Meet a photographer – Roger Hyland, Melbourne, Australia

All images by Roger Hyland. Used with permission.

Meet A Photographer is a series in which I try to learn more about photographers, whose work has made a positive impact on me.

Roger is a photographer in Melbourne, whose passion is to document street art. Melbourne is known for its street art. And there are many photographers who try to document. But what is special about Roger is his passion for the art form, its history and most important its future in our society.  

To me, his images showcase his passion. Instead of mere pointing the camera to interesting street art, I feel he uses photography to seek a deeper meaning and tries to question its existence among us. 

But let us figure it out from Roger himself. 

What is your story? How did you get started in photography?

My relationship with the camera was not a love at first sight. I have never felt a compulsion to photograph everyone and everything but had dabbled occasionally over the years. I had picked up a few basics over the years and when my partner embarked on an artistic career I used to hang up a huge piece of black cloth in our back lane and document the work. I went to China in 2001 and took a camera. Not long after returning we were going on a Sunday walk in South Richmond and found the wall along the railway there had been ‘bombed’, mainly with stencils. This was at a time with all 7media almost totally biased for the 2nd Iraq War, so-called ‘Desert Storm’. The stencils weren’t all directly political but they were making a statement against conformity in all its many guises. My wife suggested I photograph them and I sensed an opportunity to document something as it was forming and more or less I haven’t stopped since.

What is your main motivation behind your photographic journey?

Growing. Growing my knowledge and skills and growing my artistic vision, by which I mean trying to be open to different ways of seeing and capturing the world around me. For example, due to the fact that my main interest was street art I needed a wide lens. An enormous amount of street art is found in dark narrow lanes and without a very wide lens, you just won’t be able to capture more than details. I had a 10-20mm with my old camera and now have the Fuji 10-24mm. I have travelled a bit more since my first trip to China and more than anything else used that lens. I don’t think a lot changed with my photography until I went to Italy. The scale of the buildings there changed the way I saw space and the way I composed….I think so anyway. It wasn’t something I could plan but when I looked at the photos I saw a change for the better. I always want to take the best photo I can of whatever it is and hope that my best gets better with what I learn From my mistakes and the work and advice of others. 

Can you take our readers through a ‘day in your life’?

I am a nurse in my waking life so my photography is restricted to my days off. Typically, during the week I scan the Flickr and Instagram streams of friends and people I follow to see what’s new in street art and maybe decide to go and photograph something new that I like. I get up fairly early and if I don’t have anything that really inspires me I might go into the city or somewhere I haven’t been for a while. Even if I have specific things to photograph, I generally find other things on the way and wherever I am I go for a walk around to see what is in the neighbourhood. My dog accompanies me on these mornings. I tend to favour urban neighbourhoods. I’m fascinated by the way old suburbs are changing as developers move in. I see graffiti as a form of dissent…but maybe I’m too generous..it is probably just making use of the opportunity the process provides.

Your work showcases graffitis and streets arts, a subject often overlooked by mainstream street photographers. What attracts you to this art form?

Initially, I was attracted because of the spirit of rebellion. Also, some of the early stencils were clever and some quite beautiful. Following in the wake of the stencil movement in Melbourne, other media such as drawings pasted on walls, stickers, sculptures and murals began to appear. There was definitely a spirit of freedom in most and some were just beautiful. I was in Tokyo in September the same year as Fukushima and there were anti-nuke stickers everywhere as well as graffiti and other random pieces. A friend recently visited Tokyo and was taken to a secret location to see a BANKSY rat which has managed to survive. In every city I have been, there is some form of street art. It can be repetitive and pointless.

I guess part of what attracts me is that someone has stood in this place and taken the time to create something. Some see it as vandalism and others see it as exercising the right to freedom of expression. A graffiti writer may be just out to gain some cred with friends…like playing the guitar, smoking, doing drugs. Others are actively engaged in what they see as the struggle between the forces of light and dark. Where the owners of capital and media determine what will be seen by the public and where it shall be allowed. There are worthy and not so worthy arguments on both sides of the equation. I am interested in the battle lines for the use of public space.

You have been covering the street arts of Melbourne for over a decade. Once it was said, “ The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls”. Do you think in the modern world of commercialism, this still holds true? What is the biggest change you have observed in all these years? 

Without a doubt, the single overwhelming change is that ‘street art’ has become a part of the mainstream. From the international roster of muralists who travel the globe following the sun like the tennis tours or the surf competitions, to the crowds of tourists, newlyweds and weekend sightseers who congregate in Melbourne’s laneways. Whatever officialdom has to say, the public is in love with what street art has become. I won’t be surprised if a street artist gets commissioned to decorate the MCG for the Grand Final. For the artists some are hugely famous, others are happy to be gainfully employed in “the wall painting industry”. Some are still activists despite their adoption by the mainstream. Banksy obviously, but others such as Blu from Italy & JR from France. In 2014 Blu protested against the gentrification of Berlin, often with the accompaniment of street art, by painting out a decade worth of his murals. Street art is very diverse.

Street artists work with local communities, remote communities, represent Australia overseas producing murals and working with local groups. The list goes on. Through the vision of a local gallerist & promoter, Benalla has commissioned street artists for the last 3 years to come and paint the town and rural communities in Victoria and South Australia have allowed artists to paint commemorative works on the wheat silos. Commercialisation can tend to water down and lessen the credibility of street art as a dissident activity but I don’t think it is possible to eradicate the spirit of rebellion and the desire for freedom by any amount of money or legislation. Go for a walk in the city or maybe your neighbourhood and you’ll find something on a fence or a wall…quirky, irreverent, offensive maybe or just beautiful.

What or who is your inspiration?

I am inspired by many photographers but I would say I haven’t been especially influenced by any particular photographer. One of my favourite photographers is Sebastiao Salgado. I can’t imagine that any of my photographs will ever have the intensity he seems to bring to each image. You could say something similar about Diane Arbus. To me, the strength of the photos is a measure of their physical & emotional engagement with their subjects. I look at the photos of other people and the first thing that will grab my attention is a strong image…..you can then analyse the image in terms of composition, use of light/shadow to create atmosphere, camera, lens & settings or maybe the subject is so compelling that everything else takes a back seat…..but you are not going to go out and replicate that image. You might learn something that you wouldn’t have thought of. You might see a photographic possibility where you wouldn’t have seen it before. I look back at photos and see different ways I might have shot or edited.

What is that one thing that you think has been a game changer in your photography? It can be any event, gear, book or anything.

The event which comes to mind was being invited by a photographer friend to a night with Bruce Postle. I was impressed by Bruce’s creativity, his ability to see the photo before it was there, his humour and his humanity. The friend was instrumental in getting to look beyond the horizon of street photography. Apart from that digital cameras, travel & then mirrorless cameras. Having a subject which I felt compelled to keep photographing, i.e. street art, definitely kept me working at improving my knowledge and ability. It also closed me to really looking at other things. I would say travel was the thing that began to open the door to subject matter that wasn’t graffiti or street art. Digital cameras freed me from the limitations of film….no expensive film & developing. Changing to a mirrorless system has probably taught me more about using a camera in 6 months than I learned prior to that. Apart from having to learn all the controls, menus etc and getting experience with a range of lenses that I have never used before, having the ability to see the photo live in camera, apply different simulations live & adjust almost any setting has been revolutionary for me….considering that I am still at a beginners level.

What will be your one tip to any photographer who is just getting started?

Be receptive to what surrounds you at any moment, be curious & persist. Every good photo is potentially the tip of an iceberg of rejects. You have to keep taking photos to start to see what needs improving. You can look at a thousand great photos and begin to see what is lacking in your own or see what you aspire to but like anything in life only practice makes the improvement. Join a group. Meet other photographers, learn to give and accept criticism and share experience.

What is your future plan? Is there any project or idea that we should look forward to?

I had once imagined I would put together a book of photos of street art. I no longer plan to use my photos for a book of photos. I am more interested in a written account of the history of street art in Melbourne. Ideally, there would be a mix of archival photos….there are thousands of ordinary photos held by the artists and others…and if I could persuade a publisher I would also like to showcase some of the best photos of standout street art in Melbourne over the years. I belong to a small community of “paintspotters” as we are known and there are some stunning photos of some great street art. I have also been inspired more recently by the work of some documentary photographers and I am aiming to approach a couple of local community groups and see what comes out of that.

Where can we see more of your work and future projects?

At the moment my photos live mainly on the web – www.flickr.com/photos/mutantdreams

You can also follow Roger on Instagram.

 

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