When one goes through Australian photojournalist Claire Martin’s work, one immediately picks up her sensitivity towards social issues. Her work is utterly grave and human yet has a poetic aestheticism that makes it a perfect means of communicating a message through the medium of photography.
Some of her most famous works include her photo essays on the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, the plight of the people who reside in the Upper-East suburbs of Vancouver and “Femme Fatale”, her work on one of the largest underground industries in the world, the sex industry.
Emaho caught up with Claire to chat further.
‘PORTRAIT OF WOMANA- Woman rides the local public transport’
Your work highlights your concern regarding society’s grave issues. What made you change from a career in social work to photography?
I studied a degree in Social Work, but I never actually practiced as a social worker. Alongside this degree I studied Anthropology, Psychology, Art History and Communications. These are the things I am interested in exploring in this world, and photography is my tool to explore these ideas. At first I knew I wanted to work in some kind of humanitarian capacity, which is why I studied Social Work. At some point I realised I wanted control of the situation, and working within an organisation means you are subject to following their protocol. I have my own ideas on ethical and sensitive issues and I wanted to be able to express them. Working independently as a photographer allows me to tell my subjects’ stories and try to raise awareness and challenge prejudice without the limitations of a third entity. It’s a collaboration between me and my subject and we decide what the message is.
To what extent do you compose your shots?
Composition is an important element of visual communication. It’s composition and light that allow our brains to interpret imagery into meaning quickly and effectively. Composition is something you learn to harness “in the moment” so I don’t compose my shots in a superficial way, but I am always looking for the visual cues in any given situation that will help me express my point visually. I never really “stage” a photograph, perhaps only if I am doing a formal portrait. Then I might direct someone to sit where the light is the best and the background is not distracting.
You have managed to capture the lives of the people of Haiti and the Upper East Side of Vancouver up close and personal. Were you faced with any hesitance from the people while you were documenting them?
Collaboration and consent are two of my favourite words. I’m not really interested in photographing people who are not interested in being photographed! I find my work is successful when I can help people tell their own story, who otherwise may not have the means, but who do have the desire. This is when you get the best access. There’s no point in trying to force access, it won’t work. My subject and I must have a mutual desire to work together. This is the basis of getting up close and personal.
Have you ever received harsh criticism for your essay “Femme Fatale”?
I haven’t received criticism for that series in particular, but I have received criticism in the past. It has been an important learning curve for me. One of my first jobs was in Northern Canada for a local newspaper. I submitted two series of images shot in a remote aboriginal community; one was about protestors fighting a mining development in the area, the other was a personal series of home life and many of the subjects were battling with alcohol addiction. The newspaper received a huge amount of flack for running the personal story. The story did not distinguish properly between the protesters and the home series. And it offended people on both sides. If presented properly it would have been fine, but my naivety at the time showed. Early in my career I was also criticised for not speaking about my work. You learn as you go and I have learnt from my own mistakes.
What makes you pick a project and how do you go about working on it?
It’s an evolution and my topics of interest change as I do. My first two series centred strongly on addiction, as this was a problem in my home life, it was important for me to express my point of view on this subject. Community, culture and marginalisation are also threads that run through my work. These are general interests of mine, as I said I studied anthropology and social work so tend to look for stories in this area. The social conscience element is really important to me as I hope to always break down prejudice and raise awareness with my work. Sometimes I choose something just because it offers me something different to my usual existence. Being a photographer is a good way to get away and explore either mentally or geographically. When it comes to personal work, a lot of it is self-invested. I have shot the series because it means something to me, not because I have been commissioned, I just do it and hope that it will be appreciated by a broader audience. I have also come to rely on grants to continue to work in this way so that I can take the time to research and explore and shoot new personal works.
‘From the series “The Downtown East Side” Tony lives in the Downtown Eastsidein the same building as his brother and sister in law. They have all been addicted to heroin for around 25 years. Tony lost his wife to AIDS 5 year ago. They had twin daughters who were born HIV positive and were taken away by the state immediately after birth. Tony is on the Methodone program, but continues to use heroin. Despite all the tragedies this drug has inflicted on his life he is still unable to quit.
Here he eats cream pie Claire brought for him’
What is the scope and scene of photography in Australia at the moment? How is it different from other countries in the world?
It is very supportive, but quite small and can be a little parochial. Over all I have had great support from the Australian community. When I first arrived home after many years of travelling I felt that it was very limiting, as there is not much happening of international interest here. We are stable, conservative and small in population. I wasn’t sure quite what to do. But like I said I have had great support from many of the institutions and photographers here. Thanks to the Internet I still look very much to the international scene to be inspired and shape my career, but it’s nice to know that your home town has your back.
Do you think that photographers who aim to capture aesthetic beauty find greater acclaim than photojournalists?
I think that a good photograph will find great acclaim. Aesthetics is important because it helps get the point across in an image. Many of the people who inspire me most are photojournalists in the true sense of the word, and they take aesthetics like light and composition into consideration with their images. I think there’s a certain part of the demographic that will be inclined to follow photojournalism, but if you can make an image beautiful too, then you are not just preaching to the converted, you stand a chance to make others who might not be inclined to stop and look. I think when photojournalists consider aesthetics this way they can reach a greater audience with their story.
’80 out of 1,000 Haitian children never see their first birthday’
A renowned photojournalist once told me that it was easier for a female photographer to approach a complete stranger with a camera. Do you agree?
It is probably easier to approach someone, but we have limitations too. As I woman I feel more vulnerable in certain situations that I am sure a man would not have to worry about. Regardless of gender you have to play to your strengths. And we each have different strengths and weaknesses. I don’t really think that the work is easier because of what gender you are. It comes down to your personality, approach and conviction. This is what will make or break the situation with a potential subject.
What has been the highest point in your career as a photographer?
Winning the IngeMorath award for female photographers under 30 years of age…
What do you have to say about Emaho Magazine’s attempts at bringing about a creative revolution?
Emaho seems to be bursting at the seams with creative energy, enthusiasm and inspiration. I love its diverse approach to creativity and its celebration of the joy in life.
Interviewed by: Manik Katyal and Marukh Budhraja
Pictures by: Claire Martin