Interview with Sony World Photography Finalist Chloe Bartram
Sony World Photography Award finalist Chloe Bartram, talks us through her photographic journey.
Did you come from a snap-happy family?
Neither of my parents are photographers but they did distil an appreciation of the arts in me. When I was young, I remember Mum drawing objects and figures with chalk and I would copy them. Dad is a chef but is always building and bringing new life to furniture and odds and ends. They both encouraged me to follow whatever path I chose and I always knew I would be part of a creative industry.
What role did photography play in your life growing up?
Even though Mum wasn’t a photographer she was always pulling out the camera for family photos in almost every situation, usually followed by the groans of my brother and me! As an adult it is fantastic to be able to look through family albums and put names to faces I’ve never known, or to remember a forgotten memory.
When did you decide to turn your lens on elements of popular culture – what are the challenges in shooting in this field?
I came upon child beauty pageants through just being curious. I knew about the culture in America and wanted to find out if the events were held in Australia and if so, to what extent. I am very interested in issues surrounding women and getting access to the pageants was a way of me understanding what it means for a girl growing up now, and in a privileged society. The biggest challenge in working in this field is gaining access. Sometimes the stars will align and doors will open, but most of the time it takes persistence and finding the right person to talk to.
You recently chronicled the antics of a kids’ beauty pageant – what drew you to photograph this subject, and what were the challenges in photographing kids?
Before this project I had very limited, if any, experience with children so that was a major learning curve. Luckily for me the kids didn’t shy away from the camera, but that exposed a different problem. They had to become comfortable enough with my presence to just completely ignore me. For every documentary image I captured I have ten of a smiling child. I knew nothing about this subject and that is what drew me in.
Can you describe your creative process?
The opportunity to take time to completely research and engage in the subject is when I work best. I start off by looking at a major theme, in this case women, and then bringing it down to one subject – child beauty pageants – and then conceptualise what exactly it is that I am looking at. With ‘Sparkle, baby’ I wanted to explore if child beauty pageants increased the pressures of society or if perhaps the girls who competed in them thought of the events as a celebration. Research is important to me, as I like to know the historical background, cultural position and what to look for before I start shooting a project. Once the shooting begins I keep an open mind and constantly journal about what I seeing and learning.
How would you describe your photographic style?
I immerse myself in the subject and shoot intuitively. When I am photographing, everything but the task ahead disappears and I get caught up in my subject. I analyse everything I did and shot when I get home. I tell a story through my documentary practice by drawing people into my visual language, which uses unconventional composure and allows the viewer to be surprised. From day one we are taught in numeracy and literacy but not to read the visual and I think, because of this, I work almost completely off emotion. The more you shoot a situation the easier it is to read what is going to happen next, but it all starts with a feeling.
How important is it to set up a rapport with your subject?
I believe it is so important that a project such as mine be a collaboration between the photographer and the subject. For me, people matter more than images. The outcome of an image or a series is directly connected to who you’re shooting and the relationship between the subject and the photographer. If the subjects are uncomfortable or uneasy it shows and the intimacy of an image is lost. It is also important to realise that you can’t control the reaction to the work. Work is looked at with an opinion already positioned in the mind of a viewer, and this opinion can change between countries, cultures and social groups. I made this work by living on a shoestring budget and living off air, but it is because of the relationships I formed and have maintained that it was at all possible.
You were recently named a finalist in Sony’s World Photography competition. Could you give us the back-story behind your image?
This image of Armani, now four years old, was one of the first I took in this project. It was taken before the day had begun and is of her having her hair curled by her mum and family friend. Marisa (mum) was also the very first person I talked to and was able to get to know on a one-on-one basis, and it is because her two daughters, Armani and Mia-Rose, that this project found its feet. I remember sitting and watching Armani having her hair done for quite some time, as it took a while for her to forget I was there and aiming a camera at her face.
The location of the shoot was about a two and half hour drive from my house and I remember the whole time driving home thinking, ‘what a failure the day was’ and how I must have been blind to shoot the photos that I did. I always considered this day to be one of my worst days, photographically, but it goes to show that you never who is going to react the work. We are our own worst critics.
See more of Chloe’s work at chloebartram.com