A Little Uneasy

Melbourne's Morganna Magee is too busy documenting happenings on her doorstep to worry about global warnings that photojournalism is going out of fashion.

 'I like to go to places that make me feel a little uneasy - but you don't have to do extreme things to get good photos,' says 23-year-old Melbourne photographer Morganna Magee.

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A showgirl takes timeout on a busy Saturday night 2005. Image taken from Showgirls series.

Last year, while almost all her fellow students at Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE were photographing fashion and other commercial subjects, Magee was hanging out backstage at a local strip club. Since graduating from the two-year course with a major in photojournalism, she has been documenting Sudanese migrants, but the project is on hold while she tries to get access to a centre for traumatised refugees. She's also interested in zoos, including the likes of one in Nepal that was 'hard to stomach'. And abattoirs and taxidermy.

With subjects like these, Magee could still be "fashionable" by going for shock value, but her personal school of inspiration is peopled by James Nachtwey and the late W. Eugene Smith - photo-documentary heavyweights obsessed with truth, not tricks.

The strip club opportunity proved a valuable lesson in many ways. It presented itself because Magee had a friend working on the door. The management was agreeable, but for legal reasons she couldn't photograph the patrons ('which would have been even better'). When a notice was pinned up in the changing room outlining her intentions, a few of the girls asked that they be shot only from the back. 'But most of them were showgirls who had been in Penthouse, etc, so they weren't fussed about their image being out there.'

When she began her 20 shoots of 1-2 hours over a six-month period, she 'shot everything'. Then she started getting to know the girls, who were about her age and not the cliché she'd expected. 'I had a romantic image of strippers being sad and sort of tired,' she says, 'and they're aware of that perception and how people judge them. In fact, they were as happy as anyone. Their attitude was that they were just making money.'

Magee grew up in Melbourne and studied photography through high school. She travelled for a few years, then attended the TAFE course, for which she has high praise. 'The tutors were excellent and you are given freedom of expression without the usual pressure or stress - I've done a few shorter courses too.

'And they're not giving up on traditional darkrooms. We learnt colour and black-and-white printing. A lot of people take the alternative processes option with Polaroid, hand-tinting, cyanotype and so on. They only recently installed the darkrooms, so the intention is clear. It's still what photography is all about. You need that background, even if you're working digitally.'

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Sudanese boys playing up for the camera during Saturday morning English classes, 2005.

Magee usually loads Fuji Neopan 1600 into her Nikon F90X, with a 30-70mm zoom or 105mm portrait lens. 'I will be using film until they stop making it - when I will be rallying against them.'

She notes that most of her TAFE colleagues were female, and only one other student had a passion for photojournalism. She has no doubts about its continued 'power to resonate', while acknowledging that it's nice work if you can get it. 'I'm also aware of "don't give up your day job". The New York Times hasn't called so far, so I'm working in retail.'

Magee wanted to be an 'animal photographer' from an early age, or a vet. 'Then I travelled and realised that wildlife photography involved a lot of patience and extreme situations. I couldn't sit in a canopy for six months.

'With documentary work, you get to meet so many people you wouldn't normally get to meet. I want to get out there and have an experience. Then you go home, thinking you've got something really good on your film, you do the developing and it turns out that good or even better, and it's the best feeling.'

Morganna Magee. It's a good name to look out for.

Magee has signed on with the Australia Council for the Arts service Noise, which may be of interest to any young artist (under 25) in almost any field. Her pages at www.noise.net start at http://www.noise.net/morgie

See Photo Review magazine Issue 29 for the print edition of this profile which includes additional images.

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