My Body My Labour

This week we catch-up with Annie Jacobs, one of the founders of PhotoAccess, to talk about the fascinating My Body My Labour project that PhotoAccess was part of in the late eighties. In August 2016 Unions ACT donated to PhotoAccess a collection of seven of the eight panels from the My Body My Labour series, produced in 1987/88 in a collaboration between Huw Davies and Annie Jacobs. The photographic panels came out of a major three-year project that was supported by the then ACT Trades and Labour Council (now known as Unions ACT) and the Australia Council’s Art & Working Life Program, that looked to present working experiences in a cultural context and to use the tools of art to give greater public access to the issues and realities affecting workers and the labour movement.

15327291_1301734923224441_633146325531092697_n(Image: Annie Jacobs and PhotoAccess Director Janice Falsone holding Work, panel #2 of the My Body My Labour series. December 2016)

How did the My Body My Labour project first come about?

The My Body My Labour project first come about in response to the unique Art & Working Life Australia Council funding initiative. At the time, Jonathan Nichols, who had been working in the public service and made a career change to go to art school, was very keen to see a new form of art come about in Canberra whereby people would combine conceptual thinking with art practice. In the mid 80s there wasn’t really a lot of political and conceptual thought crossing over with culture and art practice. Adrian Stevens, who worked with the Trades and Labour Council (TLC) and Jonathan together approached the TLC Secretary to run an Art & Working Life project. It was opportune as the Community Arts Board of the Australia Council had recently instigated the Art & Working Life Program and were looking for projects which could connect art back into the community and revitalise some of the cultural traditions of the labour movement. PhotoAccess was introduced to the idea and a successful application was made by the TLC. The was project made up of three components: a poster to announce the upcoming project to union members, followed by a banner making project, and a photo project. Kicked off by a collaboration wtih Megalo Print Studio + Gallery called Art and Working Life, the poster was put up around trade union offices and in work places. Its purpose was to recruit interest in the following two projects. Huw and I were employed by the TLC to deliver a representation of the work experiences in Canberra – presenting work experiences in a cultural context and to use the tools of art to give greater public access to issues and realities affecting workers and the labour movement. So that’s really how it all came about.

Panel1_My_Body_My_Labour_Title_panel(image: Title Panel, panel #1 of the My Body My Labour series)

Tell us more about the project, who was involved, how long did the project run for, what was the PhotoAccess connection, and what was your role and contribution?

There was such a huge team of people who were involved in this project. While it was Huw and me who were appointed to be the project coordinators and do the photography, it was really only possible through the active involvement of the trade unions. We connected with 14 different trade unions in Canberra and we visited all their workplaces. Whether it was the trade union looking after funeral directors, the crane drivers, or night shift workers getting up in the middle of the night, we went out and accompanied people in their daily work and talked to them about their work and what was important to them. We spent months and months just driving around with people and being kind of like their logbook. We were given a pretty free reign by the TLC with the individual trade unions playing a key role. We built up masses of material, so the biggest and hardest decision became how to actually take something meaningful from all those photos. We knew we wanted to do a set of large prints … we were really influenced at the time by American conceptual artist Barbara Kruger (whose work mainly consists of black-and-white photographs overlaid with declarative captions in red or white). She was able to combine a political reality with art, without it being dogmatic. We were really conscious not to be dogmatic, but at the same time we wanted to make known some of the facets of working life and to bring that about in an art context, in which our respect for the people in their jobs was clear. I think this is what you pick up out of viewing the panels now, the real admiration we had for the people. The first panel is of a wonderful Indigenous Australian elder, and that image is just so strong and so powerful. It was really important to us to acknowledge the first people and Aboriginal contribution.

We did all of the darkroom work at PhotoAccess, we were there around the clock. In fact there was barely a day in the ten month period that we weren’t ’on the job’. I never added up how many rolls of film we shot, but we well and truly blew the budget on the film, but it had to be.. We felt we really needed to photograph as much, and in a variety of ways, as we possibly could. At the time it was really unusual to have large-scale prints, nobody was doing that in Canberra. There was a big technical challenge in printing and we used to only be able to expose the paper at night when we could completely black out the room and take the enlarger outside of the darkroom and pin the paper up on the wall. It was pretty crazy the way invented techniques, and touching up the photos and getting the exposures right was really a challenge too. I must say it was a really hard decision, how to combine all those photos, lots of long conversations. Jonathan Nichols was reminding me recently when reflecting on the project just how tough some of those decisions were. Huw and I eventually agreed that we wanted a narrative to reflect the diversity of work and the range of professions, so we identified key themes. One panel was about wages and conditions and that was represented through the nurses struggle. There was a big struggle of nurses at the time: pay rates, conditions of overtime, much of it is still relevant today. It was still the very early days of health and safety, and we’ve seen a huge increase in conditions around health and safety, shift work, being fair to workers, equal employment opportunity, that women were paid commensurate with men and different races were paid commensurate with similar types of trades, etcetera.

Panel3_My_Body_My_Labour_Wahes_and_Conditions-The_Nurses_struggle(image: Wages & Conditions – the nurses struggle, panel #3 of the My Body My Labour series)

Panel number seven was an interesting one, dealing with power and dispute (note that this panel wasn’t included in the donation to the PhotoAccess collection). It was about the power struggle that trade unions were constantly in; trying to get bipartisan support. Panel eight was about solidarity amongst workers, it was about the idea that there was still coercion of particular types of workers. If you were in a particular occupation that didn’t have a rigorous Fair Work Act, conditions were very poor. In the course of My Body My Labour being realised, the Trades and Labour Council lost their position in Canberra, and I think that perhaps relates to the disappearance of panel number seven. I’d love to see a reprint of the panel.

The title of the project, My Body My Labour, came about because I’d studied general philosophy at Sydney University and had been reading a lot of Luce Irigaray and other French feminists. That, combined with my own photographic practice moving away from pure documentary into art documentary, and the influence of American neo-conceptualist artist Jenny Holzer who was coming to public notice at that time, influenced my approach. We were talking about the labour struggle, and after much discussion, Huw and I agreed to use the title My Body My Labour. We wanted it to be personalised for the people who let themselves be photographed, we wanted it to be about them and their person and also what they delivered to the community or to the public good.

Panel4_My_Body_My_Labour_Health_and_safety(image: Health & Safety, panel #4 of the My Body My Labour series)

What was the highlight of the project for you? 

PhotoAccess was really instrumental in this project being realised. Having access to all the PhotoAccess facilities was fantastic, and the volunteers were amazing. We were also able to do the layout in a big hall that was unused by the university and right next door to PhotoAccess when it was located in Kingsley Street – we took over that space to sort through all the photos and proof sheets. We had a team of 15 people who were actively involved in printing and laying out. We had helpers in the darkroom, cutting pictures, gluing them on to the panels, it was a real collaborative effort and I think that must be the highlight. I can remember walking into the room and then pinching myself to say “oh my god, look at everybody!” Heads down, committed to this idea that we could combine art and working life, that we could combine an artistic, cultural project with a message meaningful for the community, for workers, for employers, for the union movement, that was really a highlight. The fact that the project was well received was also important for us. We took it to Melbourne and exhibited it, also to Goulburn, and three panels were reprinted for the Australian National Gallery (now known as the National Gallery of Australia). That was recognition for us that perhaps we had successfully straddled those two sides of photography and art, and art that had a political message.

Panel5_My_Body_My_Labour_Shiftwork_24_hours_a_day(image: Shiftwork / 24 hours a day, panel #5 of the My Body My Labour series)
Panel6_My_Body_My_Labour_Equal_opportunity(image: Equal Opportunity, panel #6 of the My Body My Labour series)

You are a founding member of PhotoAccess. What was PhotoAccess like in the 1980s and why did you, with the other founding members, establish a community photographic centre in Canberra?

The credit for establishing PhotoAccess really has to be given to Gerry Orkin and Kerry Ruth who were both working at the Institute of Aboriginal Studies, which is now changed its title to AIATSIS. They saw the need and the opportunity for community photography to have a place in Australia and in Canberra. In the UK community photographic centres were also active and later in 1985 I had the opportunity to go to Brixton and other community photographic centres. Having already been involved in PhotoAccess, I wanted to know what sort of things other centres were doing…it was fascinating. What we were seeing in the community context was that people were taking huge amounts of photographs, completely losing input to how the prints were formed, and what really they were talking about in their visual literacy and their visual understanding. So part of PhotoAccess’ agenda was to gain insights into visual literacy. How do you read an image? How do you interpret lines? How do you read light and dark spaces? All those sorts of questions were kind of coming up around PhotoAccess.

PhotoAccess has changed so much and it’s so rewarding to see this change has taken place. When we were setting up the institutions mostly worked in isolation – there was the art school, there was the university, there was PhotoAccess, there was the National Gallery, there was Megalo, and while there were common people amongst those organisations, we didn’t actually partner together, but every so often something would pop up like My Body My Labour. I think that one of the terrific developments of PhotoAccess has been to foster really strong relationships with the other institutions and look at ways in which that partnering and collaboration can be beneficial and that’s really exciting. I can remember being at art school while also being at PhotoAccess and going “Mmm… I think I need to decide!”. I didn’t decide, I just did both, but at the time no one else at PhotoAccess was really engaged with the art school. Later Huw became more engaged and slowly some of the art school photography students came down to PhotoAccess. We were defining the interpretation of our objectives everyday. There was no precedence to follow and it took our full commitment. Did you anticipate that PhotoAccess would still be serving the community more than thirty years later? I think one of the key points to remember is that right from the start the PhotoAccess model was based on volunteers and a few dedicated people. After that first year it was really the volunteers that kept it going and without them, their commitment and dedication to the photographic medium, and to their own photographic creativity and processes, it really wouldn’t continue today.

Did I anticipate PhotoAccess would still be serving the community thirty years later?

Possibly not, simply because the need for volunteers was so great. So what an achievement! And our, members, boards and directors have continued to kept the balls in the air. It’s very rewarding to see such great leadership. I feel PhotoAccess’ momentum has been kept alive by the varied Directors. They have managed to ensure ongoing funding, through terrific grant writing and this shows enormous insight. I recall the volunteers in our first year back in 1984. They were so committed, they came to the AGM and they thought hard and long about the issues at hand and they were really committed to getting it right. Now, nearly thirty years on, I reckon we’ll go on into perpetuity, YAY! To be here at the VIP fundraising event in March this year where Gordon Ramsay, local MLA for arts and culture, spoke so enthusiastically about the contribution PhotoAccess makes to the artistic landscape of Canberra was testament to the strength of leadership! We worked really hard to get local government support but to have that commitment now is truly terrific and is also a challenge, because you still want to stay on the cutting edge of things, so you don’t want to be too complacent or conservative or let go of that edge that has brought PhotoAccess to be where it is now.

Panel8_My_Body_My_Labour_Solidarity_oppression_the_future(image: Solidarity, Oppression, the Future, panel #8 of the My Body My Labour series)

What are you working on at the moment?

You’ve caught me in a year when I’m working again in something a bit like PhotoAccess. I’m involved in establishing a group called the Harden and Regional Development Corporation, which emerged out of the Chamber of Commerce recognising that there was need in the local community for vision beyond just economic vision – that we needed be thinking about the health and wellbeing of people, the education of children and young adults, the integration of arts and culture into the community, how to support recreation and fitness, and how the community benefits from these things. The parallel to PhotoAccess is kind of curious because when we were setting up PhotoAccess no one else was really talking about what we were talking about. They were really struggling to understand the link between conceptual artwork and photo artwork – that you could somehow blend these two and have some really intelligent and interesting outcomes. It’s interesting in the community that I’m working in at the moment, as there’s a big learning curve for us to try and understand what the next twenty years will look like, what would we like to see, and what sort of infrastructure we need to create a good life for people. I am hoping that perhaps PhotoAccess will partner with the Arts Council in Harden on a project, like a travelling exhibition or community workshop.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our In Focus readers?

There’s a German saying where when a king dies, they say “the king is dead, long live the king!”, and by that I mean whatever happens, whatever interruptions occur, PhotoAccess, will continue to exist through the members, the community and a dedicated board and fabulous staff.

Between 1987 to 1992 My Body My Labour was shown in Canberra at the Link Gallery (Canberra Theatre Centre), New Parliament House site, Woden Hospital, Belconnen Mall; in Melbourne at the ACTU Congress in May 1988; in Sydney at Tin Sheds Gallery, Cockatoo Island, Street Level Gallery. Three of the panels were reprinted for the National Gallery of Australia, and are were included in Australian Photography: The 1980s, a National Gallery of Australia exhibition that toured the country from 1988 to 1990 (see exhibition catalogue for more information about the project and panels – Australian photography : the 1980s, an exhibition from the Australian National Gallery sponsored by Kodak, 1988, Helen Ennis with assistance from Kate Davidson).

In his statement about My Body My Labour Huw Davies, one of the co-creators, spoke of workers overcoming their loss of power and voice, their ‘slavery’: “This oppression has been changed by the power workers gained when and where they have been united and acted together. From all around us come examples of the positive effects of unity and the damage of disunity. All we saw pointed to a future, not without optimism, but one in which there is much room for positive change.”

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