Photojournalist Matthew Abbott has built a reputation as a leading chronicler of Australian life. As a photojournalist and member of the collective Oculi, he has followed subjects as diverse as the Murray-Darling River and the Rohingya refugee crisis. Filing for titles including the New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel and previously working in-house at the ABC. He is equally committed to personal projects exhibited across Australia and also internationally in Germany, the United States and Switzerland.
A selection of his work from around Australia is currently featured on SUNSTUDIOS Melbourne's Feature Wall - a new curated platform celebrating Australian talent. Open 9am - 5:30pm daily (except Sundays) at 95 Buckhurst Street South Melbourne. May 27 - August 2, 2019.
Do you remember the moment that photography became meaningful to you or you felt the need to commit yourself to it?
I've been doing visual arts all my life – as long as I can remember. Initially in painting and sculpture before transitioning to photography around 16. It was around this time I then started to assist photographers, since then I have been involved in photography from many points of view from commercial, editorial, portraits, weddings and copy photography for artists documenting their work. Photojournalism took a while to land on. There wasn't a moment when documentary photography became "my thing" - my interest in it was part of an evolution and one way to express myself inside the visual arts.
Which dimensions of photography do you really enjoy grappling with? What keeps it interesting over a career?
Since becoming a photojournalist I have grown increasingly interested in story – photographs that say something, stand for something and have meaning. At the moment there is a lot of interest in work described as "Post Documentary" and "Deconstructed Narrative". I love good conceptual photography but so much of this on-trend work leaves me feeling cold.
I am interested in powerful photography where the purpose of a caption is to offer context ... allowing the image to do the talking. Photojournalism is about responding to real life events and situations in a moment in time. The artist is not constructing the image or inserting themselves.
It's an incredibly challenging way to work without ever knowing what will happen next. Every time I approach a story the dynamic is always changing, moving around - I never feel like it's easy. It's always difficult making strong work under these conditions, which I think is part of what keeps me interested. That and being able to have more say now in which stories I cover, as I pitch many of the stories I work on. The opportunity to witness events that inform our social fabric and history first-hand and take part in such unique experiences is an enormous privilege.
What work or achievements to-date are you most proud of? Or which have been most meaningful?
Personal projects. Being broke, months on the road alone, doubt, disappointment and frustration. These projects have taken up years of my life and I'm proud of that work. These days, what I am most proud of is being able to identify a good story and having the skills to go and make it happen. I'm writing my own stories now and working as a journalist as well as being a photographer. For me, that's very satisfying.
What's that transition been like because the media landscape demands multi-tasking more and more. They are similar but very different skill sets. Has it been a learning curve or has it come naturally?
It's taken a long time. It's a hard thing for photographers to get their heads around. You can take a beautiful photo but where does it sit in terms of news and politics? What editors want in a photographer is a very hard thing to learn. It comes from experience - doing the job. There are plenty of amazing photographers out there that don't know how to pitch a story.
Any tips for the next generation of photographers learning how to approach and work with photo editors?
I'd say to be very critical about the types of stories they are working on. Ask the hard questions from the beginning: Why am I doing this? Why is it important? Why would this be of interest to other people?
I think editors want to see that you can tackle real stories about other people not just yourself. Get out of your comfort zone. Editors are not interested in work that relies too much on text and other tricks to carry a message. I think the skill is in being able to represent a scene and visualise it for people – but not in an obvious way or literal way. It's a fine line. There is so much to balance. There's also a risk that work can become too descriptive or too literal. It takes time to find that balance.
Has your motivation to make images changed as your practice has evolved?
My interest has honestly never waned. I'm drawn to photography and I get so much satisfaction out of it. My practice changes, for example, I recently revisited some older work that was much looser and more conceptual. I really struggled with it because the way I am working now is so much about story, which requires a different way of thinking. When I am chasing a story I am asking myself over and over: 'How does this image fit in?". But the work also needs to be spontaneous and you need to be open to what is around the next corner. That's the way I am working now and I'm really enjoying it.
What can you tell us about the works on display at SUNSTUDIOS feature wall gallery?
I chose a selection of images from around Australia including a mix of personal projects and assignments I've worked on since I turned my attention to my own country in 2007.
Australia doesn't necessarily get a lot of attention from a world news point of view. A lot of coverage tends to be cultural stories of pretty low international significance. It's an internal dialogue and less about our place in the world.
I am increasingly interested in everyday stories within this ancient continent - there are a lot of untapped stories out there but it's a difficult place to work: it's huge. Australians aren't the most easy-going people when it comes to being photographed. However, for me, it's important to keep working on the stories that would otherwise go untold.
What is it that you most need to achieve before your career one day ends? What do you fear not having done? Or done enough of?
I've never been sure where I should go next. I think this is partly because the industry is changing so much, so quickly - there is very little work for freelance photojournalists in this country, so you need to be flexible and open to where your career may turn. I am happy with the work that I am doing at the moment, but I wish there were more opportunities to make a sustainable career doing what I love. However, I am definitely not glued onto photojournalism and I am open to commercial work and advertising to supplement the work that I am making as a documentary photographer.
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