Relentless is a story about bullying in the digital age, and a reflection of some of our fears as parents. A challenging personal project, it has changed shape a few times on the way to the final product. It’s scored well at state and national awards, and has really hit home for a few people. Read on for the evolution of the story and the image… Or sit back and watch the video!
Early this year I’d started to realise that Facebook wasn’t as much fun as it used to be; it used to be full of cat videos and pictures of what your cousins had eaten for dinner and other stuff – escapist material. Maybe it’s just the feed I’ve curated, but my feed is full of politics now, and sometimes full of news or ideas that I find really depressing and inconceivable. I’d been hunting for a way to tell that story.
Gee Greenslade is an expert glitcher; she presented a class on glitching at Hair of the Dog in 2017. As much fun as databending and glitch art is, it didn’t seem like there was a sensible way to meld it with my usual photorealistic style of image. …OR WAS THERE… [dun dun DUNNNNN]
The narrative shifted around a few times over the next few weeks, depending on what sorts of issues were showing up in the news. The increasing volume of alt-right politics, LGBTI rights, intolerance of other cultures/religions/nationalities… all issues that had one societal group ganging up on another… all things that made me a little angry and at times powerless. In the end, the message that rose to the top was much more domestic. It came from realising that our daughter Tara has excellent digital connections with friends, carrying their conversations all over the house with chatting and video calls and Instagram… we’re pretty confident we’ve raised someone that is sensible on-line and won’t allow herself to be bullied… but you never really know. Thinking about that…
When I was a kid, I’m pretty sure there were bullies at school. (It was a school, with kids… therefore… bullies.) I’m also sure their reach stopped at school. Home was a safe place away from all that stuff, with your family and your house and your bedroom acting as a sanctuary. You could let your guard down at home, in your own space. Has it changed now? Our kids are masters of online communication, and I’m sure there are still mean kids and bullies around. Do our kids invite them in to their rooms, right past us, via their digital devices? If they do… is there anywhere that is a safe place now, or are they always connected to elements like that? Are we enabling our kids to bring bullies and peer pressure right in to their rooms?
This image came out of that. One young girl, in her room, surrounded by a digital cage of bullies.
The mean girls and glitching
Tara and I photographed a mix of her friends, family friends, and local actor contacts playing the part of mean girls. (It would have been totally valid to have a mix of girls and boys, but the story seemed more pointed with just girls.) Pointing and laughing, whispering, looking superior and looking down on the viewer… all lit from below, as if they’re sitting at their computer. Light from below is naturally pretty spooky, so that would help to drive home the discomfort looking at these images. (Is it developmentally scarring having Tara come with and assist on all of those shoots, getting her friends and some others to act like they hate her? I hope not!)
In reality, these girls are so far from the Mean Girl image it’s not funny – they’re all sweet and smiles. A few of them identified bullying as an issue close to their hearts too, so they were keen to take part. Thanks girls, you were all excellent actors.
Glitching these images was a lot of fun. Lots of random images, lots of failures, lots of files corrupted past the point anything would open them… but for each of the girls, a set of great source glitched images to work from. The more I did, the better I got at aiming the glitch at part of the picture (like the eyes), and the more luck I had with predicting the output. Rather than just stacking all of the glitched images together, they were layered so the primary image was still strong, and the glitches complimented rather than clobbered the face.
Putting it all together
There were really only a few elements in this image, and no really complex masking – the floating frames were supposed to look like they didn’t belong there, so they weren’t tightly integrated in to the rest of the shot. To get the look of that cage of images right, we used a very, very high tech tool to get the geometry of the different panels right. Then dropping them in and getting the right amount of opacity and floating look was the trick.
It was important that the viewer understands that these are screens – the portrait orientation, the digital-looking glitching, and the variety of devices scattered around the main subject should be hopefully enough to get that across.
Once it all came together, there were a few little changes to make it stronger. Changing the motif on the laptop from a “love beats hate” motif to a “you’ve got no Likes” motif helped put the subject in to more of a downward spiral. Some of the faces moved around until it had the optimal balance of faces looking at each other, at the subject, etc. That top left portion of the image was suspiciously blank as well, which might have made logical or visual sense, but was confusingly blank. I’m glad that space needed filling; having a door there, with light peeking through the edges of the door, was intended to show that the rest of the house and the rest of the family might have been warm and bright and happy, but she was cut off from all of that… and the bullies had snuck in right under the rest of the family’s noses.
I’m pleased to say this image scored a Silver at the Queensland Professional Photography Awards, and a Silver with Distinction at the Australian Professional Photography Awards. I’m also proud that it is in the portfolio that earned both the Queensland and Australian Illustrative Photographer of the Year for 2017 – thanks Eizo for making th category possible!
Thank you to Shane and to the 1-2 punch of Epson printers and Canson papers for helping the print be all it can be.
A huge thank you to the girls that participated in this image… especially Tara, who either assisted or was the subject for every shoot in this image. I was very proud to dedicate the Queensland Illustrative PPY award to her.