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It’s about the message

09 Jul 2015

It’s about the message Image

By Alana Beitz

For Emma-Jane Johnston, a recent graduate from Southbank’s Photographic Studies College (PSC), photography is all about the message behind an image.

This idea was central to her latest photographic project and PSC final year exhibition I Live Near That Strip of Sunlight, which was a digital reworking of her mum’s working holiday photos from the 60s that she took to send home to Emma-Jane’s grandfather.

“I wanted to look at the power of taking a picture with the purpose of giving that picture to someone else, and giving them a message,” Emma-Jane said.  

Emma-Jane took her mum’s old slides and superimposed her handwritten messages written on the borders of the slide frames into the image. She then layered her own photography of places close to her family across the original images.

Emma-Jane says this reinvention of her mum’s photography is like a communication between generations, where the original photographs can take on new meanings. The final images were displayed via transparencies in light boxes accompanied by a video piece exhibited as an installation. Emma-Jane received the PSC Art Major Graduate Award for the work.

Now Emma-Jane is working on a continuation of the I Live Near That Strip of Sunlight project. She is exploring the idea that when a photograph’s intended message is lost, it actually dies. To represent this, she wants to present her work on decomposable materials, so that her images will expire alongside their stories.

“The work explores the life and death of images as physical objects,” she explained. “I want to print images on different mediums, natural mediums, and let them expire. So the printed image wont actually live on forever. It will be a temporary exhibition.”

There is a strong sense of nostalgia throughout I Live Near That Strip of Sunlight, and this theme continues in her other work. During her second and third years at PSC, Emma-Jane created a photographic documentary series titled Sharehouse. She visited a number of share-houses in Melbourne’s inner north, and photographed the people who lived there. Her subjects ranged from four-year-olds to people in their ’60s. Emma-Jane says there is something powerful about capturing people in a moment of time that won’t be repeated.

“Interestingly, none of those households exist in their current state anymore. All but one household has dissolved, the housemates have gone their separate ways, and one of my subjects actually passed away.” She said. “I guess through the gentrification of Melbourne’s inner north people can’t afford to live in these houses anymore, and they move out further and further. So these images already feel really nostalgic, even though they were only taken four years ago.”

Emma-Jane says one of the most valuable lessons she has taken from PSC is to be self-disciplined about her art.

“What we were taught in the art major course has really helped with self discipline, like keeping a visual diary, remaining inspired, going to shows, making work no matter now you feel, and then developing that work and trying to figure out what it means.”

Emma-Jane has found work doing commission photography for bands and bars, and has had some great opportunities to go to many live gigs, which she loves. Incidentally, this is where Emma-Jane’s love of photography started.

“I had a sort of life changing moment at a festival when Nick Cave was on stage. I took this amazing picture of him and I knew straight away, it was like the thunderbolt you get when you meet someone you fall in love with,” she said.

Soon after that, Emma-Jane bought an SLR camera and enrolled in a course at PSC.

“And of course two months on I was completely into it and signed up to four years,” she said. “I loved coming to school, loved the class, and became very close with my classmates.”

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