Catalogue essay on Play
The image titled 'Play' from the series of the same name won the New York Photo Awards 2011 for 'Best Personal Work as Photographic Image'. It was selected to exhibit in the New York Photo Invitational 2012 and was a finalist in the Australian National Photographic Portrait Prize 2011. A second image from the series, 'Fear is Nothing More Than a Dream', was a finalist in the Moran Contemporary Photographic Prize 2012 and the Foto8 Summershow 2012, London.
On Play: catalogue essay
The slow, painterly intensity of the images invites us to imagine Sarah on the banks of the Break O'Day River in Tasmania, an outdoor studio in which to direct her own romance of childhood through a patient band of child subjects. In fact, Sarah was brought into the very active playworlds of the children and allowed to watch. Her patient eye has produced these rich stories in a frame.
There is an otherworldly sensibility about Play, perhaps because it captures a childhood that we associate with generations before our own, and perhaps because the children are intent on maintaining the reality of their imaginary playworld.
The intensity of the children's concentration, facing off with the camera, and the complexity of their play on the riverbanks and the woodlands beyond, belies the idea of a child's play. This is serious business and the children are unequivocally in charge.
However, the deepest poetry of Play may be the mirror it holds to the adult gaze. It does not necessarily (as our first adult impulse may lead us to think) give us a sneak peek into the secret world of children. The children possess both agency and power. Other than the fact that they are children, there is not much that is â€œchildishâ€ in these images. They are playing at being adults, playing at life. And they are playing with Sarah (and us), luxuriating in the power and freedom they have afforded themselves in this real-imaginary domain. As William Golding writes in Lord of the Flies there is 'a kind of glamour [spreading] over them and the scene and they [are] conscious of the glamour and made happy by it'.
Sarah has inscribed her work with the themes from Lord of the Flies, entitling the images with Golding's words of innocence (being) lost; glimpses of transcendent beauty; and a journey through fear, to the other side. As they play, the children (or should I call them small adults?) are armed to the teeth, under threat from something that they cannot see (the 'Beast' in Lord of the Flies), in battle formation – guns, axes and bows and arrows bristling for action. They are obsessed with shelter and warmth, with the need to guard against the worst of nature, exhausting themselves with industry. They are preparing for the worst. But they make time to enjoy the surrounds from time to time and even allow themselves to rest, making contented peace with the contours of the landscape.
They have ritualised the spaces in which they play – red feathers mark the cubbyhouse the children built, and the arrows that protect it. And they govern themselves within a quiet hierarchy of age, skill and knowledge. They are out in the 'real world', doing what it takes to survive.
They have a keen sense that not everyone will make it, having shared in the loss of a loved one not long before Sarah began making the series. They are actively exploring grief and loss, and their chatter, as they busy themselves 'surviving', is often about the best of way of getting out of tight spots, and the various ways in which one could die.
This series was shot over a three year period and continues (2008 - present). The sophistication of play developed as the children became older. They began by building cubbyhouses (many of which burnt down). At eight years of age, they were playing with handmade guns. By the age of ten, they were crafting bows and arrows, sharpening the arrows, shafts with knives. And by twelve, mirroring the adult world around them, they began a logging business and began to build more substantial homes for themselves. They began to build shelters with proper foundations and footings in the cleared forest. They found a way to link their playworlds to the world beyond, to make some pocket money, they cleaned up old bottles to sell, and they trapped, skinned and tanned rabbit skins.
The children are coming to terms with their own limitations, and with the realisation that they are rapidly approaching the horizon of childhood itself as it silently gives way to adolescence and a different way of knowing. They are playing far from the gaze of their parents, armed with machetes and knives, figuring it out for themselves, preparing to step out from this enchanted world, knowingly alone and having stared death in the eye.
Jane Stratton is the Director of the Think+DO Tank. She worked as a lawyer and public interest policy advocate/lobbyist for more than ten years before creating the Think+DO Tank to be a creative force in supporting communities to tell their own stories and to realise their own solutions to challenging issues. Jane uses storytelling and creative self-expression in her programs and workshops. Jane has a keen interest in the power of art to bring people together in publicly relevant ways.