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Trailblazing a visual niche Story by Stephanie Brownlee

There is no denying the ceaseless power of the visual. This is an axiom that drives Gemma-Rose Turnbull documentary photographer, PhD candidate, lecturer and visual storyteller - in her work on how documentary photographic collaborations can be refined.

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t is a novel area that is perhaps best explained through detailing its inspiration: Gemma-Rose Turnbull’s life-changing 12-month project teaching, interviewing and photographing street sex workers with not-for-profit organisation St Kilda Gatehouse. “Going into these women’s lives, I had no idea how to comprehend their world. When I was writing and photographing I was very much talking about my own experiences and what I was struggling to understand,” saids Gemma-Rose. “I think that people can relate to that and it’s kind of the key to being a documentary photographer, to use your experiences as a sort of gateway into people having a better understanding of something.” Not only did Gemma-Rose photograph the street sex workers of Melbourne’s St Kilda, she formed relationships with them and gave them a voice through teaching them how to photograph and express their own views on their lives. This is where the participatory and collaborative aspects of Gemma-Rose’s

current research originate. “I think that when you offer a marginalised group a platform to tell their stories, it is a really powerful thing,” said Gemma-Rose. “No one had ever asked for their story before, bound it in a hard cover book, Red Light, Dark Room; Sex, lives & stereotypes, and showcased it across the country. That the work ended up in New York (it was included in a Photo Philanthropy curated exhibition) was a more amazing outcome than any of us could have imagined.” “I look at the relationships I made with those women – I’m still in contact with some of them, not all of them…and I feel like if I am going to replicate those kinds of projects, then I want to make them better for each group. I thought, how can I do this better; how can I enhance the experience, not just for the participants but also how can I make this more artistically viable and raise the standard – it was a big inspiration for me.” A year later, Gemma-Rose is at UQ exploring documentary photographic collaborations. Operating on a more limited schedule this time, she is working with

School of Journalism and Communication Annual Magazine 2012


A street-based sex worker checks her reflection in the St Kilda Gatehouse mirror before going out to work.

Photography by Gemma-Rose Turnbull

her own family to produce stories about their history. “Building up a connection with a group and letting them trust you enough for you to take them through that process is a huge aspect in itself…I love my family and I know I can ask a great deal of them,” she said. “I’m actually going to be running three comparative projects at this point well, that’s the idea.” The study will incorporate telling stories about distinct strands of the grandparent generation of Gemma-Rose’s family including her mother’s family, father’s family, and stepmother’s family. “They have these nice, interconnected thematic strands but they are three quite different stories that will be told very differently,” she said. “Some family members will have their own cameras and really direct the narrative, depending on the project as they all have different levels of skill,” explained Gemma-Rose. “If you’re doing a collaboration with a participant, it increases their voice and allows them to speak on their own behalf rather than you being their conduit.”

Prior to joining UQ as a researcher in July 2012, Gemma-Rose was invited by her current PhD supervisor, Dr Peter Milne, to teach visual communication in 2009. “I admire Peter very much and really enjoy the academic environment of UQ as it allows me to research and teach side by side, which I love.” Teaching and researching are directly reflective of each other for Gemma-Rose. “They fit into each other. There’s a really nice symbiotic relationship between the two, particularly in relation to my areas of interest. In teaching I am working collaboratively with people to help them develop their visual stories; in researching I am doing the same. I find being at UQ incredibly exciting as I feel I’m helping establish photography as an important part of the visual communication sector here.” Gemma-Rose likened her choice of coming to UQ to making the decision of living between Melbourne and living in Brisbane. “You live in Melbourne because the art culture is really established, it’s interesting - people have fought the path ahead

of you, and there’s substance to that, but you live in Brisbane where you’re part of making that culture happen and establishing those precedents, and there’s a huge excitement in that. For me, I’m much more excited in establishing.” “Being at UQ and being the first documentary photographer to do a PhD here opens huge pathways. I’ve got access to really amazing people who work in similar fields to me but are researching wildly different topics, but I’m breaking new ground and establishing precedents for people who may follow me, which I find really exciting. So I’m a bit of an experiment,” laughed Gemma-Rose.

Vi ew m o re ph oto g ra ph s o n g em m a-ro se ’s w eb si te, w w w.g em m aro se.c o m.a u

School of Journalism and Communication Annual Magazine 2012


Trailblazing a Visual Niche  

An article from Engage (The annual publication of the University of Queensland School of Journalism & Communication) about documentary photo...

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