Across Australia, the Canberra suburb of Fyshwick is known as the butt of jokes about pornography and fireworks. But local photographer Fiona Bowring looks at the locality with fresh eyes. She’s making waves with her stunning black at white images depicting women hard at work in the industrial suburb. She had a chat with BroadAgenda editor, Ginger Gorman.
If you were introducing yourself in a nutshell, what would you say? Who are you and what do you do?
I’m a photographer, but it’s taken me a long time and a few successes to be able to say that unselfconsciously. I’ve been taking photos since my teens, but I put the camera down for many years while life was busy. Since I’m now mostly retired, I’ve been able to tap back into that passion and way of seeing the world I remember driving me as a 16 year old who didn’t leave the house without a camera.
I think ‘an emerging photographer of long gestation’ would sum me up!
How did the Women Working in Fyshwick project come about?
In 2022 I did a course where we worked on our own project throughout the year and then exhibited. What the course gave me was a nudge and an excuse to approach people and ask if I could take their picture which I was very nervous about doing before. There’s something about, ‘I’m doing a course [and therefore I’m not dauntingly professional] and I’ve got a project [which otherwise might seem like a creepy obsession] and I’m really interested in women like you who work in Fyshwick’.
Why women and why Fyshwick? Women, because they’re a greater challenge and for me, more rewarding. Men will offer themselves up as subjects for someone with a camera round their neck. They are so comfortable in owning the spaces they inhabit, and in my experience women are far more camera-shy, and often react in a way that suggests that they don’t feel deserving of being photographic subjects.
‘Oh not today! My hair! My outfit!’ That makes me sad, but all the happier when I can persuade them to see themselves differently.
My interest in the industrial area of Fyshwick began when I was looking for a sandblaster. I found one in a tucked away place, down the end of an unsealed track, and the sandblaster himself was someone who’d been working on that site, doing that job, for nearly 50 years. His workshop also had great light, and he readily agreed to being a photographic subject!
There are a lot of places like that in Fyshwick, even though it’s changing. The people who work there are incredibly expert, and passionate, and often in family businesses. It seems that’s often how women come to be there–as part of the family enterprise. It’s how Carol came to garden and poultry produce, and Chantelle to catering supplies, Ruth to diffs, Kylie to trophies and Debi to Perspex.
How many photos did you take?
Many! Too many! I set myself up for very painful culling and editing sessions, because I don’t go in with a definite idea of what I’m looking for and usually the focus (no pun…) only reveals itself during or after the session itself. But to give you some numbers, I took photos at 17 different sites with 19 different women as my subjects.
What did you learn from capturing those images? What surprised you?
I was surprised by the willingness of the subjects to share their stories and through them to open up to me, and to the camera. It was delightful, in the truest sense. It made my heart sing, even though many of them shared their struggles as well as their triumphs.
Each time I was able to make a connection through listening with genuine interest and concern and responding with empathy and joy I felt the power of my project. We also had a lot of laughs.
Why did you include audio with your images?
Some part of the women’s stories is conveyed by the photographs and the wide view of their working environment, but the audio recordings were a great opportunity to let the women speak directly to the viewers and say as much or as little as they liked about their place in Fyshwick. The audio added a dimension to the exhibition and agency to the women who were able to say what they wanted, how they wanted.
The National Library accepted about 60 of the images into its collection. Tell us about that.
Marzena Wasikowska, who taught the personal project course I was doing, encouraged me to approach the National Library about their taking the images into the collection. I was thrilled when they agreed to add more than 50 of the images to the collection which in their words ‘is a representative visual record of Australia’s people, places, events, history, society and culture’.
Every city has its Fyshwick, I think, and perhaps we only miss them when they’ve gone, or when we need that thingummyjig or whatsitcalled and online just doesn’t cut it. I think the women I photographed deserve their place in the sun.
Your work will be shown as part of HeadOn Photography Festival’s ‘Open Program’? Please tell us details – when and where.
Ten of my portraits are going to be on display in Sydney as part of Head On Photography Festival’s Open Program. From 12 November to 25 November they’ll be exhibited at Wayne’s Place Café in Marion Street, Leichhardt.
I hope that people will go out of their way to see them and spend time imagining the stories of the women on the wall. And I’m hoping for some serendipitous views too: people looking for a great coffee and finding themselves wondering about Reshmi, who went from being a rape crisis counsellor to a bridalwear salesperson, or Lena, who spent covid as an aged care supervisor whose role included explaining to the residents that they couldn’t have visitors, and who walked away from that to return to selling safety boots and workwear, a job she’d had in the 80s.
You’ll be able to see all the images via that link once Head On opens on 10 November 2023.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I have been wanting to add to my collection of Fyshwick Women Working, and hopefully the Library’s, so I would be very interested to hear from anyone who can suggest a subject to me. It could be themselves, someone they know or a place they’ve seen or wondered about.
- Picture at top: Jovanka Ilieva has been a Linen Supervisor for 25 years. She started off mending, then washing. Now she manages this distribution hub for linens washed elsewhere. ‘It’s a heavy job, pushing trolleys.’ Image: Supplied/Fiona Bowring
Ginger Gorman is a fearless and multi award-winning social justice journalist and feminist. Ginger’s bestselling book, Troll Hunting, came out in 2019. Since then, she’s been in demand both nationally and globally as an expert on cyberhate and the real-life harm predator trolling can do. She's also the editor of BroadAgenda and gender editor at HerCanberra. Ginger hosts the popular "Seriously Social" podcast for the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Follow her on Twitter.