Brisbane-based photographer Tammy Law’s mother, Jenny Phang, registers two great traumas in her life. One is her divorce from her husband, Tammy’s father, and the other is the day her siblings were deported from the Sunshine Coast back to Hong Kong in 1986.
“Mum says talking about it is like a scar that’s healed over but you pick at,” Law says.
“I asked for this exhibition if she was comfortable talking about it and she’s like, ‘Yeah, nobody killed anyone. Nobody is a murderer,’” Law continues, laughing. “Mum says that her family deserved to be deported because they broke the law, but she can’t understand why refugees are being deported or being held in detention. She finds that ridiculous because they’re coming from a place of need.’”
Law has used her mother’s experience as the jumping off point for Fractured Dreams & Indefinite Scars, her new 10-week exhibition and February residency at the Museum of Brisbane. For the exhibition, Law uses her photography to explore the ways in which immigration laws and processes have impacted the narratives and histories of five different families, all of whom have had a member or members deported (or threatened with deportation) from Queensland.
So Phang’s story sits next to that of 25-year-old Achutan Apajasekar, an ethnic Tamil who fled Sri Lanka in 2013 – he has spent much of the past seven years on Nauru and then in community detention in Brisbane on a bridging visa, unsure of his future. Then there’s “Aaron”, a New Zealand citizen who lived in Australia for 35 years, from the age of six. He was deported after a one-time criminal conviction – a fate that has befallen many New Zealanders since the federal government tightened the visa character test in 2014.
The intention is to show the wide variety of experiences when it comes to dealing with immigration laws and deportation from Australia.
“My mum’s story happened in the ’80s,” Law says. “For me, it was a question of how to bring this into the now. People will then be able to relate because they can see it’s happening in their city to people they might cross paths with. If you bring in these stories, people care more.”
Law is an experienced commercial and editorial photographer (who has previously freelanced for Broadsheet), but issues of displacement, migration and belonging have always been central to her documentary work, including the projects Away From Home, in which she projected images of migrants’ birthplaces onto their Australian suburban homes, and Permission to Belong, an award-winning photobook that documents the everyday lives of families from Myanmar who have resettled abroad. Colouring her work are her own experiences growing up on the Sunshine Coast as an Asian Australian.
“It definitely informs what I do,” Law says. “I think that’s why I went overseas when I was younger, to understand more about cultural belonging and what it means to be both Chinese and Australian. I only lived in China, for example, for three months, but that cultural context really helped. ‘That’s why dad does this. That’s why mum believes that. That’s why we did that at home and my other friends don’t do that.’ It made a lot of sense experiencing it myself.”
Fractured Dreams & Indefinite Scars will run in Museum of Brisbane’s Adelaide Street Pavilion until April 18. It includes a paper-folding activity for visitors, and Law’s well-known writer siblings, Ben Law and Michelle Law, will soon contribute works reflecting on the exhibition. Tammy will be on-site Wednesdays and Sundays from 10am to 2pm during her February residency.