The Country Inside: Penelope Scanlan
Posted on November 19, 2016
“Greg Miller is one of the photographers who inspires me. I love the aesthetic of his work: the people he photographs are positioned like mannequins and sometimes appear stuck in time. He doesn’t have a huge following on Instagram but he’s one those photographers who deserves a bigger one.”
A degree of urgency accompanies this communiqué. I open my inbox only to have its words leap on me, wiping sweat off their brow. I sit up and take notice.
Sent to me by Australian photographer Penelope Scanlan, this is the last in a raft of emails we’ve sent each other over an arc of two years. On an unexpected trip back to Australia this year, I manage to get my shit together – enough to invite Penelope, finally, to convene in the country town I used to call home for five years prior to escaping to Berlin. I want to photograph her for this feature, lolling – as it turns out – on the green grass in front of one of the town’s most popular tourist attractions.
She drives several hours to be here, me too, up from Melbourne on a family visit after a season of bereavement. I’m very glad to see her, and to talk about our mutual passion: photography. It’s only the second time we’ve ever met in person, but we get to it pronto.
But back to the email, which arrived as an omission needing rectifying as if a life depended on it. She was right. I’d be concerned too if someone didn’t shine a light on this fella, Greg Miller, such is the excellence of his work.
She wasn’t just name-dropping; as considered and devoted as Penelope is to her own photography, she’s even more so about the work of others. Generous with her praise. After checking Miller’s website and Instagram account, I was gobsmacked at how he could have slipped through my radar. Unnoticed. Remiss of me. He’s really that good.
But so is Penelope. A country grrrl through and through (born in Mansfield, now residing in Northern Victoria after an extended stint in Melbourne), Penelope loves taking photos so much she’s hesitant to talk about it, lest she lose her superpower. Shy, humble, and utterly smitten by making photos, she has the eye of someone who truly gets what it is to be outside of something – in this case the city.
Living in the quiet of the country, she’s spent years tuning herself into frequency of being there: the smallness, vastness, the moments – chaotic, still and otherwise. She has a delicious eye for detail, slipping as easily between the shadowy interiors of farm sheds and sheer-curtained front rooms as she does throbbing B&S crowds or big, fat, country weddings.
We might have missed meeting each other, but we didn’t. We’d both driven down from Northern Victoria to attend a photo workshop in Melbourne, quite possibly overtaking each other on solo, long road trips down the Calder, with speakers blaring, unknowingly in parallel.
It was a grey, drizzly day, the kind Melbourne likes to turn on in July. Strangers, we finally spoke on the roof of an inner city building, playing with depth of field and light in an exercise led by NZ “pretty light” photographer Peta Mazey.
After working out we were the only country grrrls in the room – and at the conclusion of a very enjoyable and informative day wending our way around gear, confetti and ‘TDF’ Melbourne laneways – we pledged to follow each other on Instagram, and, to try and make a photo date somewhere in our mutual, regional backyard.
The latter never happened, but the Circus Folk interview I later thought of did. I’m very glad to have met Penelope, and to have found out more about her burgeoning practice and passionate love affair with photography. She has an unashamed fan.
Circus Folk: When we first met, you were living in Northern Victoria, and had just moved there from Melbourne. And – had just started taking your photography “seriously” with the hope of making it your ‘profession’. Could you give me a bit of a “snapshot” (pardon the pun!) of your interest, background, education in photography?
Penelope Scanlan: I have always been a bit of a compulsive documenter. It helps me make sense of the world in some way.
My interest in photography dates back to high school: I started using the dark room to develop photos and I was hooked! I loved the process of developing my own photos. I loved the quietness and seclusion of the dark room, seeing the image appear on the paper as it sat in the liquid. It was always a dream to have my own dark room as an adult, but it’s never eventuated. I have gotten back into film photography recently, so the dream might still come true!
As I got older I became obsessed with photographing my grandmother. I wanted to document her life to try to hold onto as many memories of her as I could. I can hear her say so clearly, “Put that camera away Penny!” I must have thousands of photos of her. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I only got a good camera a few weeks before she died. So although I have lots of photos of her, I only really have a few that I appreciate from a photography perspective.
I have also kept a journal since I was 18. Writing helps me process what is going on for me as much as photography does.
When I was in high school I applied to study photography at TAFE in Wangaratta. I ended up going to Uni to study a degree in Social Science and never ended up getting any formal training in photography. However I [feel that I] do need to: I sometimes struggle with the technical side of photography, and find that it holds me back in getting the photographs I want to capture.
CF: How would you describe your photographic work?
PS: I love portrait photography which I think can be attributed to the natural interest and curiosity I have in people and their lives. Like most introverts, I don’t have much interest in small talk and like to get straight into deeper conversations with people: “Who are you really, what makes you happy, what makes you sad…” I also really like taking photos of kids. There is something really joyful in the exchange you can have with kids when taking their photo, especially if you meet them on a playful level.
I am really interested in documentary-style photography and would love to develop skills in that area – though I really struggle with the voyeuristic nature of that [kind of] work. When I was travelling in India I was really confronted by the poverty but compelled to photograph it at the same time. It almost felt like ‘poverty porn’ though. I was aware that as someone with the resources to travel and an expensive camera, photographing people living in such poverty can be extremely disrespectful. There is such a huge power imbalance that doesn’t sit well with me. It is something I struggle with every time I travel. Ideally I would love to travel and immerse myself in different cultures to enable me to photograph them. That would be a dream.
I recently realised that I am crap at landscape photography, which was a relief! I also realised that while I appreciate good landscape photography, it isn’t something that interests me personally. It was a relief too – to stop wasting time feeling disappointed with my landscape photos!
At the same time, I love to take photos of houses and architecture of any kind. I love the way the shapes and textures intersect. I was recently in Greece and was more interested in taking photos of the shapes that occur when you don’t have the whole house in a frame, than the more traditional ‘tourist’ shots.
CF: What is your “day job”?
PS: I am a Youth Worker and absolutely love it! I am fortunate in that I have a profession I am passionate about and enjoy. I bummed around a lot in my 20s, and had a struggle with mental health issues. I worked in security and in the real estate industry. Neither job really fitted with my values. I think it was inevitable that I would end up working in the community sector in some capacity.
I currently have two jobs: I work four days a week as a Youth Development Officer in local government. (This role is mainly around developing leadership programs for young people in secondary school.) I also work one day a week as a School Chaplain at a primary school. This role has been fantastic and has opened up a new area of interest for me. I use art as a way of engaging with the kids, and as a tool to get them to open up.
When I first started in that role I was surprised to see that kids have such a lack of inhibition when it comes to making art: they just start drawing without thinking too much about what they’re doing. We lose that as adults and become so self-conscious that many of us stop creating altogether, which is such a shame!
I’ve also started doing a bit of photography at both jobs. I usually take a camera to work if we have something on. This year the primary school had an event for Mother’s Day which included family portraits of all of the kids with their mums/carers. I think I did about 80 family portraits in two hours! I was so buggered, but it was such a gift to give some families who don’t have the economic capacity to have family portraits taken.
CF: And your own photography practice and business: how has it evolved?
PS: I don’t have a photography business, but I do the occasional family portrait session. I have been really held back by a lack of confidence in my photography skill and ability: I’ve spent too much time looking at the work of really amazing photographers and comparing myself [to them]. I don’t even refer to myself as a photographer – I always refer to myself as someone who likes to take photos. My partner has said that this devalues my work, which I agree. Trying to step up and have some ownership over this is something I am working on…
CF: You can really feel regional Australia in your work: you express a really intimate understanding of living outside of a big city in your images, albeit understated and subtle. Will you continue to remain there do you think? Or are other places calling?
PS: I was born in Mansfield and lived there throughout my life. Both my grandparents lived in Mansfield and I spent a lot of time with them as an adult. They have both died over the last few years and I now have a strange relationship with Mansfield. It is a town that I feel immensely proud of and connected to, but I also feel like an orphan there in some respects. I would like to move back there but think I would be haunted by the legacy of both grandparents.
I currently live in Northern Victoria. I like where I like but I don’t love it. I have been planning to move since I moved here two and a half years ago. However, I love both my jobs, my family live here and my girlfriend is also here, so there are a few factors that have made it difficult to move away.
I have been keeping an eye out for interesting work in remote Indigenous communities. I am part Indigenous and would really love to connect with culture. I imagine the photographic opportunities would be amazing.
CF: What would you say are the main differences between living in urban and regional Australia, for you?
PS: The main difference for me has been community. There is a much greater sense of community living in a country town. You know your neighbours – people wave and are generally a lot friendlier. People are also a lot more trusting in the country; lots of people still don’t lock their doors. While I have really enjoyed this greater sense of community, I really miss the queer community of inner city Melbourne where I lived. There are queer people here but I definitely feel exposed as a lesbian in a way I never did in Melbourne.
I have also experienced homophobia since living here. My partner and I went out on New Year’s Eve and we had lots of comments in the pub. One person actually shook my hand and ask if I was my partner’s boyfriend (even though I am clearly a woman). I hadn’t experienced homophobia like that in years in Melbourne. Politics is also a huge difference. I currently live in a safe National seat and it is not uncommon for people to like Pauline Hanson and Tony Abbott, and to express deep anti-asylum seeker sentiment. There is a misconception around here that asylum seekers get more financial benefits than pensioners and so forth. That has been a real shock. When I lived in Melbourne I was safely entrenched in the queer, left, artsy community, and I miss that.
Another big difference is access to services. There is a four-week wait to see some GPs here; I have had to travel to the closest regional city to access a dentist – a three-hour round trip! And I still haven’t found anywhere to get a good haircut! But all in all, country life is good. There is no traffic and I am home from work in less than a minute, which you can’t beat!
CF: Do you think living in regional Victoria gives you opportunities with your photography that, in the city (where it can is more populated and competitive), that you might not have found? And are you happier in the country over the city?
PS: Living in the country has given me opportunities with my photography that I wouldn’t have had in Melbourne. There is a bit of a niche market for my photography here – that has been great. I was pretty unhappy in the last few years I lived in Melbourne. I had a stressful job at local government, I felt isolated, my mental health wasn’t great. I kept wondering if I was living the best life for me. So the move has been good in that respect.
However I don’t feel settled here. Ideally I would like to live somewhere where there is a bit of a queer/art/sustainability community. I am also over three and a half hours from Melbourne, which is too far. That’s a long drive to go for a swim at the beach, or to visit friends.
CF: Other than Greg Miller (!), do you have any other photography or creative “heroes” who inspire you and motivate you to keep you going?
PS: One photographer whose work really inspired me years ago was Nan Goldin. She is known for her personal and candid photography work and documenting the lives of LGBTQ community, particularly in the 1980s. I found her work when I was on the verge of coming out and hadn’t yet connected with the LGBTQ community in Melbourne. I also love the voyeuristic nature of her work. It feels like you are privy to some very personal moments.
I also love the story of Vivian Maier. Besides loving her work, I love that it was discovered years after her death. Like many photographers, her work was very personal and she seemingly loved photography for the process of actually taking the photos, not for any recognition. And I am also inspired by the work of Howard Arkley and Jeffery Smart, both Australian artists who were preoccupied with depictions of Australian suburbia. I’ve recently discovered a love for photographing architecture. I love finding beauty in the shapes and textures. I went to New Zealand earlier this year and realised that I suck at landscape photography! My favorite photo from that trip was of a very ordinary, suburban house.
I love the quote by Ansel Adams: ‘Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” I just returned from the Greek Islands and felt frustrated that I didn’t get more photos that I love. But I did take three of my most favourite photos I have ever taken, which I am really happy about. I think that we can put too much pressure on ourselves to be constantly creating amazing art, when in reality the creative process doesn’t work like that. It is important to remind ourselves of that.
CF: Whatever you think of “social media”, many artists do find that Instagram provides them with a positive or tangible sense of ‘creative community. Do you?
PS: I am quite obsessed with Instagram. I love the work of Nicole Mason and Christian Watson – specifically the tone of their photographs. Christian has also been very open about his battle with mental ill health and talks about kindness. I love that message. I also love the work of Jill & Kyla (Our Wild Abandon). They are best friends driving across the USA and having a wonderful adventure – I love the idea of giving away the 9-5 lifestyle and embarking on a great adventure! I also love the aesthetic of AmericaIsDead. Locally, the work of Andrea (@mylittlewildlings). She takes beautiful photos of her kids.
There are definitely two sides to [Instagram] though. As a photographer it can push you to continue to improve your photography and inspire you to get out and take photographs. It also provides a platform to promote your work and display your photography.
However, there’s also a negative side: as a photographer it can impact on your self-esteem if you get caught in the trap of comparing your work to that of others. It is good to remind yourself that a lot of people on that site are professional photographers. And if you’re feeling a bit depressed it can also be a trap looking at people and their ‘perfect lives’ filled with loving family. It is important to remind yourself that it is a ‘curated space’.
The other negative is the environmental impact that it is having: I have heard stories of people causing damage to delicate ecosystems in an attempt to get a good photo. I know some photographers won’t add a location to their photographs to limit the number of people visiting sites.
The main ‘return’ Instagram gives me is the continued push to improve my photography – technically and creatively. I have also found a small supportive community of like-minded photographers through Instagram (including yourself!) Overall I think the main thing that sustains me in my work is the sheer joy I get in taking photos. I am happy to go anywhere, as long as I can take my camera and take photos.
CF: Lots of people these days dream of a “tree” or “sea change” – ie moving to a regional area in Australia (you and I both did this!) It’s kind of a romantic notion – and it can be a big shock when you land in a smaller place to live from a city life. How did you find your initial transition from city to country life? Personally and professionally?
PS: I was born in Mansfield but moved to Melbourne to go to Uni after year 12. I lived in inner city Melbourne for twenty years and was really happy there for the most part. I do think that a lot of people who grow up in the country end up living back in the country. The busyness of Melbourne became too much for me in the end. I was sick of the traffic and living so close to my neighbours.
The initial transition was really difficult. I moved from North Fitzroy to a dairy farm in the middle of nowhere. It was such a culture shock. I had trouble adjusting to the quietness of the farm, having to be vigilant for snakes and sharing a house again after having lived alone for 15 years. I think the hardest transition was being away from friends and having a hard time trying to connect with people and make new friends. I think people underestimate how difficult it is to make friends in some of these small communities, especially if you don’t have kids who play sport. Sport seems to be the main way that people connect.
Professionally it was difficult. I had a break from work because I was burnt out. When I decided I wanted to work again there were no employment opportunities in the community sector here. I ended up milking cows and working at an RSL Club. The RSL work was challenging, primarily because I am anti-gambling, [though] I did manage to do a few sneaky counselling sessions with people who clearly had issues with problem gambling. The Club itself did nothing to support people who were problem gamblers. I asked what their policy was on problem gambling and they said there was “a poster up in the toilets”.
[When] I moved to Northern Victoria a few years ago, I lived with my sister and her family. I was on the verge of a breakdown after my grandmother died. I think I am only recovering from that grief now. Now I spend a lot of time wondering and talking about where I will move to next. That is a dangerous trap as it means it is hard to live in and enjoy the present moment. If anyone has any ideas of where I should move to next, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!
CF: When I moved away from Melbourne to Sydney (ages ago now!), I felt a pretty big sense of sense of isolation which really set in after a particularly difficult relationship break-up. To recover – and to overcome an overwhelming sense of vulnerability – I picked up a Lomo camera and began to connect with my new city and life by really giving it some focused attention through the lens of that camera. It’s something I still do to this day, whenever I move anywhere new…
I’m curious as to what kind of a relationship you’re “in” with your camera: have you ever used it “therapeutically” as I did? Or in other ways that sustain you – in addition to professionally?
PS: I definitely have a therapeutic relationship with my camera. As long as I am taking photos, I am happy. I don’t even need to show one single person the photos I take, it is entirely in the process of actually having a camera in my hand and composing and taking the photo. When I moved here [to Northern Victoria] I went through a creative burst. I was taking about 700 photos a day consistently for a couple of months. My camera needed to be repaired at one point and I totally freaked out! I wasn’t sure how I would cope without it. I also spend every night editing photos, which I don’t enjoy nearly as much as the process of taking photos.
I would say that photography is the most important protective factor in managing my mental health. It not only gives me something to do, it provides me with an opportunity to connect with people and places. It also gives me something to aim for, to always try to get better and produce better work.
Feedback from others also helps with that. A little bit of positive feedback about your work certainly makes you feel good.
CF: I love the intimacy of taking photos and documenting: what do you enjoy about – and receive from – photographing people and places? Do you find it empowering? If so, how?
I love the intimacy of taking photos. You can get access to people in a way that others do not. There is also a vulnerability of having your photo taken. It is important that you treat that vulnerability with respect and kindness. When you can help people feel relaxed and feel comfortable, you end up with much better, more intimate photos. I would love to work on a project where I could combine photographing people and recording their stories. I love hearing how couples met and fell in love, and would like to do a project to record that.
There is also great joy in giving people good photos of themselves and their families, especially people who haven’t ever had professional photos taken. I can’t imagine the joy really skillful photographers must feel, especially those who capture special days such as weddings etc.
I recently had someone write on my Facebook page that my photos of Greece were fantastic, and that she had never wanted to go somewhere as much as she had seeing my photos. That was pretty ace!
CF: Is there a story that comes to mind about a memorable photo shoot?
PS: I was scheduled to do a family portrait at a family’s house and was chatting to the kids prior to going there, and one of the kids said to me, “Good luck, we have booby trapped our entire house!” They also asked me why I was driving a “shit bomb of a car”. They certainly kept me on my toes – I think they’re the only family I’ve ever photographed where I didn’t get a good shot of the whole family together. They had five boys under ten!
CF: And what is the most valuable thing you have learned so far, about being a photographer?
PS: The most important thing I have learned is that making people feel comfortable is one of the most important things you can do to get good images. I hate having my photograph taken and feel really self-conscious in front of the camera. It’s important to keep that in mind when taking photos of others…
Huge thanks to Penelope Scanlan for the interview and photos!