Profile: Donna Bailey

Profile by Jessica Longworth

Donna Bailey is a visual journalist who lives with her family in Kangaroo Flat, an outer suburb of Bendigo. In 2006, she joined Oculi, an Australian photographic agency, where she is known for her striking images of young people, including her own children. The images are set in the open landscape exploring the themes of girlhood, boyhood, young parenthood, regional life and the drought. I spoke to her about what originally drew her to photography, as well as, the attraction of just stopping to take a photograph of a subject. Donna spoke to me about her most recent project ‘Don’t play on the Mullock’, and her deep engagement with the landscape and history of her family life.

What is it about a story, place or a situation that makes you want to stop and take a photo?

In a nutshell, it’s the subject (person) first, then the lighting. The place always plays a big part in the photographs I create because it is usually a place that I know well or am deeply curious about. For example, where I live is adjacent to former alluvial and deep mining sites and the landscape is quite degraded in places because of gold mining practices and white settlement in the area.

What originally drew you to photography? Would you say that the same thing still attracts you today?

As a child I loved the magic of image making. During the 1970s my family had a polaroid camera and my wider family (Aunts, Uncles, cousins) were always taking photos and creating images. These were usually based around family gatherings, family picnics and family holidays. Later when I studied photography at University, as a mature aged student with four children, I learned that I could really push the boundaries of photography, particularly around the genre of family (and later, maternal) photography. Using film (rather than digital) has always been important to me. Apart from loving the particular qualities of film, the fact that the outcome is not always exactly what I imagine it to be, further engages me with the process.

What do you hope to achieve through your photographic works?

I love to exhibit my photographs and to see them published in books. I hope that my photographic practice contributes in a meaningful way to the discourse around contemporary Australian photography.

What is something that you would consider a life-changing moment in your career?

There have been so many. I remember first photographing the Anzac Day dawn service as a student during the mid 1990s and realising that I just loved photographing people and engaging with them through that process. It has been life changing to complete my postgraduate degrees. I completed a Masters in 2002 and my PhD in 2012. The fact that photography has played such an important role in my family life has been most affecting.

What are the biggest challenges you have faced in your career so far? What has been the most difficult project you’ve worked on? Why?

Definitely my Doctorate. It’s a pretty hard call to balance family life and study. The intensity at times was overwhelming.

From where do you draw your photographic and methodological influences?

From life.

What inspired your latest work ‘Don’t play on the Mullock’? Can you share an interesting story from the process?

Mullock was a culmination of influences. My children had grown and were psychologically moving away from me and I had a real desire to document that in some way. So, in Mullock the children are small, set in the distance and the landscape which foregrounds the image kind of takes over as the subject.

Then there was my fascination with Australian history and the experience of living in a place that is so saturated with the relics of time past. Living in the bush can be at times a little spooky. It is different to visiting a place and seeing it as a specific site in which to create a photo; twenty years of sleeping in the same place yet still hearing unfamiliar noises at night, the many difficult years of drought, dead pets and wildlife (see my image of the drowned sheep), the small objects from the nineteenth and twentieth century that we have unearthed in our day to day living, the stories of women’s lives on the goldfields… I wanted to punctuate my images with the layers of meaning that I have taken from the landscape over many years.

An interesting story from the process occurred when I learned of family letters that are in the State Library of Victoria Collection. The letters written by my great great grandparents home to Ireland during the 1860s, mention dressing their three little girls in red dresses so as ‘…to be seen in the heavily timbered country’. Usually I wouldn’t intentionally ‘dress’ my subjects, but in the Whipstick photographs that form a part of this series, I intentionally photographed my three young nieces in their red dresses, I was interested in emplacing an element of my own family history into the Mullock series.

Are you currently working on any new projects? If so, what are they about?

I have a few projects. I am looking at ‘masculine’ aspects of the landscape and I am re-looking at family.

How often do you experiment with mixed media techniques in your own photographic work?

I don’t.

What are some of the lessons photojournalism has taught you, and what advice would you give to emerging and aspiring photojournalists?

Advice to students, don’t spend too much time agonizing about which stories to create. Look at what is right in front of you to begin with. It will all move forward from there. And read about other photographers and their practices. The lessons are too many though I admit to almost always using full frame as I was taught to way back in first year photojournalism.

What do you strive to achieve for your future career?

It would be lovely for the work to show overseas. I have had some opportunities to do this but would like to pursue more.

Donna’s website can be viewed at: Donna Bailey: Oculi 

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