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Q&A with Adam Ferguson

Each year the Library hosts the popular World Press Photo exhibition, bringing together award-winning photographs from the prestigious World Press Photo Contest

Photo of Adam Ferguson by Kathy Ryan

The exhibition won’t be travelling to Sydney in May this year, so we have brought the exhibition to you online for the time being.

We spoke with Australian photographer Adam Ferguson, whose incredible photo story has won 1st prize in the ‘Portraits, Stories’ category. 

Your prize-winning photo story ‘The Haunted’ is such a powerful body of work. How did the story come about and how long did it take to capture? 

The New York Times magazine approached me to work on this project and I was in Iraq for 10 days. I had worked extensively in Iraq previously and covered the exodus of Yazidi from ISIS in 2014. At this time, I was on board a helicopter that crashed with these very refugees. So I had a connection to this story and my own trauma associated with it. 

'The Haunted' by Adam Ferguson for the New York Times Magazine

'The Haunted' by Adam Ferguson for the New York Times Magazine

A lot of your work explores conflict and military regimes. Do you remember when and how this became your area of interest? 

I discovered images of conflict in my first year of art college and they affected me, it was a fascination I couldn’t shake. The idea of war and the justification for it had always felt problematic growing up in Australia with the Anzac legacy. Going to war as a photographer was my way of reconciling this understanding. I believe a diverse range of stories around conflict is essential to our historical reflection on it. Civilians in war zones often bear the cost of larger geopolitical decisions and we can’t ignore that. 

Is there anything you’re hoping to highlight with the images that you took? 

It was my intention to create a set of portraits that convey the immense emotional toll of the war in Iraq. It was important to make images that asked an audience to feel the psychological trauma that exists for many of the civilians who endured those recent years. Most of the families were extremely open and welcoming. The Yazidi population in particular had suffered some of the most severe persecution, and I believe they wanted to share their stories, they wanted to be heard. I consider it a responsibility to give my subjects a sense of dignity in the photographs, I feel it is important to honor their story. Although I also attempted to make portraits that felt fraught and sad, for their experiences contained those emotions. 

What motivates and inspires you to continue doing the work that you do? 

To be perfectly honest I am not sure what keeps me making work. I guess it’s still having unanswered questions that I feel an urge to follow. 

With everything going on at the moment with social distancing and quarantine, how have you been spending your time at home? 

I’ve been using the quarantine time to catch up on reading, photography and art theory mostly. Ariella Azoulay’s  ‘Civil Imagination’ is keeping me busy at the moment. But I am also making work, I spent ANZAC day in the Hill End area making pictures. 

You’re working on a project about the Australian outback at the moment, which sounds fascinating! Can you share any more details about this? 

I’m supposed to be in the bush finishing my Australia project now, but I had to postpone because of the pandemic. The work is a poem about the interior of Australia, a macro reflection on a place I knew as a kid. I’m trying not to intellectualise it too much, it’s a project that is coming together intuitively. But I guess it’s a contemporary portrait of the bush, and a slight subversion of Australia’s outback mythology. 

View Adam's photographs here