Come together: gatherings in Victoria after pandemic isolation – photo essay | Photography

The Memory and the Ashes

by Rachel Mounsey

Aya and Zara, return to the waterhole. Genoa Falls near Mallacoota. 2021
Cleansing the land. Christy Bryar returns back to her home Mallacoota 2021

A couple of months before the coronavirus turned the world inside out, Mallacoota, the tiny coastal town where I live in far east Gippsland, was severely affected by the black summer bushfires. It seemed we had only just dusted off the first layers of ash when the pandemic restrictions came into play. The social isolation meant we embarked on the complex road towards recovery individually, without community.

The photographs I’ve contributed are part of a large body of work documenting our recovery from the bushfires. The images depict unique and fleeting moments where family, friends and community come together for the first time post-pandemic. As we emerged from isolation and reconnected with the recovering landscape, we realised that any memory we had of the land before the fires had dissolved with the ashes. What we once considered familiar is now forever changed. The photographs show that we are living on the edge of the dramatic landscape, but perhaps that is where we have always been.

Bush Dance by James Bugg

black and white photo of dancers and venue
Man in akubra and community hall

  • Above: Bush Dance is a documentation of music and dance events in central Victoria. It explores the influence these gatherings have in bringing people and communities, often isolated by their location, together.
    Below: Local halls and parks are transformed into a stage for people of all ages to come together and dance for a night

My mother ran a dance school throughout my childhood, and my siblings and I played instruments from a young age. When asked to consider gatherings in regional Victoria, I was immediately drawn to music and dance events. Over the summer months, I travelled to small regional towns in the Victorian Alps and surrounds, from Mansfield to Girgarre. I met with ukulele groups, choirs and bands, but the event that epitomised the idea for me was the “bush dance”. Taking place in town halls or public parks, people from all age groups go to these dances. Some would be charity events for local causes or organisations, others were simply for community entertainment.

What I observed as I photographed was an overwhelming sense of joy and enthusiasm to simply have fun and dance. These people have been grappling not just with Covid isolation, but with physical isolation given expansive landscapes and long distances between towns. The bush dance seemed to me to incredibly valuable in upholding community spirit.

Idle Hours by Alana Holmberg

The Murray River, 2022

  • Above: The Murray River, 2022.
    Below: The Pillars, Mornington, 2021

The Pillars, Mornington 2021

In 2019 I started making photographs of people enjoying their down time in nature. Initially, I was interested in photographing locations I’d visited during my own childhood growing up in northern Victoria, but the series stalled as the bushfires took over that summer. Being outside in the smoke was unsettling and the idea of relaxing at that time impossible. The series stalled again as the pandemic arrived. For those of us stuck in the city, the idea of gathering with loved ones in nature became a yearning.

When I was finally able to resume the project last summer, prompted by the commission, I decided to change tack and photograph the unease and uncertainty I was feeling as we emerged from lockdown. It was a great relief and release to get back to leisure time in the Victorian landscape and gather once more, but I found myself wondering, what will leisure look like in the future? How and where will we gather, and will it be safe to do so? With our changing climate, will our natural environment remain a place of respite and rapture? I tried to capture the questions in the images.

An Unscripted Recording

by Abigail Varney

Family by the side of a lake

Growing up I’d known dad to always have his camera, and had spent many hours looking through his printed albums at home. It wasn’t until the lockdowns in Melbourne that I looked properly through his archive, this time with the eyes of a photographer rather than a daughter. Specifically I was drawn to his colour slides from the mid 70s to early 80s, a bounty of memories and moments captured by his beloved Pentax Spotmatic c.1973. It was clear Dad had nurtured a keen and practised eye years before I was born.

During this time of solitude, I became witness to life through dad’s eyes and found many photographs of time spent in regional Victoria revisiting close friends, family gatherings and holidays. I was charmed by the closeness and intimacy of these gatherings, an experience that seemed like a distant memory at the time I was sorting through them. Dad’s pictures show a pure candour of life, before today’s saturation of personal documentation on social media. In response to the theme of “gather”, I made a selection of Dad’s work that spoke to this sublime unguardedness.

Family picnic on rocks

  • Above: Throughout the lockdowns in Melbourne last year, artist Abigail Varney rediscovered her dad’s archive.
    Below: William Varney nurtured a keen and practised eye. Boxes of coloured slides from the mid 70s to early 80s held a bounty of memories and moments, captured by his beloved Pentax Spotmatic circa 1973

The artists are all members of Oculi, a collective of Australia-based documentary and fine-art photographers. Until 22 May you can see these images installed in a large-scale exhibition on the steps of Victoria’s Parliament House, corner of Bourke and Spring Street in Melbourne, as part of the outdoor program for the Photo 2022 International Festival of Photography.