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Photographing Together, On the Road, Down Under

Creative collaboration and the making of Tall Poppy Syndrome

Editor's Note: Like most of the photographers I work with, my first connection with Amy Stein and Stacy Mehrfar was online. I met them both in person in Australia, at the FotoFreo Festival, in 2010. They'd just returned from a cross-country trip, photographing the people and places they encountered along the way. I've followed Tall Poppy Syndrome since then and am thrilled to share these images (and their experiences) with you here. Thanks also to Aaron Schuman for bringing his insights to the conversation. An exhibition of these photographs is on view at ClampArt in New York City through February 16, 2013. For more information about the book and to order a copy for your home library, visit — AA


Aaron Schuman: To start, how did the two of you first meet?

Amy Stein: We first met in 2002, in the color darkroom at the International Center of Photography. The process of printing is very intense, and you build a sense of camaraderie with others in the darkroom, toiling away for long hours. Stacy and I bonded over the course of a year, while struggling with the color balance and density of our prints.

Stacy Arezou Mehrfar: I was studying the full-time program, and Amy was hanging around, printing and taking classes. At that time, the color darkroom at ICP was a Mecca of sorts — a special gathering place for lots of young photo-artists. There was a small classroom attached (I’m not sure if its still there now) where we would hang our test-prints, and spend many hours with whoever else was there printing at the same time. It was usually the same cast of characters coming in and out, chatting, sharing concepts, stories, discussing technique and interpreting the colors in one another’s prints. Amy and I both spent hours in that color darkroom.

Aaron Schuman: What sparked the idea to work together on a shared, single body of work? Had you talked about collaborating at all during your time at ICP?

Amy Stein: After ICP, we mostly went our separate ways; we would occasionally bump into each other at opening and talks, and we always shared a laugh about our time at the ICP. That was it really, and eventually I heard that Stacy had moved to Australia. But then, in early 2009, she emailed me out of the blue during a visit to New York, and we caught up with each other over a drink. That's when we started talking about Tall Poppy Syndrome, and began to plot how to pull it off.

Aaron Schuman: Why did you think that the two of you would make a strong, collaborative team?

Stacy Arezou Mehrfar: Although Amy and I weren’t in constant contact, we’d see one another every now and again, and talk about what we were up to. While I was traveling for my project, American Palimpsests, and Amy was travelling for her project, Stranded, it became clear that we had a similar approach to making work. We both consider photography in an academic manner; we hit the road to make formal yet uncanny photographs; we have similar aesthetics; and we are both strong women with strong views, visions and positions. Some might say that this is a recipe for disaster. But it was especially for these reasons that I found the prospect of working together so compelling.

Amy Stein: The terms of our working relationship evolved very naturally as we jumped into the project. There wasn’t much discussion about collaboration; we just collaborated. Every decision — from planning, to choosing subjects, to editing, to presenting the work as a shared project — sprouted from the positive momentum of our last agreement. Collaboration on this scale isn’t easy, and there were many times when we butted heads, but that became part of the challenge and thrill for me as well.

Tall Poppy Syndrome Book Introduction

Aaron Schuman: What was the genesis of the concept behind Tall Poppy Syndrome? Stacy, I understand that you moved to Australia in 2008, so I'm assuming that you discovered this particular social phenomenon there upon arrival. (I was quite struck with something similar, when I moved from New York to the United Kingdom in the early 2000s, and discovered what seems to be a national obsession: knocking people off their pedestals.) Was it your idea initially to pursue this photographically, and if so, why did you decide to get Amy involved?

Stacy Arezou Mehrfar: Aaron, its interesting to hear that you’ve experienced it too. Like you, I was taken aback when I first came across instances of “tall poppy syndrome.” I had just moved to Sydney, and I was so excited to explore life in my new home. I was looking forward to meeting new people — both in the arts, and in life in general. But during my first year of living there, a few different situations occurred where I felt totally stranded. I couldn’t get my head around how people connected and communicated in Oz; it was noticeably different to life in New York. I knew that I wanted to make new work about Australia, and perhaps something about the social structure there, but at that time I felt stunted by the move, and was finding it hard to start making images that felt close to me.

Like Amy said, about a year after I moved to Sydney, on one of my trips back home, we met up for a drink. I started to tell her about my new world, and about how I wanted to do a road trip in Australia, and explore the country photographically. At some point in the conversation, “tall poppy syndrome” came up. As I started to describe to Amy what the term meant, she jumped at the idea. She literally jumped out of her seat and said, “That would be a great idea for a book!” The idea of a project about commonwealth culture had been brewing in my mind for some time before this, but it was Amy who pushed us to collaborate, and to pursue the concept together.

Amy Stein: For me, every serious conversation is only a few drinks away from becoming the genesis of a new project. If that conversation is happening with another artist, you can’t help bouncing ideas off each other, and getting excited about it. Nine times out of ten, these conversations fade with the morning light, and the project never materializes. But when Stacy and I talked about Tall Poppy Syndrome, we were both champing at the bit and ready to get started. There was just the tiny obstacle of me flying to Australia. Truth be told, Tall Poppy Syndrome would have met that same fate as many other great project ideas if not for the fact that the Australia Centre for Photography and FotoFreo were both showing my work during the exact same month in 2010, and they were willing to pay my way to Australia. Thank goodness the stars aligned!

Aaron Schuman: I notice that in the book you don't explicitly state who made each photograph; is it important to the project that the authorship remains shared? It strikes me as very interesting that you've chosen to make a body of work that considers how “individual success” is problematic in Australia — leading to envy, resentment and ridicule — and in the process you've also decided to share the credit for the work itself. There's no individual author — you're two poppies, propping one another up, keeping each other standing.

Stacy Arezou Mehrfar: We weren’t interested in criticizing Australian culture, rather, we wanted to observe and consider how “tall poppy syndrome” affects individuals within larger society. From the start we knew we wanted the work to represent a united journey, not our individual paths. As we continued to discuss the details of the project, and to develop our concept further, we came to think of joint authorship as the best way to play with the ideas behind “tall poppy syndrome” itself.

Amy Stein: After awhile, it really made sense to carry the concept beyond the subjects, and into the actual collaboration, realization, and presentation of the work. At first, there was a strong impulse to say, “That image is mine”, or “The edit should have just as many Stacy images as Amy images.” But as time has passed, and the book has finally been published, I’ve grown to appreciate the complete statement that the project makes.

Tall Poppy Syndrome - Photographing Schoolchildren

Stacy Arezou Mehrfar: Sharing authorship allows the images to be part of the group and not simply the work of a singular person, which is, as we understand it, one of the underlying principles behind the “tall poppy syndrome” phenomenon itself. As a side note, when I show the book to colleagues, their immediate reaction is to try to guess who shot which images — nine out of ten times, the person that’s guessing is wrong. I love that.

Aaron Schuman: Can you walk me through how you went about photographing during the road-trip? Would you arrive in a place, go your separate ways, and then come together at the end of the day? Or were you working side-by-side throughout the days? Or, did you go so far as to share a single camera, and work together on each particular image?

Amy Stein: We were working at a feverish pace, trying to push ourselves, because we knew that we only had this one chance to shoot together, and that our time was limited. We would drive from one town to the next, scout the location, strategize and shoot. If one of us had a good idea about how to handle a subject, the other would acquiesce. We'd shoot together with one large-format camera, or sometimes separately with our medium-format cameras, but we rarely went our separate ways. Then, when we were ready, we’d hop back in the car and move on to the next town.

For the most part there was consensus, but naturally we had our disagreements from time to time. When we didn’t see eye to eye, we would shoot individually with the promise to work it out once we got to the editing stage of the project. Of course, those differences of opinion occasionally resurfaced again when we started to edit, and it was rough sometimes, but we worked it out.

Stacy Arezou Mehrfar: The trip itself was so exciting. I was seven-and-a-half months pregnant, I had never been so far inland in Australia, and Amy had just arrived from the States the day before we began our journey. We had a lot to see in just a few weeks, and we were fresh and full of excitement. There was only one day when we went to separate locations; at that point in the trip we had an intern traveling with us, and she was able to drop us each off so we could work independently and hit more terrain. But four days into the trip she decided to leave us, which changed the dynamic completely…but that’s a different story altogether.

In any case, for logistical reasons, we both photographed in the same locations. Sometimes we would split up — Amy would head right and I would head left. Other times we’d set up our cameras side-by-side, and we shared the camera a lot. There were times where one of us would direct the subjects, and the other would compose the image. And there were times when we both gravitated towards the same space, so we would agree on a camera to use, and work together behind the ground glass to compose the final shot. Looking back on it, the moments when we shared the camera were the most gratifying; and they’re probably when we had the most laughs.

Aaron Schuman: By the end of the month, I imagine you both had plenty of strong images, and probably enough to make two separate bodies of work. In terms of the book, how did the editing and sequencing process work? And what was the most difficult aspect of the editing process, when working as a creative team?

Stacy Arezou Mehrfar: The process of sorting through the hundreds of images began long before we had a book deal, and it took on quite a few different forms. The initial edit included somewhere around four hundred images. We went back and forth via email with different sequences and edits over the course of a year. It ebbed and flowed and changed quite a few times.

Tall Poppy Syndrome Image Edits

Amy Stein: After the trip we both went back to our homes and families, and sat with the contact sheets for a while. Once the experience and the work had soaked in, we developed our own edits independently — without any discussion — and presented them to each other. Then we looked for common things in our edits; most obviously common images, but we also challenged each other to find aesthetic and thematic similarities between our edits. It was at this point that we noticed new connections between the images and “tall poppy syndrome.” And various contrasts became more pronounced — between youth and traditional culture, rural and coastal lifestyles, individuals and groups, and so on. We quickly moved to a common edit, and started a long period of bartering and politicking for individual images and sequences. It was really tough, and to be completely honest, there were a couple of times when I questioned my decision to take this project on. But it did work out, and I think the final product is much better for having gone through this process.

Stacy Arezou Mehrfar: There were many discussions about which images should stay, and which should be removed from the project — Amy and I sometimes have differing criteria for what makes an image an intelligent or important one. But the final edit and sequence didn’t occur until we got the book deal. And in the end, the book was a collaboration between three people — Amy, myself, and the publisher, John Jenkins, of DECODE Books, who was also involved in completing the final edit. The book is strong because of that effort; all the push-and-pull. There are elements that we individually fought for, and they each add definitively to the final result.

Aaron Schuman: Several years ago, I spoke with the collaborative photographic partners Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, and they stated:

“...We’re two different people. We share a lot, but at different moments, we have very different morals. There have been a few times when we’ve confronted each other — when something was very uncomfortable for one of us, and wasn’t for the other. And at that point, we’ve had to say, ‘Do we take this picture and discuss it later, or do we not take the picture?’ That’s been a debate that’s gone on since we started working together.”

I'm wondering if at any point during your creative journey together – during the photographing, the editing, the publishing or otherwise — you found yourselves in a similar position, where a real sense of different perspectives and debate arose. And if so, how did this experience and debate strengthen the making of the work, and perhaps you both as artists, overall?

Amy Stein: I don’t think that there were any major disagreements about our approach to shooting, the principles of the project, or the making of the book. That's not to say there weren't points of friction, but I welcomed the challenge of collaboration and tried to stay focused on the benefits. Through the process I confirmed something about myself that my husband has probably known for years: sharing control doesn’t come easy to me. I’ve also come to understand that disrupting your process, and getting out of your comfort zone, is essential to growing as an artist.

Stacy Arezou Mehrfar: Amy and I bring different experiences to the table, we are very different people, and of course there have been times when it has been difficult to navigate between our individual points of view. There's been a huge learning curve — and an extremely rewarding one — in the making of this work. I found that working collaboratively required that I clearly communicate my intentions. I’ve learned so much about myself — my strengths, but more importantly my weaknesses. When you’re working alone, you have full autonomy over the image-making and decision-making. But when you’re working with someone else, there’s a lot of tossing around of ideas and arbitration involved, so we had to learn how to come to conclusions without simplifying or compromising our own individual perspectives. Yes, of course there have been moments where difficult tensions arose, and we’ve had to be direct with each other; from the beginning we’ve had to ask demanding questions — of ourselves and of one another — but we’ve worked through them all. In the end, it made for a very strong, fulfilling collaboration.

When you’re working with someone towards the same goal, it is important that you stand up for what you believe in, but also accept that the other person’s position is important as well. When you know that you want to accomplish something, you figure out a way to make it happen. There is no giving up — just moving forward.

Amy Stein and Stacy Arezou Mehrfar collaborated on Tall Poppy Syndrome, a series which explores that phenomenon's impact on Australian society. The photographs resulted in the book, Tall Poppy Syndrome, published by Decode Books in 2012. Amy Stein is a photographer and teacher based in New York City. Her work explores our evolving isolation from community, culture and the environment. Stacy Arezou Mehrfar, a first generation American, is an artist and lecturer currently residing in Sydney, Australia. Her work predominately explores cultural identity.

Aaron Schuman is an American photographer, editor, writer and curator based in the United Kingdom. His photographic work is exhibited internationally, and he regularly contributes photography, articles, essays and interviews to a wide-range of publications, including Aperture, Foam Magazine, Photoworks, ArtReview, Modern Painters, Hotshoe International, British Journal of Photography, and more; he has also published writings in a number of recently released books, including Pieter Hugo: This Must Be the Place (Prestel, 2012), Photographs Not Taken (Daylight, 2012), and Hijacked 3 (Big City Press, 2012). In 2010, Schuman curated Whatever Was Splendid: New American Photographs, a principal exhibitions at the 2010 Fotofest Biennial (Houston, USA); in 2011 he curated Other I: Alec Soth, Wassink Lundgren, Viviane Sassen at Hotshoe Gallery (London, UK); and he is in the midst of curating In Appropriation for the Houston Center of Photography, opening in September 2012. Schuman is a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Brighton and the Arts University College at Bournemouth. He is also the founder, director and editor of the online photography journal, SeeSaw Magazine.

Posted on Monday, January 28, 2013.


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