The Ramsay Art Awards, held every two years by the Art Gallery of South Australia, are open to Australian artists under the age of 40 working in any medium, with this year’s People’s Choice Award going to photographer Hoda Afshar. Her installation, called Agonistes, combines new and old photographic techniques to explore the lives of Australian whistleblowers, who Afshar refers to as ‘modern tragic figure[s]’ for the dire choices and consequences each has faced.
Afshar was born in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war, where she learnt about the power of the photographic frame – to exclude people that governments want to ignore, to misrepresent foreign nations to the Western world, but also to document the lives of those marginalised people so they are not forgotten. She has spent much of her career photographing Iranian and Muslim people, especially women and refugees, to great acclaim, but for Agonistes, Afshar turned her camera towards a different group.
In this installation, her subjects are individuals who witnessed abuse and corruption in government agencies and made the decision to bring these crimes to light. These whistleblowers exposed systemic problems in industries as wide ranging as disability care, secret intelligence services, and immigration detention, but were often subject to gag orders and other forms of control following their claims, with huge ramifications for their professional and personal lives. Afshar’s work explores the external subjugation and internal anguish experienced by those trying to make the public aware of horrors committed under their governments, highlighting this repression as a threat to the right to dissent.
I have always believed in the potential of art to bring to light what’s at stake.
For one component of Agonistes, Afshar created nine portraits by photographing each whistleblower from all angles, using 110 cameras to create a 3D model of their face. Afshar was ‘fascinated’ by the way these photographs couldn’t capture her subjects’ eyes, producing a glazed look that resembled ancient busts of the Classical world. This imagery connects these whistleblowers to Greek tragedies in which characters are often forced to make an agonising choice ‘between responsibility and obligation – between morality and the law’, with both options accompanied by terrible consequences for individuals and democracy as a whole. Accompanying the collection is a video that features extreme close-ups of the whistleblowers as they describe the scrutiny they faced from the public and the government, returning to them the voice that was stolen when they were persecuted for speaking out.
Afshar’s thoughtful use of frame and masterful use of 3D modelling lay bare the tragedy of those brave enough to stand against abuses of power. Although the exhibition featuring Agonistes has now closed, the Art Gallery of South Australia did acquire three of Afshar’s portraits so they can be featured in future exhibitions.
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