Across 230 events in 89 venues, Jeff Moorfoot of the Ballarat International Foto Biennale (BIFB) has pulled off another huge, diverse ode to the photographic medium, by turns confronting, touching and fascinating.

The Biennale offers a two-tier program, one curated and one open to anyone with a show and a venue. It’s Moorfoot who curates the core program. “I want to show work that people can understand, but also stuff that’s challenging,” says Moorfoot. “And always in interesting combinations.”

“My hope is it’s a journey of discovery. That people will see things they’d never considered, and like it.”

We caught up with three of the core-program photographers to get an insight into their work, in their own words.

DAVE TACON
A few years ago, Shanghai-based photographer Dave Tacon was hired by a German magazine to capture the local nightlife. What he discovered was pure decadence. For the BIFB, Tacon introduces his photo essay, Shanghai Decadence with Chinese Characteristics. It’s a window into what goes on behind closed doors in Chinese society, which most outsiders will never see.

Dave says:
It’s an amazing time to be in Shanghai. The city has this allure to it. There are tremendous opportunities there, and it feels kind of lawless. There are barriers, but you don’t always know where they are. 

I’ve always been interested in the bad reputation that Shanghai used to have. 1920s to 1930s Shanghai is still a touchstone in popular culture known for its decadence. Now, that’s making a comeback. The gap between rich and poor is huge. You might see someone carting scrap on a rusty bicycle cart, and next to that there’s a blinged-out, customised Lamborghini driven by someone in their twenties.

Even on a Monday night, the city’s nightclubs are packed. People drop 60 or 70k on a bar tab in a single night. They will buy 10 bottles of Johnny Walker Blue, which are then illuminated by lasers – or for Hennessy Cognac, red lasers – from the ceiling, so everyone in the club can see how much money they've spent. But there are only six people at the table. If they drink all of that, they’ll die. But that’s not the point. These clubs are for conspicuous displays of wealth.

The kind of photography you normally see in a nightclub is people grinning and posing and trying to demonstrate what a wonderful time they’re having. The style I’m going for is more social documentary.

This project would have been pretty much impossible to shoot before digital. Shooting in a dark room, the light changes every second. So I have to shoot a hell of a lot. You can’t carefully compose shots. That said, there’s so much going on that people rarely notice me. And of course they can’t hear a camera shutter over the music.

SAM HARRIS
For many years, Sam Harris was an in-demand photographer in London’s pop-music scene, taking album cover shots and magazine profiles. When his first daughter was born on New Year’s Eve 1999, Harris decided to get his family out of London. What followed was the most significant project of Harris’ career: a decade-long personal photographic account of his family life in rural Australia. It’s being launched simultaneously as a book and as this show at the Biennale, entitled The Middle of Somewhere.

Sam says:
All through the ’80s and ’90s, the music industry was the backbone of what I did. But by the end of the ’90s the business had changed a lot. It became corporatised. I used to go to these meetings at really cool record companies in tiny offices. They were bought up by Sony and EMI, and soon I was going to meetings in glass skyscrapers. The people were more interested in the cult of celebrity. I wasn’t connecting with it. I was a machine producing product.

Shortly after that, I shot Victoria Beckham for Virgin Records. It was … not a very pleasant day’s work. That was the last straw. I needed to get back in touch with that young artist I was when I started out.

I became a father literally on the eve of the millennium. I was thinking about a future for my daughter, and I wanted to get back to a more personal, creative kind of photography. All of this led to my wife and I abandoning our careers and investing in one-way tickets to India. Everything changed. That’s when I started to document my family.

When we got to Australia, just by chance, we ended up in Balingup, WA. It’s an eclectic place, full of artists and interesting people. We were touched by the community, and though we kept travelling, we eventually came back. And when we settled here, the work found its legs.

Everything I do is spontaneous. Even a portrait. It’s about getting tuned in to seeing things as and when they happen. A lot of the images are about the lifestyle we live now, and the choices we’ve made on the way. It’s about slowing down, and how we interact with the environment. It’s not about big events, it’s about little day-to-day things that go by.

BELINDA MASON
Award-winning photographer Belinda Mason has never shied away from difficult subjects. Best known for her work on disability and sexuality, Mason has also used photography to discuss body image, grief and identity. For this year’s Biennale, Mason presents Silent Tears, a collaboration with fellow photographer Margherita Coppolino and video artist Dieter Knierim.

A warning before you read on: the details of the show, which is about violence against women with disabilities, can be confronting.

Belinda says:
The show is about violence against women with disabilities – some of whom acquired their disability as a direct result of assault. Some of the subjects don’t want to be identified, so we don’t. But they still want people to know their story, and the images still have to reveal the everyday-ness of their lives.

My photographs are about the point where you have the decision to hope or give up. It’s about capturing that moment. At a point when they were very weak and extremely vulnerable, these women somehow found the strength to get help. The core inside of them hadn’t been destroyed, and it reached out and gets them out of their situation. So the images are about recapturing that moment. One anonymous woman has a learning impairment. Another’s son was murdered in front of her by her partner. One woman’s partner came back from combat overseas with post-traumatic stress disorder, and was so violent towards her that he left her with a physical disability.

I’m using a recurring motif of water, obscuring the women’s faces. The water is different in each shot because the women are different, and their circumstances are different. The photographs are printed on clear surfaces as well, so the women are visible but not quite visible. This also speaks to how they want to present themselves to the world.

People tend to normalise these situations. This show is about intensifying the experience so people can’t get away with doing that. There’s also an accompanying audio with the women telling their stories. As you step through the work, the emotion gets higher. The overall effect can be quite disturbing.

I settled on this topic because when violence against women is discussed, women with disabilities are rarely included. It’s also about discussing what happens after violence. When media attention dies down, what happens to the victim?

The Ballarat Foto Biennale runs from August 22 to September 20.

ballaratfoto.org