We Too are Vulnerable Creatures

We Too are Vulnerable Creatures

A conversation with Tamara Dean

By Pamela Chen

Tamara Dean chooses to see the beauty in life. That beauty is powerful, she explains, because it makes people look. And making people look is the first step towards Tamara’s ultimate goal: to make us think and think again about humanity’s relationship with our natural environment.

“I want to challenge our idea of ourselves and where we sit in our perception of life,” she tells me. “Rather than seeing the human at the top, seeing ourselves as really tiny.”

Tamara’s work invites us to reconsider ourselves a different kind of living creature—as naked and vulnerable in the wilderness as any other animal on our planet. In Endangered, we get the impression of a school of fish, only to see that it is humans twisting and shimmering through the water. Tamara presents humans as beings that have always been inextricable from their natural surroundings, like allegorical paintings of an imagined past.

And yet Tamara’s work has never seemed more present. One of the worst bush fire seasons in history raged through her home country of Australia in 2019, followed immediately by the pandemic. In this time of isolation and uncertainty, Tamara continues to remind us that we too are vulnerable creatures, and our fate is intertwined with our planet’s now more than ever.

In this interview, Tamara reflects on the power of beauty, the strength she found in her own vulnerability, and how the escalating impacts of climate change have influenced her own creative journey and practice.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Pamela: So let's start in the present. Tell me a little bit about what you're up to today. 

Tamara: Today I'm at home, which is in the foothills of a beautiful big mountain. Just enjoying the summer day at home. 

Pamela: I understand this is where you've been ever since COVID got started? 

Tamara: Yes, indeed. I've been really lucky to be here, actually. It's a few hours south of Sydney in Australia. It's relatively isolated but still close to communities. It was a pretty lucky place to be when everything sort of shut down.

Pamela: It allowed you to create some work, which we can talk about today. 

Tamara: Yeah. I ended up creating a series, which I called Hijinx in the Hydrangeas, and the series was a way that I personally dealt with getting through this really challenging time. I also had an exhibition to work towards–I had the perfect situation in a way, I had something to look forward to and to direct my work. 

Because I live on this property, I could just walk out of my door and be in the forest or on the land to see what I could come up with. I can be filled with the excitement and all of the positive feelings I get when I do a shoot. 

Pamela: How would you say that this work is different from the work you've created before? 

Tamara: Well, up until this series, I haven't really spent a lot of time photographing myself. I tend to bring in small groups, sometimes individuals, sometimes massive groups of people. The difference with this series was because of the so-called “isolation”. I thought, I've got to create this entire exhibition, and I knew the one person I could depend on being here was me. I thought, ‘Well, I'll set myself the challenge of photographing myself.’ 

It's easy to kind of get into familiar ways of working. This was the opposite of a familiar way of working. 

I guess because it was isolated and pretty private, I was able to experiment in a way that I hadn't before. I didn't have to direct someone because it was obviously me running in and out. It was more the practicalities of how to physically achieve what I was trying to achieve that was the challenge. 

Pamela: Have you photographed yourself like this before? Was this something that was easy for you? 

Tamara: I have photographed myself before, but so long ago in a completely different way. This is the first time I've used my figure in the way that I would interact with people who I'm photographing. I wanted to get a sense of moving through the environment and have a really active sense to the images. 

In that way, it was hugely challenging because I had to imagine myself, set up the shot for this imagined me, and then go and try and capture the prize moment in that sequence of movements. It was really challenging, but also really exciting in that way. It's easy to kind of get into familiar ways of working. This was the opposite of a familiar way of working. 

I think having that period where life was so simplified down. I don't know if I ever really knew before, how much joy and satisfaction I really got from doing a photo shoot. Because life was so simplified, it was in a really palpable sense, I'd come in and I was just so much happier. It was really interesting to be able to recognize the photographic process as something that fills me with joy. I don't think I ever really acknowledged that or recognized that before. 

Pamela: Do you feel like it was easier to acknowledge because it was you as the subject and the director? 

Tamara: I think it was because, in a way, life was quite flat. With the isolation and the anxiety of everything, there was a lot of flatness in my emotional space. Having this was charged, exciting and there was a lot of joy in that process, because I was making things up and trying to photograph myself in ways that I hadn't before. I really pushed myself to try new things and experiment. 

I came away from the shoot and came back into the home. I could feel the way that I was among everyone. It was just much more of a heightened, happier me. 

Pamela: That's amazing because I think you can see the joy in the pictures, but there's also a level of vulnerability there and almost tension when you look at these pictures. Can you talk a little bit about that? 

Tamara: I've been thinking about this series a bit and how it's related to my work in the past. In some of my earlier work, I was really focusing on the rites of passage that young people make for themselves in nature. These rites of passage from being a teenager and becoming an adult and those sorts of things. 

It was really interesting to be able to recognize the photographic process as something that fills me with joy. 

I started to recognize that the work that I've created here for me was a real rite of passage. I was pushing myself physically. I was literally climbing trees and trying to do somersaults and trying to get into expressive movements. In doing so, I was challenging myself physically and mentally. 

There was a lot of discomfort. I was barefoot and there were a lot of jagged things on the ground. I was often getting cut and bruised, but it was enlivening. In a way, it was that mix of pain or discomfort, and something that is outside of the normal daily experience. 

Through doing it, I wanted to prove to myself that I was strong. I'm a forty-five-year old woman and I live a life that I'm really happy with, but I guess I'm not out throwing myself across the dam on a rope swing every day. I watch my children do these things. I really threw myself into the landscape. 

I'm really proud of the woman that I have represented in the photographs because it's not who I saw myself as before COVID. There was a whole process emotionally that took me to a different place in myself. 

Pamela: Say more about that. 

Tamara: Before the pandemic hit, we had just lived through the bushfires that ripped up the east coast of Australia and came very close to our home. It was an utterly terrifying experience. Home was not somewhere that was safe. Home became somewhere that was really dangerous. There was this real tension of not wanting to leave home because home was home, but also having to leave home because otherwise we could perish. Having gone through that, I can't even describe it. 

Then, only a couple of months later to have the pandemic hit: I developed a lot of anxieties around that as well. In a way, I felt like I had to bring something out of myself that was able to protect me in this new world, in this new reality that we're experiencing. We're living in a changing climate and we are at the coalface. I feel like we're just living it, in the day-to-day. 

There's a part of me that goes, “Okay, well, if this is what life is going to be, how do I prepare for that?” The series to me was a photographic series, but it was also a process of giving me an excuse to go out into nature, into the environment that I live in, to physically challenge myself. To prove to myself that I could I survive. 

Pamela: It sounds like it was very cathartic. At the same time, like you say, it does represent such an evolution of the work you've always been doing, as it pertains to how we relate to the environment. Can you talk about looking back on the Endangered series? 

Tamara: The "Endangered" series was my most overt environmentally-focused series. I loved all of my work. There's a really strong evolution that runs through it. The series previous to "Endangered" was a series I called "Instinctual". That was tapping into the instincts that we have within us as humans, as animals. 

We're living in a world where climate change is recognized. Yet, with all of the intelligence that we have as humans, we're not following the path of keeping ourselves alive. I find it utterly flabbergasting, really. 

In the process of making that series, I photographed a group of people from above. While I was on a bridge, photographing people in the water, I discovered this sense of the formation of the figures almost looked like a school of fish, which was a key for me. I thought, imagine if I could create that, but I wonder what it would look like from underneath the water. 

I felt like that was a really strong motive to express, that sense that we are animals by likening us to a school of fish, another completely different kind of living creature. I thought it was quite a poetic way of making that point. 

I had this opportunity, it might have been two years later, where I was invited to go to Heron Island with the Climate Council. It was an amazing opportunity. Heron Island is in the Great Barrier Reef. It's just absolutely teeming with life. It's just the most beautiful, unbelievable environment. I thought, well, there's going to be a big group of people that were invited to be a part of this learning weekend and part of it would be snorkeling. I thought, if I take my underwater camera, maybe I'll be able to convince a few people to let me test this idea out. 

A day or two into the weekend, I went on a little snorkeling trip with a group of seven or eight of us. At the very end of the snorkeling, which was only about a half an hour, I was like, “could everyone just for five minutes, anyone who's comfortable, would you be open to going in the water and diving down, letting me see if this idea has any kind of validity or if it could be what I hoped it would be?” 

All volunteers, everyone was there because they care about the environment. I suppose the focus being on that as the subject as opposed to individuals, I think everyone was really happy to just jump in. 

When we got back to the boat and I was looking at the photos, I was just gobsmacked going, 'Oh my God, this looks better than I ever imagined.' Then I showed a few people. Suddenly when we got back, there were a whole lot of people saying, 'Oh, I want to be in it, I want to be in it!' 

The very last morning, at daybreak, I got everyone interested in being part of it, which ended up being sixteen people. We went and we did a lot of those "Endangered" photographs. It was challenging in a lot of ways because I'm actually quite scared of being in the ocean personally. There were sharks and stingrays, reef sharks and stingrays, all around where we were swimming. 

Everyone assured me they were all not trying to eat humans, which in my intellectual mind I can recognize. But there's a part of me that watched "Jaws" as a kid. I was really happy with how that came out and I continued to work on the series closer to home in a place called Jervis Bay. 

In Jervis Bay, I was trying to achieve that kind of tornado and fish reference, as seen in one of the photographs in Vital Impacts. I managed to find 21 women who volunteered to be a part of that. That was an interesting day out on a very choppy cold sea. 

Pamela: There's something incredibly magical about seeing it. The first time I saw those pictures, it felt almost prehistoric. It gave me this moment of imagining people as animals in a new way. What was the intent behind the work? How has it been received? 

Tamara: I really did want to try and create a school of humans in a schooling formation. I felt like the human body, under the water, unclothed–it's not too big a stretch in the mind to imagine that as a school of humans, a school of fish. 

I don't want to make people cry, but I couldn't hope for more. I feel like that means they are hearing my despair in a way. Hopefully that motivates a sense of urgency.

By creating this image, I wanted people to look at it and question where they fit in life. There's this vulnerability to the humans in the water because we know that we've just got this thin skin that protects us. You suddenly see the beauty in the human form and you see the vulnerability. 

By naming the series "Endangered," I wanted to reference that you often see campaigns to save endangered animals. I thought by naming it, "Endangered," it's showing humans in this beautiful way and then going, ‘this is what we have to lose.’ Those were the elements I was trying to play with to make my point. 

Pamela: Beauty is something we've talked about before as a way to help people see something in a new way. I see that as a theme throughout all of your work. 

Tamara: I see beauty everywhere. I also see a lot of not beautiful things too, but I choose to see the beauty and I choose to photograph the beauty. I find that it's something that people will look at. 

I find it devastating seeing the destruction of our environment. I understand the urge to look away because it's so disempowering to see what's happening at times. I live that daily in Australia. Using beauty in a way that creates a compelling image is my way of drawing people into a conversation. 

Pamela: Let's talk about what that conversation is. When we look at Endangered or even the most recent work, what are the conversations that you find yourself having? 

Tamara: I live in a country where we have a leadership that is still approving coal mines. We're living in a world where climate change is recognized. Yet, with all of the intelligence that we have as humans, we're not following the path of keeping ourselves alive. I find it utterly flabbergasting, really. 

By creating this image, I wanted people to look at it and question where they fit in life. There's this vulnerability to the humans in the water because we know that we've just got this thin skin that protects us.

I want to keep that conversation alive. I want to keep the conversation alive where we talk about prioritizing renewable energy, creating a better world, and creating a better future. I feel like young people tend to be able to see that in a way that older people are not (obviously not all older people). I think there's a really strong sense in the communities across the world of understanding this, but leadership can be lacking. I feel like there's this great divide. 

With the pandemic, which has been such a distraction–a huge and important reality we're living through–but massively distracting from the even more debilitating sense of our environment being destroyed by the day. There's a lot I'm trying to express and I can't get it all out at once. It's just so frustrating. 

Pamela: Well, I think that's where your pictures come in because the images really have these layered meanings throughout. Especially when you're talking about the human relationship with the environment at this historical moment that we're living through with the pandemic. 

Can you talk a little bit about how you're seeing these messages play out and how people have seen your most recent work? Have you felt like you're able to engage them in conversations around it? 

Tamara: I think that the artworks are a way to have those conversations. It's a gentle way in. As simply as being able to say, ‘I'm integrating my body in the environment because we are part of the environment.’ I think that it's a gentle way of remembering we're connected to something and that our fates are entwined. I think this gentler way is the way I can add to the momentum. 

Pamela: You talk about this connectedness. You and I have talked about this phenomenon where humans separate themselves from the environment, or that they feel like there's a distance. And I thought that was really profound. 

Tamara: It's interesting. I wonder how much language has to do with it. I'm trying to make my point that we are nature. We are not separate to nature. We are animals. We are mammals. I have distilled my work down to trying to make that point. 

I think there are so many hard, rusted-on structures that distract us from that. Even the idea that there's a separate nature category in photography prizes. This idea that nature is something that humans are not a part of. 

I see beauty everywhere. I also see a lot of not beautiful things too, but I choose to see the beauty and I choose to photograph the beauty. 

Even as we've been speaking, I said I went out into nature. I understand that I'm a part of nature, but also in this language there is an implied separation. I feel like if I can help break that concept down, and if you're connected to something, you're more likely to care about it. 

I feel like humanity has a bit of an ego problem. We see ourselves as outside of [nature], as better, as some life form that isn't involved and isn't depending on the environment we are within. But, we play a key role. Particularly with everything that we do on this planet, we couldn't be more a part of nature. I'm just trying to say, it's an important thing to recognize. In doing so, I hope that there's a sense of realizing where we can do better. 

Pamela: I think that kind of tension is so evident in the arc of your work, as you move from "Endangered" towards putting yourself in the images. It's almost like you're escalating this confrontation to say, ‘Now it's me, I'm in there. I am not separate from the environment.’

There is one thing that comes up a lot when we talk about photography and climate change. Is there a way that you feel these images and this message can reach beyond those who already believe in the cause? 

Tamara: Well, for me, that's through art. Through an unbiased space in a way. I feel like in magazines, there's a really strong sense of editorializing. People are skeptical of the media now. There's just so much distrust in the media, which is so sad. 

I can only speak from my own perspective and say that my way is through putting a photograph up on a wall. That is far-reaching in terms of people who will come and see it across all political persuasions. 

The "Endangered" series in particular resonated across the world and ended up in a lot of forums–art forums and media forums. That really hit a nerve. People responded to those images. 

In a way, making that series was a little bit debilitating because afterwards I was like, ‘what do I do next?’ It's such a very direct series to talk about what I'm concerned with. It was actually a huge relief to just photograph myself out in the landscape and go, ‘OK, well, I'm just going to turn it in.’ As you say, it's making that point that I am part of nature and making it personal.

Pamela: So much of your work has this theme of a human's relationship to the environment. Were you always interested in this topic? What were you like as a kid? 

Tamara: I wasn't always. I was more interested in the environment. I was completely obsessed with the Australian bush, and the rocks, and the trees. I would just obsessively sketch it. I grew up on the edge of a nature reserve when I was quite young. I feel like I was immersed in all this sensory, the scent of birch and the sounds. Everything about the experience was part of my coming into the world and becoming conscious in the world. I feel like there's a really strong pull in my heart for that. 

Using beauty in a way that creates a compelling image is my way of drawing people into a conversation. 

I was quite shy. I'm still shy, but I'm just much better at hiding it. I was really shy about taking direct photographs of people. I didn't really start doing that until my mid-20s. I photographed my sister. 

There's a few photographs of people I took when I was younger. I was into photography from late high school. There was a long time where I was just too scared to photograph people. It was very confrontational. I would just use a wide-angle lens and try and look like I was photographing in the center while I was trying to get people on either side of my frame. There's lots of my early photos with people just on the edges, which kind of worked as a style. I liked that as a style, but it was because I was super shy. 

Pamela: Wow. What changed? People are now featured quite front and center. 

Tamara: I ended up getting a full-time job at the Sydney Morning Herald, which is a broadsheet in Australia. I learned really quickly how to direct people. It was a skill I learnt out of necessity. I'd arrive at a job and people would be like, "OK, what do you want me to do?" I had to work out how to manage that expectation. I suppose I just came up with some methods along the way. 

I think I learned because I'm sort of super perceptive and emotional. I just sort of feel everything that's happening in a room. I think my first desire was to make people feel comfortable. That became part of my process. There'd be a fair bit of looking at people over the camera when I was taking photographs, to get that connection. That led to this sense of intimacy in my work. In my photo shoots, I still employ a lot of the strategies that I learned while working at the Herald. I feel like that's where my work sits slightly outside of the norm. 

Pamela: It seems like you really found your voice then, and you're using that voice to deliver a very strong message. 

Tamara: Yes, I am. I was an environmental activist in my early 20s. When I joined the Herald, there's a code of ethics with the media and not pushing anything, not being involved in any kind of organizations. I took off that [activist] hat while I was there. 

Once I left, I went, ‘Oh my god.’ Now, as you say, I found what I was doing and my style. I just went, ‘Oh my god, I can actually now point this in the direction I want to point it in. I can tell my own stories and start creating my own narratives.’ It was a revolutionary, actually revelatory. 

Pamela: What is it that you hope people see in the work now? 

Tamara: I really hope that people consider where they are in the natural systems of our planet. I'll keep photographing in certain ways to keep building on that conversation. 

I feel like a lot of people are waking up to what's happening. It'd be hard not to be touched by the impacts of climate change. There must be a denialism somewhere along the line for people where maybe it doesn't serve their narrative. I just really hope that people hear that message and care about something that they're part of. 

Pamela: What's the reception been like? Have you found that people have told you that you've changed the way they think of something about the environment?

Tamara: People seem to be really touched by my work. The exhibition I've had on recently got an incredible reception. It's in a regional gallery in New South Wales, which is not in the major cities. It got a lot of attention. 

The gallery manager and the volunteers there would tell me how people would be in there crying. They would be deeply affected by the work. I don't want to make people cry, but I couldn't hope for more. I feel like that means they are hearing my despair in a way. Hopefully that motivates a sense of urgency.

Pamela: And so what's next? 

Tamara: Well, I am actually quite excited. I'm in the process of building an underwater studio. Essentially like spec-building a pool which is built so that I can do underwater shoots in it. 

I think that it's a gentle way of remembering we're connected to something and that our fates are entwined. I think this gentler way is the way I can add to the momentum.

When I was in the ocean, obviously I'm terrified anyway, but it's quite clunky with the camera and the underwater housing. I don't have the best equipment for underwater photography. It's a clunky process. I'm just building this so that I can have a viewing window, and have a little more control over the photographs I'm taking. I'll be creating these worlds underwater. My aim is to really talk to my concerns about climate change, in whatever ways they take form, and using the water as a way of doing that. 

Pamela: Through the course of this conversation, I've certainly learned a few things. You say you're a shy person who now, flash forward, is photographing yourself completely nude. You are scared of the ocean, and now you are building an underwater studio. How would you describe your own creative arc if you were to map it out in hindsight? 

Tamara: I am not content with just doing something and doing it well. I constantly push myself. I find the work most exciting when I'm pushing myself. I still try to have a sense of discovery in my photographic shoots. There's never a shoot that is planned down to the second. There's always room for something new, or I create space for something to happen that is beyond my imagination. 

I'm never disappointed. It's always this incredibly exciting thing for me. I think that sort of pushes the evolution of my work in different ways. I said after "Endangered," that I'm never photographing underwater again. Now I'm finding, yes, I am. I find it most exciting when I'm challenging myself. I have no idea where it will all go, which is also exciting. 

Pamela: Well, I love that thought. It's a good moment to pause in our conversation. Is there anything else that you like to add? 

Tamara: Is it okay if I say, no? I can't think of anything off the bat? 

Pamela: We've covered a lot today. 

Tamara: I'm just glad that you’re interested. I'm glad that having made the work I've made has led me to be having this conversation with you and have these works on the Vital Impacts site. My younger self would never in a million years have imagined that this is the form that my work would take – that it could contribute in such a real way to helping the planet, hopefully. I suppose that's just something that is important to acknowledge. 

Pamela: Thank you so much, Tamara. 

Tamara: Thanks, Pamela.