Continuing our season of themed content exploring National Identity, Bertie Oakes interviews recent MA graduate and Carte Blanche laureate Chris Hoare.
Interview by Bertie Oakes –
Chris Hoare’s latest project, The Worst Poem In The Universe is a photographic journey through Australia exploring the nation’s relationship with luck. Once coined ‘The Lucky Country’ by Australian author Donald Horne in his 1964 book of the same name, the phrase is still used by Australians today, despite the book’s ironic and critical standpoint.
Hoare’s project title references a poem written by Gina Rinehart, the wealthiest person in Australia, in which she calls for more of Australia’s natural minerals and ores to be mined and exported to benefit the nation’s economy. The poem has been described as the ‘worst poem in the universe’ because of its complete lack of poetic prose and questionable message. It is fair to say Hoare’s response to modern-day Australia is far more poetic, meditative and considered. I spoke to him to him to discover how he went about creating a body of work that explores this vast nation’s national identity.
Bertie Oakes: Firstly congratulations on being selected for the Carte Blanche exhibition and getting two portraits from the project chosen for the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize. You must be thrilled with the response it has gotten so far! What drew you to Australia as a subject matter?
Chris Hoare: Thank you! It’s rewarding knowing that it is being appreciated in that context, the Taylor Wessing has been on the bucket list for some time but I hadn’t entered it before. Hopefully the portraits being in the National Portrait Gallery and the work being shown in Paris will direct people towards the project.
My interest in Australia started in 2014 when I heard a podcast about Aboriginal Hip-Hop. I was fascinated with the topic and it’s potential to as a story. Soon after I became obsessed with all things Australia. In 2015 I made a trip for one month and attempted to tell a photojournalistic story about the Aboriginal Hip-Hop scene. I had started making in-roads and contacts, but fell out of love with the photographic language I was using (I was shooting digital reportage).
On the same trip I had been photographing Australia more generally, mostly questioning my own outsider perspective on the country. I came across Donald Horne’s book The Lucky Country early on and it led me to question whether the country was indeed a lucky country, I took the notion of luck as a starting point on the street. I felt the story of Hip-Hop I had initially set out to tell would need far more time and access then I would be able to get, I spent time with Aboriginal rappers but never as much time as I needed to make something substantial. There was a story there but if I was to do it justice it would take far longer than one month. I eventually spent two more trips (one a year long) exploring the idea of ‘luck’, as this felt like it had legs as a project.
BO: Approaching an entire country and its national identity as the starting point for a project must have been fairly daunting, how did you go about it?
CH: It was yes, but tackling the theme of ‘luck’ made it digestible to begin with. It would be impossible for me to represent the whole country and its national identity conclusively, but I hope that my work is able to shed some light on topics unique to Australia. Without doubt the end result is merely my personal response to the country, but one which uses real events and real situations. I guess my pictures show a sort of undercurrent to the perceived national identity of Australia.
BO: Was it your first time responding to literature using photography, and did you find it challenging to visually convey these ideas of good and bad luck without relying on clichés?
CH: When I am working on a project I try to find as much literature as I can around the topic I’m focusing on. This project was the same in that sense, I researched areas of interest as best I could before making the work, but just as importantly, my feelings towards Australia were developing alongside this study. The literature informed my response, but it was as much about combining the research with what I was seeing – connecting the dots. New threads within the story revealed themselves all the time and it became clearer throughout that Australia really does have a distinctly unique relationship to the notion of luck.
I choose to embrace the cliches I was seeing, for example, people searching for gold (hoping for good-luck) or people with injuries (probably bad-luck), but if the pictures ever felt too forced then I didn’t use them. Alongside this I was also searching for subtle ways to convey these notions, portraiture played a key role in this sense, leaving the viewer to question whether the person could be deemed lucky or unlucky – or sometimes both intertwined.
BO: As you say, the portraits of the many characters you met along the way are at the heart of the project. How did you go about meeting and approaching the people in the series?
CH: Almost everyone in the work I met at the time of photographing them, some encounters briefer than others. They are people I am drawn to for one reason or another. Luck would always be in my consciousness when making work, but not always at the front of my mind when approaching someone. Often it would reveal itself after a conversation with them, for example, when photographing Candy outside Cash Converters on the Gold Coast, it was only after talking to her that I found out she was spending money she had won on slot machines. But I was drawn to her through the energy she exerted and a gaze across a car park.
BP: You mentioned falling out of love with the photographic language you were initially using when shooting in Australia. The style of this current project is very distinct in its use of square crop and mixing black and white and colour. Why was this a more appropriate visual language to utilise?
CH: Throughout the the years that I spent shooting the work, I consciously altered the way I wanted to make images and gradually decided to go with my feelings more. At the beginning I had an urge to make a reportage story and dreams of getting it featured in a news publication – packaging it as such. But this quickly fell away after my first trip, when I became much more interested in making speculative work, which is more open-ended and which allows me to express myself more. It feels to me much more appropriate to work in this way when dealing with such an open set of ideas.
BO: While on the subject of style, were there any photographers or artists who particularly influenced the aesthetic and methods behind your practice for this project?
Definitely, but because it was shot over the course of almost 4 years, each trip I was inspired in-part by different artists. A few have remained consistent throughout, such as Tom Wood – particularly his portraiture – and in the same vein Ken Grant, especially because of the way he uses the square frame. The New Topographic’s have always been a source of inspiration and influence – even if portraiture is my main focus – I enjoy making landscape images and that way of working feels applicable to Australia, with its distinctive vernacular and version of ‘the west’. I explored the edges of cities with this style in mind.
Alongside these stylistic influences I developed a fascination with Max Pinckers and found myself agreeing with a lot of the ideas he puts forward about the documentary genre, this allowed me to see things more fluidly than I perhaps did before. Then between the 2nd and the 3rd trip I was introduced to Gregory Halpern and can’t help but be inspired ZZYXX.
BO: The project is quite ambiguous with many of the pictures prompting more questions than they answer. Without giving too much away, how will you structure the book to provide context and a sense of narrative to the imagery, whilst retaining the ambiguity that makes them so compelling?
While culminating the work in a book – which is still just a dummy – I’ve tried to bring attention to the underlying themes through sequencing, such as playing with the idea of ‘searching’ and tropes like ‘breaking’ throughout, in order to indicate a sort of search for luck which is flawed from the outset. I’ve used images of people searching for gold, and towards the end of the book a shattered bus stop window, which on first glance looks like crystals. A portion of the images act as symbols that reflect the themes I want the reader to consider, I use sequencing as a way of building momentum towards specific symbols which give a sense of the narrative. But even after this the work is still ambiguous, I’m sure will be read differently depending upon the viewer. The hope is that overall it prompts viewers to question their preconceptions of Australia, and asks why the country possibly unique relationship with luck.
BO: Now you’ve finished shooting the project, do you consider Australia to be a ‘Lucky Country’?
CH: As a nation it has much to be thankful for, such as its position as the second wealthiest median country in the world and a nation which holds 19% of the worlds total known mineral resources. It is of course also a beautiful country, due its sheer size, variety of habitats and its distinctly unique fauna. But I feel much the same as I did at the beginning of the project, which is that however ‘lucky’ Australia is in this regard, like anywhere else, luck (which is of course a man-made and unquantifiable notion) isn’t afforded to everyone, so it is like anywhere else in that sense – rich get richer, the poor stay poor.
Although, one area where the country still does hold true to its reputation as ‘lucky’, would be that the country still has a sense of being a ‘land of opportunity’ for people arriving, due to it being a country which needs workers from overseas. I say this because I worked all sorts of jobs whilst there and have met many people who have emigrated there and carved out a more than decent living (surprisingly fast) – which I don’t think you can do in quite the same way in the UK, for the most part.
Even with all this said, It’s important to remember the history of Australia and its indigenous populations’ relationship with the country, which was taken away from them. Many parts of Australia are still dealing with this dispossession now, so I could never say that the country was a ‘lucky country’, because that would be to ignore its dark history.
BO: Finally, what are you currently working on and what are your plans for the future?
CH: I’m still very preoccupied with bringing this work through to fruition in book form, I’m of course hoping for it be published, but prepared to go down the the route of self-publish if I have to. The work is currently on display in the Gare Du Nord in Paris. My aim is also to find a space where I can exhibit the work in its entirety some time soon, I have a few ideas of how I could do this but nothing concrete yet.
Alongside this though I’m currently trying out a few ideas and shooting along a few themes in my home town of Bristol. It’s important to me to keep shooting and discover ideas through making images.
BO: Thanks for your time, and good luck getting the book out there.
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Bertie is a London-based documentary photographer, writer and co-founder of Chrono Collective. His personal projects focus on youth culture, sports and fashion. You can follow his work here: www.bertieoakesphoto.com