// Robert is an Australian visual artist and social documentary photographer. He likes to think of it as making reflections of moments of human life. He is also a human rights worker currently engaged in Sydney’s homeless sector. He combines his commitment to social justice with his passion for visual story telling. This series of black and white images of drag performers are a reflection of human life and where he feels a deep connection.
Robert is a Sydneysider. His love of photography is life-long but has not always been a constant. He completed studies in graphic design including photography right after school. “However, I had such a negative reaction to the reality of the commercial art industry as an exploiter of art for ego, status or money’s sake that I felt the need to abandon visual art for many years.”
After travelling widely and working extensively in the human services with marginalised communities, Robert returned to photography, rediscovering this art form and creating a more mature and exciting relationship with it on different terms. Having lived in Adelaide and then abroad, in Germany, and travelled widely including overland from London to Timbuctoo in northwest Africa, he came back to his home base Sydney in 2007 to study International Social Development. He has now been working as a freelance event, portrait and documentary photographer for over ten years in Sydney, Adelaide and outback NSW. Social justice has always driven him and this is reflected in his visual art.
Asked about his favourite quote about art, Robert said, “I think what makes images sing is what can be imagined or interpreted. I don’t want to give away the answer. For that there has to be a question, and today´s question is different to tomorrow´s. There are moments of truth, but in all things, truth is often an illusion.” And so his favourite quote is by Albert Camus.
“A true masterpiece does not tell everything.”
What draws you to the arts?
“Its hard to imagine living a life without creating or living in a world without creativity. When I was a kid, I used to make cards for people, friends, relatives, out of paper, pictures, string. It was exciting to do this and I was proud of the ad-hoc visual and tactile creations I made. Some of my special memories also include sitting in a school hall, watching my father direct rehearsals for the local community theatre group or my mother acting in it. I was always terrified of the stage but in awe of that art form evolving and the excitement of opening night.
My family were also musicians, but I was in love with the visuals. It makes sense to me that I now feel right at home backstage soaking up the excited energy of the performers and being a part of it all as I take photos. To me this is a gritty, reverberating essence of life. Photography helps me to explore the possibilities of visual poetry in a way.”
What impressed you most about the drag performers you have documented for this project?
“I feel black and white images help to strip back distractions and invite peoples to see things freshly: a different way of seeing or being seen. I love it that black and white photography has a timeless feel to it. In this way I think it really suits this project. Whilst the stories are set in the present, the images can also be imagined as existing in either the past or the future.
I am riveted by the courage, artistry, and commitment of the subjects in these images. These moments are both private and extravagant. They read theatre and performance, however they also reflect on the spaces we create to explores alternative ways in which we can make meaning, create safety and generate a place to be-long.”
This black and white work grew out of an Adelaide project “Behind the Scenes” – a fly-on-the-wall black and white photography project looking at the contemporary lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex or queer (LGBTIQ) people in Adelaide. The project was a witness to people’s lived experiences away from glossy magazine pecs or Mardi Gras costumes and aimed to reflect people and the ways they authentically lived. One part of this project was shooting drag performers backstage at gay night clubs. It has naturally evolved and this selection includes images from “Behind the Scenes” in Adelaide, as well as Sydney and Broken Hill images.
“Behind the Scenes” is a play on words: being seen or not seen / being scene or non-scene. It’s about how we see ourselves, what we let others see about us, how we are actually seen or how we may really want to be seen. “Scenes” also suggests stages of life or a sequential life. This has a unique aspect for LGBTIQ lives. “We can experience life stages very differently when choosing and maintaining loving relationships, safe work places, families or appropriate housing: the social and cultural privileges that impact our life choices and the spaces that we therefore create for ourselves.”
The photos in this project contribute to a story about who LGBTIQ people are now in a changing Australian culture. They exist in a very specific political and social context and time.
Click on the photos to see a larger version.
All photographs © ROBERT KNAPMAN
There are many more images in this series, to see them visit Robert´s photography page and also check out his Instagram gallery.