If you had to choose 30 faces to represent the story, struggles and achievements of a particular set of cultures or ethnicities, whose would you choose?
This was the question that photographer Sunny Brar tasked himself to answer.
During the last eight months, Sunny has travelled from Sydney to Townsville, from Dubbo to Canberra and the Gold Coast, and many other places in between, to get to know some of the most recognisable and emblematic faces of Indigenous Australia.
From sporting legends like Nova Peris, Joe Williams and Jade North, to activists like Bonita Mabo and Clinton Pryor; from actors like Jack Charles, Luke Carroll and Miranda Tapsell, to politician Linda Burney and local Redfern Senior Constable, Jarin Baigent, Sunny has captured the charisma and experience of a group of formidable Indigenous Australians… Why? To come to grips with his own heritage, by learning about what makes the identity of others.
“I was trying to capture different walks of life, whether it was a community worker to someone in the army, or a police officer to someone on TV, or someone in music, or just a mentor,” Sunny explains.
The resulting compendium is remarkable, and Sunny’s efforts and dedication have been duly noted by the heroes themselves, as some of them also attended The Face Exhibition opening.
“Sunny has done an amazing job just capturing the right shots. From young people to old people, to boisterous people… it’s truly incredible,” Joe Williams said at the opening.
“You know, so many people obviously see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders First Nations Peoples from the sporting field, there’s obviously some sporting people here… But it [this exhibition] just highlights the different fields that a lot of our people are in, and succeeding in,” he added.
The elusive concept of identity
Originally from an Indian background, Sunny arrived in Australia when he was only seven years old. Growing up as a cultural hybrid, Sunny says he grappled with his own concept of identity and heritage growing up.
“It was a need for myself to understand my own culture … to understand where I came from.”
The concept for The Face exhibition came to him while he was working for the South Sydney Rabbitohs during the Indigenous round.
“I saw how everyone else was struggling also to identify with their own culture or figure out [their own] heritage. I started figuring out the pattern, that was the need to find out that not everyone is the same type of person, everyone has different stories, different things that they’ve done in life.
“I sat down with my family and I decided to photograph the different faces of culture in multicultural Australia. The wonderful thing about that is that it gave me the opportunity to start with the First Nations Peoples,” Sunny says as he walks through the 32 portraits displayed at the 107 Projects Gallery in Redfern.
Despite not being Indigenous, Sunny found a way to earn the trust of the people he was photographing. How? By displaying a genuine interest and an openness to learn.
“I, like most other people, wasn’t very educated in the backgrounds and heritage of Indigenous people. What I learned was how inclusive and welcoming the First Nations people are. You don’t hear about that enough, especially with the [negative] media attention [they often] get.
“These people are some of the proudest and most inclusive people that I’ve ever met. They want to show you all the things that they’ve achieved, but [they’re] very humble,” Sunny says.
Sunny says he started the project with a few contacts, but he got in touch with the heroes mainly through connections.
“For example, if I sat with Joe Williams, he would point me to three others, then they would point me to another five others, and it kind of grew from there.”
As he met the heroes and made connections, underlying cultural similarities began to emerge.
“We hold very similar values of family, and connection and language. We hold very similar values in regards to respecting our elders and things like that. But for me, it allowed me to start identifying those things we have in common, and then I started looking more into my heritage,” Sunny explains.
Photographing the faces
Sunny started photographing the Indigenous heroes in January as a side project to his full-time job. He mostly drove to meet the heroes at their homes, taking with him a portable backdrop and lighting equipment.
For any portrait photographer, the biggest challenge is to get their subjects to open up and show their true personalities, so they can capture that perfect moment when humanity shines through.
“I try to, with each photo, show a little bit of the personality, but try to keep it as natural for them as possible, not posing them. Most of these people came up with their own individual look and I was able to capture it,” he says.
Besides the photos, Sunny also recorded videos of the heroes, as a way to introduce everybody, and extend the scope of the exhibition beyond who could attend.
“What I wanted to be able to do with the video was to get to know them [the heroes], and as I got to know them, I wanted the world to see what I saw.
“I asked them very simple questions ... I asked them where they were from, who they are and I asked them what culture meant to them. Everyone had a different answer for it. And then I asked them if you had to tell a young child … what message would you give them that you wish you had? Those two questions, as simple as they may seem, are very difficult to answer,” Sunny said.
The stories behind the photos
One of Sunny’s favourite experiences was photographing Bonita Mabo, with whom he only had 30 minutes, as they met while she was in transit to the Indigenous Peace Awards in Canberra.
Sunny realised that the easiest way to get the heroes to open up was to tell them his own story while setting up his portable studio. Then, he would continue the conversation and listen to what the heroes had to say.
“[After I] listened to her [Bonita] for a few minutes, I knew exactly what I had to do with light to show her smile. To show her experience in her eyes,” Sunny recalls.
“In comparison, someone like Jack Charles who’s an actor and a big personality, within minutes, I could see his joy in his face, and I was able to talk to him. And he laughed, that was it that was the moment I knew I had to photograph.”
Another of the exhibition’s most notable photographs is that of mental health activist and former sports legend, Joe Williams, who allowed Sunny to photograph him while looking proud and shedding a tear, as a means to represent Joe’s pride in culture and achievements of overcoming depression.
But the exhibition also reveals the faces and achievements of other, lesser known heroes. Sunny’s intention was to show that people have “limitedness opportunities of what you can become, what you can do,” Sunny says.
One of these local champions is Jarin Baigent, the first police officer her family and the only Indigenous female police officer in her circle.
Jarin, who described the experience as ‘daunting’ as it was her first time being photographed for an exhibition, praised the results.
“I’m really proud of this. I think he’s done an outstanding job. I think it looks amazing and I really hope that he follows with more ‘Face’ exhibitions of more Aboriginal people that are doing wonderful things I the community,” she said.
For Sunny, the exhibition is just the first of a planned series of multicultural portraits. After it closes, he plans to donate the photographs to local community centres in Redfern, so that they can live on.
But, has he found what he was looking for? Perhaps. If not his identity, Sunny has definitely found new hints on where to look.
“It made me more humble in my way of thinking about culture,” he says.
“I think there is a great amount of learning to be had with communicating and engaging with Indigenous people … I think it’s very important to understand their perspective,” he adds.
“The core fundamental culture is so warm, so giving, that there is so much information to be shared between cultures.
“Any different nationality can come and talk to anyone of these people and you will see that there are so many commonalities. And at the end of the day, we’re human, we do have commonalities, but these commonalities become so evident when you talk to these people.”
And it is in these newly-found similarities that he hopes to find his path forward.
“By the time I get to my ethnicity and my heritage, hopefully, I can try and identify those people that also represent the best of my culture. That’s what these guys helped me do – show me that no matter what the face is, [they have had the] ability to achieve and …. break the stereotypes beyond everyone’s understanding,” Sunny concludes.
The Face Exhibition is being shown in Redfern's 107 Projects Gallery until Sunday, 17 July.