It just seemed a natural: an antipodean anecdote to the tall poppies on the other side of the cultural world.
‘Down Under’ Australia packs a punch in photojournalism; its reputation is almost above any other nation. Slowly, the European and North American media have accepted the excellence that Aussies bring to the craft. It is probably the quirky, curious, larrikin style Australians bring to the merry band that inhabits the cutting edge. To the detractors who would accuse us of being over the horizon, out of touch and uncultured; we would respond that it is a mere short hop to the frontlines of Asia and the Pacific. Papua and Indonesia are next door. The Australian Defence Force deployed for 10 years to South Vietnam. Now, many new Australians are people from nations we were once in conflict.
There is an uncanny half-degree of separation in our métier that brought us all together. The germ of °SOUTH was seeded in 2005 over several late and kaleidoscopic nights with Ben Bohane, who I'd known before I moved to Brisbane. We realised the need for an Aussie-based photo collective that could challenge the Euro–US centric nature of photo agencies. It was time to put a serious photoreportage collective on the dry Aussie landscape, with a particular focus on Asia and the Pacific. It wasn't hard to come up with a dream team list of other accomplished local photo shooters who had already shown a dedication to be witness to global manias. Stephen Dupont, David Dare Parker, Jack Picone and Michael Coyne spring to mind. Joyce Evans, who opened the first photographic gallery in Australia, would bring her curatorial knowledge. It was also time to give a proper home to the archive of Sean Flynn, whose solid work proved he was well able to step out of his famous father's shadow. The latest addition to the crew is Ashley Gilbertson, whose outstanding work in Iraq brings in a new generational verve.
We all rocked up providentially at FotoFreo (festival of photography in Fremantle, Western Australia) and over a barbeque in Mark Dodd’s backyard built on the idea of a ‘not necessarily for money’ cooperative. From this we imagined an agency downstream. Upfront, we would put together quintessential oeuvres, shows, books and prints: an outlet for the precious material that we all brought to the communal table. One of the criteria for members was that we all had our own archive, and we had to be “dated” enough to contribute to the greying hairs.
°SOUTH has a common heritage, one that was born in conflict from Vietnam in the 60s and continues today in Afghanistan. It includes nearly every outbreak of declared or undeclared war in-between. We have witnessed the rise of civilian casualties as populations suffer under the heightened efficiency of modern warfare. Trying to document and publish these truths in the face of television, ‘lifestyle content’ and ether communications has only become more testing. The magazines and journals that would grace space with our photographs are now infotainment-orientated, run by grey folk striving for a fast commercial buck. Yet, we remain – perhaps delusionally – dedicated to getting our images out and influencing the next generation of shooters to follow the same committed path.
We can all be, by turn, idealistic, vulnerable and somewhat anarchic. We carry built-in bullshit detectors that we hope can pierce the hubris and bring an unflinching eye to what happens when big ideas collide with mortal human beings. We hope to always stand witness.
It is the passion of touching the shutter which drives us, keeps us fresh and inspired for each new story, each new venture: the new images that magically appear in the viewfinder, and then the Zen moment of freezing the moment. We have a connection that might compare with the synergy created when the five founders of Magnum came together in Paris post-World War II. Now it is the noughties, and we still find conflict binding us. The near-forgotten lineage of our peers – stretching from Frank Hurley, Damien Parer and George Silk, through to Neil Davis – has inspired us into an eclectic mob of similarly focused shooters.
As a footnote: our honorary member, Sean Flynn, son of the Australian actor, Errol, joins us spiritually. Sean went missing on assignment in Eastern Cambodia on 6 April 1970. Our west coast member David Dare Parker has to be acknowledged for the brilliance of the moniker °SOUTH and we thank Steve Dupont for coordinating this first project.
It seems fitting that this first project is about war, since it is the binding thread that runs through most of our work. We anticipate exploring a range of themes - perhaps, every two years, which we hope will bring a new appreciation of the role of photography as it is practised in our part of the world.