The Argus’ Alexandra Gonzalez-Mendoza interviews photographer Ilana Rose about her career covering social justice work with organisations such as World Vision.
Alexandra: As a teenager, what inspired you to begin taking photographs? Aside from the idea of being able to capture a moment in time.
I have had photography all around me from a young age. My father and my uncle were both keen amateurs. They both had all the gear, so it was just happening around me all the time. I loved looking through all the old photographs and trying to imagine the stories behind them, so I had a keen interest from early on.
I was fortunate that my Dad bought me a nice camera when I was 12 or 13, I managed to learn how to use it all. I think that’s what started it. Also, my mother was a painter and I could never really paint or draw, so it [photography] was my way to express myself and show my world.
Signs of the Times – Ilana Rose
A: When did you start to delve into video?
It was my minor at university, and I was really fortunate we had some amazing teachers back then who went on to become really well known film directors – so one of them was John Ruane who did a famous one called ‘Death in Brunswick’, and we also had Paul Cox who was sort of still just on the edge of leaving Prahan [College of Advanced Education – known as Victorian College] then so it was at the time that he was bringing out one of his really big movies.
So the interest was there, I was taught really young, but then it sort of got packaged away and I only did photography. In the early 2000’s there was much more of a need for producing multimedia pieces. I think the first really big multimedia piece I did was for SBS.
It’s just that thing about being a jack-of-all trades these days and having a really good eye and also for me having that technical understanding from university made it a really easy jump. Then of course with my work with World Vision there were often these very small teams. So again you just have to do a bit of absolutely everything. And a large portion of my work was often used as multimedia which involved combining my video and stills to tell the stories. But again I find it pretty easy to jump across [mediums], watching videographers they seem to have more trouble taking stills I think.
Backstage with Tina Arena – Ilana Rose (2002)
A: Have you ever had issues turning down potential projects? If so, what is the hardest aspect of it?
No, the only issues have been that I’ve had too much workload. Having always been a freelancer, before World Vision, you just take on everything and then work it out later. I think that has been of great benefit to me.
As I’m really diverse in what I can shoot and it’s definitely an advantage, I’m pretty comfortable in all areas. I never turned down a job, unless I just couldn’t physically manage it or wasn’t available.
Valiant Ron – Ilana Rose (2007)
A: You’ve clearly completed many projects over the years, what are some of the most impactful or meaningful to you?
Well I was looking at this question and thinking, “it’s like asking to pick your favourite child”, they’re all incredibly impactful and meaningful when you’re actually in the process of creating the work. In the past I used to spend huge amounts of time on anyone project.
The first one that comes to mind was a documentation on everything in Melbourne – the train gangs, the graffiti artists. That was at the beginning of the 90’s and it was my first major magazine piece. It’s that whole thing about spending the time building trust to be able to get good imagery and the understanding of it.
When I was a UK correspondent I did an impactful [story] on the child leukaemia death rate in Sellafield in England. That was absolutely horrendous. Not only were there well above the average rates of leukaemia, but they copped a lot of the Chernobyl fall out. So you couldn’t drink milk, you could have any fresh produce. People couldn’t move out of the area because they couldn’t sell the houses, it was a big story. British Nuclear Fuel tried to threaten to sue us, we had told the truth and they just weren’t happy with that.
For five years I was the inaugural photographer at The Big Issue. I did an ongoing photo essay around social justice, mostly in regards to homelessness. The project gave me a great vehicle to be able to tell people’s stories.
Then I went on and did about a 5-6 year documentation in the Indigenous unit at the justice department here in Victoria and that was all about the roll out of the Koori Court throughout Victoria. Once again amazing programs that the justice department were doing, with the support of the then Attorney General Rob Hulls. I felt really privileged to meet everyone, get to know their stories and be able to represent them and give them voice. Again having the opportunity to meet the community and collaborate with them, in order to give the general public a better understanding of issues. Particularly social justice issues which are pertinent at the moment. Visiting things like youth detention centres and farms that they were putting the youth in, to avoid [them] going to jail.
The work that I did with World Vision was incredibly impactful. In 2014 I covered the 10th anniversary of the tsunami and travelled with the CEO Tim Costello to Sri Lanka and Banda Aceh, looked at the programs and how the people recovered in the last 10 years.
With the Weekend Australian Magazine, I did a Rwandan story about the 20th anniversary of the genocide. Again the stories were just heartbreaking and the recovery was really slow.
Then I went to Ethiopia and did a story about the 30th anniversary of the famine, that was actually a really uplifting and positive story. It was lush, it was green and the people were empowered – they had an understanding. I have no doubt that Ethiopia are more prepared now with much better knowledge of water supply and planting. Along with the support of organisations like World Vision and other NGOs (non-government organisations). I think there’s huge gains that are being made.
The hardest story of that year was when I went to South Sudan, again for the Weekend Australian Magazine. South Sudan, it’s just an absolute tragedy, it’s our youngest country only 5 years old and the civil war has been raging for almost all of those 5 years. Everyone’s got so much attention on Syria, that there’s not a lot of concentration on South Sudan. There’s atrocities being made against the people and I met many unaccompanied children it was devastating.
Rachel and Mary – Ilana Rose (2015)
But when I was there, I think one of the saddest things was when I went into the university, which was just this magnificent building and it looked completely trashed. You’d see things like student ID cards on the floor and all the exam papers and it really brought home, the huge loss that South Sudan were going to face in losing all of that education, I found that devastating.
You only live once – Ilana Rose (2014)
I visited a lot of different refugee camps, there’re called POCs (Protection of Civilian camps). The circumstances that people were living in, the fact they didn’t know where any of their family were and they couldn’t see any future, it was devastating.
A: How do you handle coming back from locations like Africa, Indonesia, and South America, when there is just so much going on and it can be quite a shock when returning back?
I think, I wouldn’t have done as well earlier in my career. When I’m in the moment, I tend to be able to do my work. It’s finding the way into the story, and listening, and being respectful to people. I always feel that what I’m doing is really positive, so I feel that it’s my job to be able to tell people’s stories.
When I get home we would often do post trip counselling. I’m really verbal, so I talk things out a lot. When I come back it’s really difficult for my family, because I’m quite dislocated. I’m used to working 20 hour days and being on the move and having my head elsewhere, so I think that’s hard for my family.
Because you’re moving so fast, when you get back as there’s so much work to do the moment you hit the ground, it’s not until weeks after that you actually get the opportunity to reflect what you’ve seen and done, and put it into perspective and just be hopeful that every little bit [you do] can help in some way.
A: When did you discover that you had a passion for social justice issues and giving a voice to people who would probably not have any, and how did you begin to enter that area of photography?
Well I think I’ve always been attracted in the unseen. So in my early twenties, I was really into documenting youth culture and subculture.
I was really interested in telling stories of what I thought were amazing artistic accomplishments, like with the train gangs, which were driven about community – similar with skateboarding. And I loved all the fashion and everything that goes with subculture – the combination of music and all of those things.
Skate – Ilana Rose (1990)
When I was a foreign correspondent in England I had never seen homelessness like that before, it was completely shocking and unbelievable. It wasn’t long after I returned to Australia, I became involved with The Big Issue. Down in Melbourne people were being sacked from their jobs and there was all of these people that were all of a sudden finding themselves in really hard predicaments. The mainstream press just wasn’t picking it up, so basically I just made it a bit of a mission. I think it’s just what I’m interested in, if you see something that you don’t know much about, it’s that curiosity to know more. And I figure that if I’m curious and want to know more I think other people will be.
Bunny Hoopstar – Ilana Rose (2010)
A: Do you collaborate with other photographers on projects?
Not very often, it’s a pretty solo enterprise. There’s a group in Melbourne called MAPgroup (Many Australian Photographers). A good friend of mine started that up, his name is Andrew Chapman and he’s just the most amazing person just to bring photographers together.
I was a part of a big project documenting a rural area of Victoria called Ararat, and a friend of his was a teacher there and the town was going into decline. Andrew gathered about 20-30 of us and we went to the town for a weekend. We pretty much did a day in the life and we donated it to the township. Then the Mayor launched an exhibition for us at the gallery and it was a fantastic collaboration but unfortunately they [collaborations] don’t happen that often.
I’ve been part of quite a few group exhibitions but in day-to-day work you tend to collaborate more with writers because a lot of my work in the past has been in mainstream print; in magazine or newspapers, collaborating or working with journalists as well.
I also worked for 10 years with a journalist and that’s how I managed to get a lot of footage. We gained a lot of ground, because we could supply both text and images at a high standard.
Hanoai Motorbikes – Ilana Rose (2010)
A: Are you currently working for any news publications or organisations at the moment or do you work on your own personal documentary projects?
Well I’ve always been freelance, I’ve never worked for anyone. With The Age I worked on ongoing columns and things, but I was never on staff and I never did shifts. I used to be able to go to individual editors and just pitch ideas.
I’ve never really had that relationship [in regards to working for someone], I did a lot of work with the Weekend Australian Magazine and World Vision, I have a great relationship with them.
I’m currently not working with any one organisation, I work on a personal project and then I pitch it, that’s usually how I go.
On Patrol – Ilana Rose (1990)
A: What sort of stories did you cover for welfare organisations such as The Brotherhood of St Laurence, The Smith Family and World Vision? Were they part of any awareness campaigns that the organisations held?
Yeah always, so they were clients of mine and as a photographer, I would be shooting annual reports for them and brochures and publicity campaigns, all sorts of different things.
My style is pretty documentary and those sorts of agencies don’t do a lot of PR, as I said it’s much more for the annual reports and documenting.
I used to do a huge number of events, I was the Women’s Affairs photographer in Victoria for 11 years, and I used to cover talkfests and photograph speakers.
But on the other hand I also produced a lot of exhibitions for the government. For human services I did a huge documentation of the roll out and upgrade of all the homeless shelters. I was known for social justice, so I used to get a lot of social justice that work, but a lot of it ended up for exhibitions. It was the same with the Koori work that I did, I ended up having an 80 photograph show in Federation Square, here in Melbourne, for Reconciliation Day. The Koori work was 5 or 6 years of documenting.
It was wonderful to get public conversations happening. As well as engage the community, so that they gained understanding. Having the visuals was just such a great connector that way.
A: I really loved your images from when you captured women of the world which was featured in Vice. How long did that work for World Vision go for? What were some of the common problems that would pop up throughout your journey photographing?
I did 14 trips, basically to everywhere that you can think of, whether it was for media jobs or campaigns or social media trips. But really what struck me as I travelled around was the strength and integrity of the women, the way they held their families together. In 2012 I had a show on at Head On Photo Festival, I wanted to be able to again tell these people’s stories.
The thing that I was most passionate about, was women being the pillars in their community, the ones that held it together. The amazing women that I met, just had so much strength while living in the harshest circumstances you can possibly imagine, looking after their families.
It was something that as a mother I could relate too, because my child was about the same age as the children I was photographing. It was just incredible, especially to have that bond, between myself and these women, and that depth of understanding. Not that you could ever understand what they go through.
But once again a lot of the things they talked about, the worries for their children’s future and education were things that just all Australians can identify with.
So it’s just a massive picture-editing job, just going back and thinking about all these incredible people, then putting it together as a cohesive story. The entire project happened over four years.
Refugee Camp South Sudan – Ilana Rose/World Vision (2014)
In a lot of countries the common problems the people faced included lack of food, lack of water, education, and gender issues. I was in India not long after a horrible rape case. So talking to women about the challenges there, and talking to women that were HIV+ and had lived in villages that had been prostituted for generations. How they changed the way the men think and in fact how the women themselves think.
So gender issues are a big issue along with maternal and child health, trying to stop children dying under [the age of] 5. Education overall was a big one too. It was surprising that you’d go to a lot of places and the environment was so harsh that they couldn’t grow vegetables, they didn’t understand the importance of balanced meals or they couldn’t get anything. Trying to get your head around why people in Peru eat Guinea Pigs is a hard one.
But there’s no meat in these countries, they’re deadly poor. Deforestation and what people have done to the environment, becomes quite apparent when you start going into these third world countries. And you start realising that because of the deforestation nothing grows, the rain run-off is shocking and has damaged the land. A lot of countries like Indonesia still do mass burning.
It’s actually quite scary when you start adding up all the problems.
A: If you could give some advice to your younger self, regarding photography and multimedia, what would it be?
I think the main thing for a young photographer starting off, and for me when I was starting off, was the idea of being really tenacious – following things through and being a good listener.
You need to do good research, so you know what you’re talking about. Making relationships with your subjects is really important, but you also need to get a balanced view. Therefore, you’ve got to make sure you talk to a lot of people about any issue, and I didn’t quite catch onto that until later.
Making sure that when you’re in the moment that you cover things well. Including lots of wide and close shots, things that can be utilised across all mediums. Whether it’s online or on print just having that diversity of most styles, so that you can be run in high-end magazines, but as well it can run on Facebook. Also, so that you can differentiate what sort of content you need for different applications. Another big thing is trying to collect past images, so have your [work and project] filing done in ways that you can actually keep it under control.
To an extent digital is much easier, negatives and transparency were much more difficult to handle in some ways. Also metadata, that’s the one thing I’m finding is very important now. A lot of my work has become historically important, not necessarily because they are great photographs, but as the time passes people gain interest and want to collect history.
A perspective – Ilana Rose (1989)
So, I don’t have all my information because they were just negatives. My advice now, would be to make sure any scrap of information you receive is placed into the metadata, so that you actually know and remember what you’re talking about.
At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if no one else sees it, just put as much in your metadata as possible, because you might lose your journal. Just make sure you’ve got the who, what, when and why. And the other thing, backup all your information on hard drives and make sure you’ve got one [hard drive] at your mum’s as well, in case your house burns down.
Overall, you’ve got to have a strong self-belief and just be passionate.