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Documenting an imperfect world: Kelly Hussey-Smith

Hussey_henPhotojournalist Kelly Hussey-Smith was part of a group who set up The Centre for Documentary Practice (CDP), where she is now Project Officer. Her latest body of work, Caged, was born out of a two-month stint in Beijing, when she became aware of the living conditions being endured by A Kou, a large female gorilla, writes Elizabeth Usher.

12 September 2010

Photojournalism presents an ideal career fit for Kelly Hussey-Smith, as it combines her long-standing interest in human rights and social activism with the fact that she has always been very easily affected by images.

“I have come to believe that nothing affects us quite like the visual; we take in images so quickly, it's like we have little resistance to their content,” she says. However, she also cautions: “This goes both ways though – it's the same for advertising!”

Kelly has many strong and clearly-articulated beliefs around this theme.

“I believe people do want to know, and to be informed of world events. I also believe people enjoy photojournalism in all its forms. World Press Photo has an enormous following in Australia, especially Brisbane where I am based.”

However, she feels that this level of interest from the general public is not reflected in the mainstream press.

“There is so much more interesting photojournalism around than we see in the media. We see very little in mainstream media. Most images are set-up images, illustrating a text piece instead of stories in their own right.”

In 2009, Kelly was among the Queensland College of Art staff and students who together established The Centre for Documentary Practice (CDP) as a way to include Australian practitioners, staff and students into a global conversation on documentary practice.

As Project Officer, Kelly plays a large role in their online activities and events.

“The CDP exists because everyone is very passionate about providing a space to have a global conversation about our discipline. We have been using Adobe video conferencing software to have global online conferences with practitioners all over the world. The CDP has emerged through the Australian Photojournalist Magazine that we also produce annually. This next edition is on the Rights of the Child.”

The CDP Emerging Documentist Award is for stories that document important social justice issues across the world. Kelly admits it can be difficult to be faced with so many different confronting stories.

“It's always challenging – especially when deciding which story is more important than the next. Or which story needs to be told the most? Who suffers the most? More than feeling confronted by distressing issues, it is confronting to have to choose one over another as winner.

“We lead such privileged lives, feeling empathy for another person experiencing hardship is not difficult or challenging. It's the least we could do – allow ourselves to be affected and to reflect on the imperfect world we live in.”

Kelly explains that the socio-political nature of her own work and process comes from a tradition of activism and awareness in documentary storytelling.

“Most of my work has followed this path of activism through the visual and it remains an active interest of mine. My most recent body of work, Caged, was developed in response to the way we use animals for entertainment and decoration.

“Primarily developed around the subject of animals in captivity, the work has been designed to raise questions about our relationship to animals through recognising their sentience, or capacity to feel. Too often as human beings our readings of others is focused on our differences rather than our similarities.

Hussey_indisguise“The project has been designed to challenge our moral boundaries by drawing on recognisable human emotions and traits using photography and time-lapse animation.

“As visual research, the project has taken many angles, primarily influenced by readings on moral philosophy, animal rights and institutionalisation, in addition to the work of prominent fine artists and documentary practitioners,” says Kelly.

The project Caged grew out of Kelly's experiences during two months in Beijing, when she began visiting A Kou, a 32-year-old female Gorilla who has lived for three decades confined to a room 6 metres wide, 4.5 metres long, and 6.5 metres high.

She has become what Kelly describes as “an amusement for human consumption. Although I wanted her to like me, or to sense that my stare was different, I knew it was impossible. Even with the best intentions, if I did nothing, my compassionate stare was no different to an amused grin.”

Kelly has been working on Caged for over a year now, and plans to continue shooting zoos around the world, especially in the States and Europe.

“I paid for a ticket like everyone else and took photos like everyone else. I just had a different focus to the others visiting the zoo. Zoo Operators didn't see me as different from anyone else that entered the space. That is what is so unbelievable about zoos – we pay to witness animals suffering in captivity.”

She adds “I should also mention that I did pay for my own tickets which meant that I have been supporting zoos for over a year. However, I couldn't see any other way to shoot the project.”

Although Kelly is clearly dedicated to raising awareness about social issues that concern her, she is unwilling to be distracted by arguments over where animal issues fit into the social justice spectrum.

“I'm not interested in comparing one activist group against another. As a society we should be moving towards a fairer society for animals and people in Australia and the rest of the world. This is what I believe.”

However, Kelly acknowledges the existence of underlying issues of exploitation and harm in day-to-day life.

“In my digital camera there are most likely metals that have been mined by children in places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, or mines elsewhere in the world where conditions resemble slavery and cause serious health problems.

“It's very difficult to only use and consume products that have not caused harm to any lives. This is the complex and hidden reality of the world we live in. It becomes very overwhelming when I think about it.”

Rather than becoming consumed by despair, Kelly returns to the power of photojournalism.

“I try to tell stories about issues that I feel should be recognised, and try to talk to others about them. Through this I don't feel completely powerless. In addition, I don't think despair is necessarily a 'negative' emotion. Sometimes, we have to feel such an emotion in order to motivate ourselves to take action.

“My work is about ideas, and how those ideas become images that can communicate meaning widely. I use the camera and other visual strategies to assist the communication of these ideas. I don't want my work to be difficult to understand. I try as much as possible to make work that can communicate to all different types of people.”

Hussey_opsmileKelly has volunteered on two overseas missions for Operation Smile, a charity that performs free surgeries on children and adults in developing countries who are born with cleft lips and palates. She describes her experiences with Operation Smile as “amazing”.

“These quick and relatively cheap operations change a person's life forever. I'm very passionate about the rights to free health care, and feel very lucky to have been born in Australia. For many children born in developing countries healthcare is a luxury their families cannot afford.

“One of the memories that stays with me is watching a father give his son some juice after his operation to close his palate. The father was crying. I thought it was because of the overwhelming experience at the hospital and seeing his son wake from a general anaesthetic.

“He looked at me and said that that sip of juice his son had just taken, was the first time in four years that it had not come back out his nose. Such a short and relatively easy operation had changed the life of a child, and his whole family. Every child deserves the right to healthcare.”

Kelly provides commentary to a compilation of her photographs for Operation Smile here.

Bringing this same egalitarian philosophy to a less weighty matter, Kelly argues that the availability of digital cameras has made the medium of 'photography' more democratic.

She has some sage but measured advice for keen amateurs: “Taking photos is easy. Conceptualising a visual argument is very difficult – at least I find it very challenging. If you want to take better images my advice would be to find a subject or issue you are passionate about and shoot every day.”

Like life itself in our imperfect world, “Unfortunately there is no miracle tip or formula.”

For more information on Kelly Hussey-Smith’s work, visit her website.

Elizabeth Usher has been vegan for a dozen years and tries to live in accordance with values that respect other animals – including people – and the earth. Despite rumours to the contrary, that still allows for some fun along the way. Elizabeth is also interested in producing music with a message.  Her song ‘Paradigm Shift’, about issues surrounding factory farming, can be heard on her Myspace site.

Images from top: Caged (first two); Operation Smile (third). Images courtesy of Kelly Hussey-Smith.



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