We Interview Suzanne Phoenix: Community, Communication, and Consent in Photography


Suzanne Phoenix is a photographer and artist based in Melbourne, Australia. Her work is primarily portrait based, with a focus on developing and fostering community. We had an opportunity to connect and talk about the importance of relationships and consent in the photography world.

Suzanne didn’t start getting serious about photography until only about six years ago, but once started, she absolutely threw herself in. Prior to focusing on photography, she worked in community services and community development positions. In those roles, she worked with a wide variety of people, many of whom didn’t usually have their photograph taken or perhaps had never even had a single image taken of themselves before. Working with such a diverse group of people and working in community service in general gave Suzanne strong communication and project management skills, which she credits, in part, as the reason she is so successful in her photography career.

International Women’s Day (IWD)

When Suzanne takes on a project, she doesn’t just dabble with it. Instead, she throws herself into it and creates an impressive number of images for a single series. Her IWD project began about 10 years ago in a rather spontaneous way but has since resulted in over 100 portraits. People at her office were dressed up one day, and when she asked why, she learned that it was International Women’s Day. She ended up picking up the camera and taking some portraits and asking the women what the day meant to them. It continued on as a yearly tradition but in a most informal way.

After working casually on the project for roughly six years, she decided to put in place more structure. Initially, since it wasn’t necessarily a formal series that she meant to do much with, she hadn’t gotten consent from her subjects to use their images. As the project has grown and become something more than just a bit of fun, she has had to reach back out to subjects to obtain consent so that she can use the images in publications. In recent years, she has also started preplanning shoots that take place over the course of 4-6 days, instead of just a handful of portraits solely on IWD.

These changes, along with the sheer quantity of portraits she is taking, require her to rely heavily on her project management experience. She has to be sure the shoots go smoothly, that she has consent from all involved, and that she can keep track of all the images and information after things are wrapped up. Being able to communicate clearly with the subjects about what the project is, how things will be done, and then what the images will be used for is a big part of why the project has been so successful, Suzanne explained. She also said that since this series is such a long-term project, that communication is extra essential. She stays in touch with those she has photographed and keeps them updated on what is going on with the project so that they will never be surprised or caught off guard. There have been individuals whose gender identity has even changed over the course of the project, and checking in to be sure that they are still comfortable being included has been very important.

Isolation Portraits

Suzanne’s “Isolation Portraits” is another series that has relied significantly on her project management experience. They were on lockdown as a result of COVID-19, but Suzanne’s coping mechanism is to stay busy and create. So, she thought of the idea to take portraits of those in her area. This time around, however, she made a specific plan before photographing any subjects. She knew from the beginning that this would be a body of work that she would make public, and it was important to her that subjects knew that and were okay with that from the get-go. She also knew that she wanted the portraits to be more spontaneous and natural, instead of posing subjects to get a particular shot.

When I asked Suzanne which of her projects has meant the most to her personally, this was one of the ones she listed. She had gone through some bad work experiences in her own town and had really disengaged from the community as a result. The Isolation Portraits project gave her a chance to reconnect and build relationships within her community again. It struck me that this is can be an underappreciated benefit of photography. Photography can absolutely be a powerful tool to build community and relationships when done right. Part of the series involved gathering words and thoughts from subjects about how the lockdown was going for them. The answers she received were open and honest, something that wouldn’t have happened if Suzanne wouldn’t have taken the time to build relationships and establish trust first.

Suzanne didn’t know many of the subjects of this series before photographing them. Photographing strangers can be an extremely nerve-wracking thing for some, so I asked her if she had any tips on how to approach photographing strangers. She explained that having a small camera and a small lens has been hugely beneficial for her. Big, stereotypical professional cameras with large lenses can add pressure to the situation and make people try to put on more of a show. The small camera and lens seem to put people at ease and take some of the pressure off of the shoot, which allows her to get the more natural, relaxed portraits that she wants. She also said that being quick has been key. She told me that she likes to have a little chat and then quickly snap the photograph. Don’t make people self-conscious by taking lots of images. It is a risk that you may not get exactly what you want when working that way, but the benefits outweigh that risk.

Artists in Residence

“Artists in Residence” is another body of work that Suzanne conceptualized and completed during lockdown. For this series, she reached out to artists that she knew (or knew of) and asked them to participate in a collaborative project. They met via Zoom, where Suzanne took a virtual portrait. That portrait was then sent to the participant, and they were asked to respond to it and create a final artwork based on that image. 52 artists were involved, and the results from the collaboration are incredibly diverse and unique. Some created purely digital pieces, manipulating the photograph on their computer or in an app. Some printed the photograph and incorporated physical elements like crocheted items or flowers before turning it back into a digital piece. The artist of the piece above digitally layered the portrait repeatedly over itself and then planted it in a potted plant, watered it for a week, and then dried it with a hairdryer before photographing the print again as the final image.

Because of the nature of the project, lots of trust was required between both Suzanne, since she was handing off her work to be turned into something else, and the participating artists, as they were getting their portrait taken and opening up about what they were going through with lockdown. Those that said yes to participating did so because they trusted her and her vision. Once again, clear communication and relationship building were key to creating a wonderfully powerful body of work. 

Takeaways

You hopefully noticed a few common threads in the three projects of Suzanne, but they all boil down to having a solid grasp of project management. This is something that isn’t taught in photography courses, and photographers can often lack those skills. While projects can of course evolve over time, having a good picture of your timeline and specific goals is extremely beneficial. When working on large-scale, long-lasting bodies of work, being able to clearly articulate your project, including what you want from people and what they will get out of it, is essential for success. Having a document written up to hand to participants so that everything is clear and presented upfront is one thing that Suzanne suggests to help with this process. A detailed document will likely help individuals feel more comfortable and be more interested in participating and giving consent than if they were not given such clear information. It also helps to build those relationships and foster a community based around your photography.

You can see more of Suzanne’s work on her website. She is also a finalist for the National Photographic Portrait Prize with not one, but two images! 

Images used with permission of Suzanne Phoenix.



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