illusion, symbolism, the imaginary, theatre and performance. Other favourite photographic artists include, Cindy Sherman, Sally Mann, Diane Arbus, Jeff Wall, Thomas Demand, Joel Sternfeld, Martin Parr, William Eggelston, and Ralph Eugene Meatyard.









Your oeuvre in the recent years revolved around children and the meaning of childhood.
Why did you choose this subject?

From the time that I started taking photographs, I was drawn to people who were exploring personal identity through dress and popular culture. The themes of dress-ups, performance and the representation of identity have been a common thread in my pictures of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe fans, drag queens, wrestlers, body builders and more recently children- (the child transforms through role play in a similar way). But these people are often seen as other or living on the margins of conventional society.
 
I was drawn to photographing children, as I wanted to explore notions of childhood identity and its representation. I wanted to discover for myself what the condition of childhood means to our culture and I have tried to create a context within which we can think about what childhood means.  While my work takes the viewer into the realms of fantasy and story telling, it also questions our understanding of the portrayal of childhood in photography.
 
The subject of childhood is multi-faceted and I’ve drawn upon its cultural representation in various ways. In ‘Dreamchild’ (2003) and ‘Wonderland’ (2004) I used themes from 19th century photography to question notions of innocence. In ‘Phantomwise’ (2002), I explored the power of dress ups, role play and boundary crossing. I revisited the experience of childhood in colonial Australia and our relationship to land in ‘Haunted Country’ (2006) and in ‘Games of Consequence’ (2008), I reflected upon a lost freedom and the regulated lives of children growing up in the world today. In ‘Between Worlds’ (2009), I looked at what separates humans from animals and children from adults and explored ideas about the extremes of age, young and old in ‘The Dreamkeepers’ (2012). In ‘The Ghillies’ (2013), I reflected on the personas and roles that children take on allowing for their transition from childhood to adolescence and the adult world. In my work I’ve attempted to look at the historical as well as a contemporary understanding of childhood.












Have you found out something, or maybe remember something, about what it means to be a child through your work?
We remain children for such a brief time over the span of our lifetime, yet it is a time of immense transition and change. Our experiences during childhood shape us and continue to influence us for the remainder of our lives. I’m interested in the liminal and transitional stages in life such as childhood, adolescence and old age. This is the time when we experience the most profound changes in body and mind. The whole point about being a child is to grow and with that growth eventually we can become old. We all carry the germ of ageing within us, both young and old at once.  When we reach the end of our life, childlike traits can emerge as we let go of worldly concerns. I don’t think that children are necessarily bothered by the external world, concepts of reality or with materialistic or earthly things until they are much older. Possibly as we age, we revert to that beautiful state where we experience the world as children do in a non-grasping way and imaginative way.  I have rediscovered what it means to be a child through my work and wondered paradoxically what it may feel like to grow old.












Why are masks important to you artistically?
 I have been photographing people who have transformed their identity, masked it and constructed an alternative one. The drag queens for example, wore elaborate evening gowns, make-up, wigs, and false nails; the Elvis Presley fans wore 50s rockabilly clothing, the body builders had oiled and sun tanned bodies and the wrestlers wore decorative capes and masks. In some ways they were masking their identity in a metaphoric way.
I decided to use masks in my work as the mask is a powerful device and creates paradoxes in the photograph. The mask has the power to shift identity from the real to the imaginary - both body and photograph transformed and fixed by the mask. By using masks on the children I was able to move beyond their identity as both subject and child and therefore speak in a more universal way about childhood. A mask can conceal the identity of the wearer but also expand the reading of the subject as a universal figure. The masked person is no one in particular, but can be anyone or everyone. The mask allows the wearer to look both, familiar and unfamiliar, yet another paradox. 















Do you make up stories that you photograph as you go along,
or do you already know the "story" of the picture you are going to take?

My work has the appearance of being highly staged, whether it is created in the studio or in the landscape.  While the process of taking the picture is made up as we go along, the preparation for the work is planned. There are many elements involved in creating a photograph such as narrative, location, mood, lighting, costumes and the acting.  It is important to have a framework ahead of time by creating a backdrop in the studio or by choosing a landscape location, sourcing the costumes and having an idea of the narrative, scene and poses. I don’t write any of this down, as I’m not working with a team of people that need to follow my directions or a plan. I just talk to the subjects and try to direct them as best I can when I am photographing them.  I think about how I’d like the process to develop, but as I am often working on location unexpected things happen that can make the photograph either better or worse that I intended.  These days I have a better idea of how I want the realised photograph to look before I begin the process. But this does not always guarantee a better result.



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