Rosemary Sorensen | November 16, 2007
IN a pub in Tenterfield, NSW, Nathalie Latham is hugged by an indigenous Australian for asking a few simple questions.
The questions are about politics, but not of the kind we are endlessly hearing asked and answered in the drawn out lead-up to next week's federal election. Instead of asking which party or leader people will vote for, Latham asked, "Do you vote?"
She was disturbed to find that whenever she asked the question of indigenous Australians, the answer was, more often than not, no. Latham finds that heartbreaking.
Latham was born in Brisbane, and went to university there and in Sydney before going to Japan to do a masters degree in Japanese. Soon after, she began making documentaries on film and video, then developed a name for herself as a still photographer.
Earlier this year, an exhibition of photographs of artists called Australia's Creative Diaspora was shown at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.
From her base in Paris, Latham set out to document what photography historian Geoffrey Batchen calls the "double-edged" situation of "courageous Australians going out there into the unknown", which is also the "loss of another generation of young Australian talent drawn to the lure of elsewhere".
Latham is now working in Berlin where she plans to show a version of her Do You Vote? project in parliament.
The project began in 2003, prompted by a dinner party conversation about politics, during which Latham expressed her disbelief that the American people would elect George W.Bush for a second term. "I just wasn't convinced by what I was being told in the media, and I was shocked by the American people's acceptance of Bush," Latham says. One of her fellow diners listened to her concern, then suggested: "Well, why don't you go around America and speak to people and find out what they really think?"
"The media doesn't do that," Latham says. "They have different agendas, so I did go to America, and I took a Greyhound bus starting in New York and did a road trip."
Latham approached people on the bus, in the bus stations and on the streets of the places she visited, and asked them if they'd co-operate with her. When she later expanded the project to include people in European cities, and then Australians, she discovered a marked difference in willingness to take part.
In Europe, she says, she was turned down endlessly by people suspicious of a wandering woman with a camera. In England, people were downright hostile.
Australians were much more accommodating, but at the same time their responses were much less thoughtful. Despite the vote being compulsory, questions about what people wanted out of politicians elicited "homogeneous responses".
"It didn't matter where I was talking to people, in Tasmania or Brisbane, there's no great difference between right or left wing. You can see it in the newspapers too."
In that first road trip across the US, she established parameters for what has become a huge project involving hundreds of mini-interviews. She asked what she says is a series of innocuous questions, beginning with: "Do you vote?" She then asked what her subjects think are the priorities of the administration, what they would like the priorities of the next administration to be, and then a question specific to the country she is in.
In the US she asked: "How would you like the rest of the world to perceive the USA?" and received answers such as, "It would be nice to see the US practise what it preaches", "A giving people", and "That we are the policeman of the world" (this last from a fellow who appeared to be living illegally in Alabama, and who also wanted the next administration to "stop homosexuality, murder and police brutality").
The idea was to ask a question openly
and without any expectations about the answer, and then listen and transcribe exactly what is said.
"I wasn't interested in who people voted for," Latham says, "but what interested them, how they wanted their country run, what their priorities were. I wanted to see how they saw their own country.
"I wanted to break the link between politics and the media. Journalists never spend the time to ask a lot of people, they only ask a very small number and about very narrow issues."
Bowling up to people on the street was tiring and Latham says she had to develop a thick skin to cope with the frequent rejection. She describes the process of interviewing as a "performance piece" and says it was important to establish a relationship with the subject before she asked whether she could take a photograph. "It's important to gain their trust," she says.
"The person in front of me is always gauging me on the integrity of my work, so I keep talking, trying to create a relationship, and you can see the look on their faces when they will co-operate.
"It is more or less a dare that got me going, and I never imagined I'd be doing this for so long when I started.
"And it can be very hard work when you've been rejected over and over.
"In the States it was easy, because everyone thinks they've got the chance to be famous, so they're very friendly, but the further north in England I went, the harder it was to get people to talk."
Nevertheless, she did get a show out of her photographs and interviews in England, and the parliamentarian who opened it was impressed. "He said, as a politician, people never speak to him like that, never tell him what they really think," Latham says. "People do like to feel heard, and I don't think people ask these questions enough.
"Everything is personal. If you ask an old person, they'll tell you about pensions; young couples are interested in interest rates. I did find that global warming, which is very much on the agenda in Australia, wasn't much on the radar elsewhere." Despite that, Latham found her interviews in Australia depressing. "The level of political debate is very low and the pattern of discussion is very narrow. I don't think there's the same distribution of information as in Europe."
Latham is working towards a publication based on her Do You Vote? series, and also working with a sound designer to create a video work. It's not exactly art, she says, and the photographs are snaps, grabbing the moment in time when the person voiced their opinion, rather than social portraits.
When she finishes the project, it will have taken her more than five years from the moment she stepped on the bus in New York, to document a huge range of reactions to her questions about politics.
"I don't actually think of myself as political," Latham says, "but all my work has an undertow, quietly political."