Backhome by Iara Gelpi, Joel I Thomas, and Bridget McCarthy
Last Thursday we were warmly invited into the 'home' of young photographers Iara, Joel and Bridget - a space they had created solely based on the notion of finding comfort in familiarity and nostalgia. We sat down with the trio to discuss what motivated them to stand against New Zealand's 'cultural cringe' proving that no matter where you are in the world, it's hard to know where you're going without appreciating where you've come from. 'Backhome' is currently exhibiting at Lowtide until Thursday the 28th of June, so don't be a stranger and drop in for a visit - after all, home is where the heart is.
I: I’m Iara, I’m 21, and I graduated in Photography at AUT last year with a focus on video. I went to Japan for two weeks on holiday during which I took about seven rolls of film that I’ve featured in this exhibition. My personal work focuses on my femininity, sexuality, my mental health, and how those things crossover.
B: I’m Bridget, and I also did the same degree with Iara graduating last year. During my time there my focus with photography explored ideas around duration and time, and how long we spend looking at images. My practise has shifted to the purpose of why I take photos. Not necessarily a specific subject or method, I’m more interested in the afterthought - after the photo has been made.
J: I’m Joel, I studied film at Unitec and graduated with a degree in screenwriting. I do a lot of writing. I recently wrote a play and I’ve done articles for Vice and The Spinoff. I’d always done photography on the side and have recently made a career out of photojournalism work. I’d usually shoot digital but I’ve always found film a more personal, tangible way to help me process my own experiences rather than for work. With this exhibition in particular - I have a history of struggling with my mental health so I find photography is a way to help me process experiences, and help me find tangibility in my life. As I’ve got better that’s regressed, and now I can find meaning in my experiences to help remember that they’ve happened.
Tell us about your exhibition Backhome and your personal affiliation with it ?
J: Well I’m leaving the country soon and in the last couple months I’ve found that I really associate with Auckland, the textures going on, its’ people, the communities. I also recently moved “back home” to my Dad’s house which has made me think about New Zealand and the people I like being around. I wanted to share the message that its chill to live in Auckland in response to the current cultural cringe towards Auckland. I feel like the way to fight that is by creating art and showing people that the world that you live in is valid and very important, and worth sharing.
B: After graduating I didn’t immediately seek out a specific job and I’d been working in a cafe throughout my time at uni, and still am, so it’s been a phase of looking at what to move on to doing next. This exhibition for me was about adding a bit more purpose and understanding as to why I’m in New Zealand, because for a long time I’ve been thinking about moving overseas to Berlin. Throughout the process of this exhibition it was nice to remember why home is home in all of it’s little ways.
I: For me, I chose to feature the photos from my holiday to Japan. I went by myself and it was a mental journey for me because I struggle a lot with anxiety and depression so it was a big step for me to go by myself and deal with it alone in a foreign country. In fact I was getting bored of home and needed a change of scenery. I find that I rely on people a lot and I wanted to experience being completely by myself - so I kind of documented that ‘aloneness.’ In doing that it made me realise that although Japan was very friendly, beautiful, and felt safe, I still need the people I love around me and it made me appreciate New Zealand more.
Why do you feel that our youth have a ‘cultural cringe’ towards New Zealand as home?
J: We are constantly raised on American shows, American art, American music, or some British shit, and a lot of what comes out of Auckland is based around that. I think that’s why it’s so important to try and form your own community like Lowtide and The Grow Room, people like that - no matter what it is you should realise that you are valid and important. It’s really hard when your whole world view is based on other people’s experiences.
B: And it’s largely due to the fact that social media’s obviously massive so you’re always comparing yourself to the influx of images that you see everyone posting, as if they’re living their best life. I noticed a lot of my friends who have never been able to leave the country before often shit on Auckland because they haven’t experienced another culture.
J: It’s so easy to do that!
I: And that’s what I did!
J: People often say, “Ugh this place is so fucked, there’s nothing going on and nothing happening” - when there is! People are often lazy and can’t be bothered searching for things to do.
It’s interesting, however, that the photographs in your exhibition have captured the feeling of “the everyday mundane” in referencing subtle kiwiana icons including The Warehouse, a half-eaten Jelly Tip, and our famous West Coast black sand beaches. Was this your intention?
J: I don’t think it’s nationalistic. I don’t think that the work we’re doing communicates what we associate with the contemporary idea of New Zealand. I think they’re just small textures that happen in everyday life that make us feel comfortable, and make us feel warm.
B: It’s interesting you say that because I didn’t actually pick up on that until you mentioned it. I live out in West Auckland so it’s so easy for me to access Piha beach whenever I want. I’m just photographing “my everyday” as opposed to portraying scenes unique to our culture.
J: I think that it’s a bit fucked also to think you need to go somewhere photogenic to take photos - that’s ridiculous! What’s wrong with “the everyday?”
B: That’s also what I liked about our exhibition too. We’re not showcasing incredibly heightened photographs of landscapes it’s instead focusing on our everyday almost like viewing the camera roll on your phone. It represents home because it’s an accumulation of mementos that mean something to you in a little or big way but there’s not purposeful HDR image of a beach with an intention to impress, it’s more about personal connection and satisfaction.
Do you feel shooting with film in a documentary style adds to your narrative ?
J: Yeah going back to social media and images being so saturated it’s so nice to just step away from that and create something more tangible. More meaning is applied to each moment when you go through a process of developing it, you get something physical and are able to choose from those.
B: You’re also limited to curating the images in not being able to seem them instantly after taking them - instead you accept what you’ve taken and embrace any imperfections. It’s prevents you from being overly critical or trying to alter the image that you see to make it more appealing to others.
How did you curate what images would be showcased as a collection for the exhibition?
B: I just used the last two rolls of film that I’d shot.
J: Were those just your last two rolls? Man you’re good !
B: (laughs) I’m a slow shooter I guess? One was from a month ago, and the other shot over summer. I went through all the images while thinking about what home meant to me, but without thinking too deeply, because home is the place you go to completely relax. For that reason some were purely for aesthetic enjoyment, whilst looking like nothing particularly special. Images that felt warm and vulnerable.
I: Same with me.
Even though Japan isn’t home for you (Iara), what was your reasoning for including it in the exhibition and how does it correlate with a universal notion of home?
I: Yeah I was on a train going through the countryside and it reminded me of being in New Zealand. I was born in Uruguay but also grew up in New Zealand so in a traditional sense I don’t know what home means to me. It’s very confusing for me.
J: And the thing about this exhibition is it’s less about recording the literal space of home and it’s more about finding textures in a space and appropriating that to whatever makes you feel comfortable.
I: It’s more about the people who make home feel like home, rather than the place.
How do you think Japanese youth would respond to this exhibition in comparison to their culture? Could you see this exhibition being shared on an international platform?
J: I think it would be experienced very differently. A lot of people who attended our exhibition at Lowtide said they related to the images because they’re similar to an experience they’ve had, instead it would be interpreted as documenting a foreign experience. I guess for them it would be learning what it’s like to be young in New Zealand.
I: It would be really interesting for people to see what it’s like in New Zealand.
J: Maybe that’s an important thing that needs to happen? New Zealand’s everyday experiences need to be shared overseas so people aren’t just like, “Oh you guys are just Lord of The Rings,” instead it’ll be, “ Oh you guys are The Warehouse.”
How was the response to your exhibition on opening night?
B: A lot of people felt really comfortable in the space itself which was cool to see!
J: It was so nice to see people hanging out on the bean bags, just lounging around - that’s what we wanted.
B: There was plenty to see and everyone was able to walk around, but were also able to settle in the space which was nice. Sometimes at gallery openings I find that you go to see the work and then don’t want to stay and linger. Or don’t feel so comfortable to do so.
I: Yeah we tried to make it feel as comfortable as possible.
J: I think that’s a work in itself, like creating a community and creating a space where people feel comfortable. To me that’s more important than the work that’s on on the wall. People can come, share, and be happy.
What can people take away from this exhibition?
B: I think it’s important to appreciate what your “everyday” is without trying to put yourself down or expect too much. We are so blessed to live in a country with the freedom to photograph things like this, which are actually so unique to the environment we live in. Something you don’t fully realise until you’ve left it.
J: It’s cool to assign value to your own experiences. Also the DIY element, I think that’s a big Lowtide thing. You don’t feel like you need to have a big gallery behind you to throw an art show.
What’s next for each of you?
J: I’m studying my Masters in Art in Amsterdam. I hope to explore the way our personal experiences are dictated by media, and make a work based around that.
I: This makes me want to have another exhibition! It’s really nice to do it with your friends. At art school we had a similar group exhibition but you got put with random people. But doing it with friends is cool because you know what they’re in to.
B: Although going into this, I didn’t know Joel as well as Iara, and I really enjoyed that experience too, learning from collaboration. More personal projects and perhaps another exhibition in the near future!
J: I really like how everything meshed together too. Like we’d never seen each other's work but it was cool to see colour schemes and textures match up.
B: Yeah a lot of people commented on the curation but we didn’t curate it with the intention of it having such natural flow. It was meant to be!