One country, one person, one Australia. The idea came to Melbourne’s Michel Lawrence out of disgust, but the result was much more positive.

 

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Congo475

Fitina and Neema Mukusa. Congo

One country, one person, one Australia. The idea came to Melbourne’s Michel Lawrence out of disgust, but the result was much more positive.

Sitting in front of his TV in Melbourne in 2005, Michel Lawrence had an ‘allergic reaction’ to the Cronulla riots which gave him a deceptively simple idea for a photography project. ‘You watch this stuff on TV and you wonder why people are doing this – this is no way for a multicultural society to behave,’ he says.

He decided on the spot that he wanted to shoot a portrait of a person from every overseas country represented in the Australian population for a book and exhibition. They had to have been born in their country of origin, but had become an Australian citizen or were waiting for their citizenship application to be processed. That is, they were migrants and refugees committed to making Australia their new permanent home.

‘I probably underestimated how much work was required,’ says Lawrence, a former journalist who also interviewed each person for extended captions to accompany the photos. ‘But everyone I put the idea to said, ‘Yeah, do it.”

For a start, he had to track down people from 250 countries, some very obscure and unrepresented by any kind of organisation in Australia. There were 53 in Africa alone. He finally managed to find someone from the Faroe Islands (a Danish protectorate roughly equidistant from Iceland, Scotland and Norway) after the book content had been finalised, although the portrait made it into the exhibition.

And what an exhibition it was. After a long career encompassing the news media, advertising and the arts at the highest levels, Lawrence has some influential friends, and he used them. The sun first rose on the full quota of 1.2 x 1.2m and 2 x 1.2m prints on Australia Day this year as they covered two exterior walls of Melbourne’s Federation Square building, where they remained for a month. He wanted it to be an outdoor exhibition that many thousands of people would see. He also had a smaller indoor exhibition of 40 prints at Australian Galleries’ Works on Paper venue for the launch of the large-format book, All of Us (Scribe Publications, $59.95).

Lawrence was a founding student at Victoria’s La Trobe University in 1967, and founding editor of its student newspaper. As a professional journalist, he worked for The Australian, and his advertising career has included being creative director at J. Walter Thompson in Melbourne from 1991 to 2002. He is also a past president of the Melbourne Art Directors’ Club. He is now a director of The Egg, a multimedia ad agency with ‘free range thinking’ as its selling point.

He has always taken photographs as a pleasurable creative pursuit – ‘the thing I do for me’ – and portraiture has always appealed. He has pictures in the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra and the permanent thespian collection at the Melbourne Performing Arts Museum. His book Framed: Portraits of Australia Painters was published in 1998.

For All of Us, he photographed the subjects at their homes, inside and out, using a Bowens flash kit and a digital SLR for test shots, but 2 ¼ x 2 ¼ transparency film and his trusty old Hasselblad for the final studies. He had a number of major sponsors for the project, including Fuji which donated about $20,000 worth of printing paper.

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Carlos Ferreira. Brazil

‘My 30-year-old Hasselblad is still a beautiful piece of gear,’ says Lawrence, ‘and it produces the sort of quality I needed. I wanted very large prints you could view from a distance but also look at up close, with fine grain and no pixellation.’

Many of the people came from very poor countries or situations and had never been professionally photographed before. ‘The whole point was to photograph normal people in everyday situations. Almost everyone I approached was really interested in the idea and only two didn’t want to do it. Some asked if I wanted them in traditional dress, and I said they could wear whatever they wanted.’

He used the test shot procedure to get them relaxed, and hand-held the ‘Blad rather than mount it on a tripod so it was less imposing. To spare the complications of providing everyone with personal prints, he set up a website where the subjects could view their portraits and request a different image if they wanted to. Only half a dozen weren’t satisfied with what they initially saw.

‘I’m still in touch with some of the people. They ring me up for a talk,’ says Lawrence. ‘There’s just a really good feeling surrounding the whole thing.’

To view more All of Us portraits, visit www.allofus.com.au. Other Michel Lawrence photography can be seen at www.michellawrence.com.

See Photo Review magazine Issue 36 for the print edition of this profile which includes additional images.

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