From Behrouz Boochani to Bernard Collaery: photographer Hoda Afshar turns her lens on whistleblowers

Three years after her famous portrait of Behrouz Boochani won the Bowness prize, the Iranian-born photographer sees Greek tragedy in those who speak out

“The whistleblower is the modern tragic figure in our current society,” says Hoda Afshar.

The Iranian-born, Melbourne-based photographer is talking about her new series, a collection of striking, monochrome 3D portraits of contemporary Australians who have spoken out about injustice, often at their own risk.

“For me it was about the character, not the individuals, it was about their actions, and at the heart of it, there was something that reminded me of the Greek tragedies,” she tells Guardian Australia. “That’s why I chose the title Agonistes, because this is a Latin word that means personal injury and an inner struggle.”

Afshar is speaking from London, where she is in lockdown due to Covid-19, but her work is about to grace the streets of Melbourne, Australia.

Hoda Afshar’s portrait of Behrouz Boochani, on Manus Island in 2018, won the Bowness Photography Prize.
Hoda Afshar’s portrait of Behrouz Boochani, on Manus Island in 2018, won the Bowness Photography Prize. Photograph: Afshar Hoda

Agonistes is part of Photo 2021, a new biennial photography exhibition that pitches itself as Australasia’s largest and most significant photography event. The festival was supposed to premiere in Melbourne last year – as Photo 2020 – but Covid-19 had other plans.

Afshar – who won the 2015 National Portrait Prize and the 2018 Bowness Photography Prize for her iconic image of Manus Island detainee Behrouz Boochani – will headline the revived program, along with a range of international photographers including South African Zanele Muholl (whose work featured in last year’s Sydney Biennale at the Museum of Contemporary Art) and UK/Japanese artist Simon Fujiwara.

Photo 2021’s theme is The Truth. In an age of unparalleled social, psychological and technological shifts, festival director Elias Redstone says the relationship between photography and political and personal truth has never been more fascinating, complex or urgent.

“Photography has always had a complicated relationship with the truth,” Redstone tells the Guardian. “Despite the inherent subjectivity of the medium, photography is often read as fact, as evidence.”

The festival, opening on 18 February, will exhibit work across multiple Melbourne venues, including hoardings on the Metro Tunnel, the State Library of Victoria and Argyle Square. Afshar’s work will be exhibited on billboards outside St Paul’s Cathedral, across the road from Flinders Street Station, on the corner of one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares.

Hoda Afshar’s portrait of whistleblower Bernard Collaery will feature in the Photo 2021 festival.
Hoda Afshar’s portrait of whistleblower Bernard Collaery will feature in the Photo 2021 festival. Photograph: Hoda Afshar

Redstone describes Afshar as an “absolutely fearless artist” and says her investigation into the experiences of whistleblowers couldn’t be more timely.

“Whether whistleblowing on matters to do with the military, intelligence services, immigration detention, youth detention, or aged and disability care, Afshar’s subjects have spoken out for those whose voices were never meant to be heard,” he said.

“In doing so, she has created a new work that is urgent, shocking and unforgettable, making anyone that views it question what they might do if they found themselves in a similar situation.”

Some of the whistleblowers have become almost household names, most notably barrister Bernard Collaery, who is facing jail for allegedly helping his client, intelligence officer Witness K, reveal information about Australia’s bugging of Timor-Leste government offices to gain the upper hand during oil and gas negotiations in 2004.

Artist Hoda Afshar.
Artist Hoda Afshar. Photograph: Jacquie Manning
The studio of 110 synchronised cameras where Hoda Afshar photographed her subjects.
The studio of 110 synchronised cameras where Hoda Afshar photographed her subjects. Photograph: Hoda Afshar

Another subject is David McBride, the military lawyer who is facing lengthy jail time for providing documents to the ABC on the conduct of special forces in Afghanistan.

Afshar has intentionally not named any of the whistleblowers in her collection, even though most are publicly identifiable.

Afshar used 110 cameras functioning instantaneously to capture 3D images of her subjects, then used a 3D printer to convert them to busts representing Hellenistic statues.

The challenge of the technology was that the expression in the eyes could not be captured, just as the expression in the eyes of classic Greek sculptures has been lost over time.

One of Hoda Afshar’s busts with the 3D printing structure still intact.
One of Hoda Afshar’s busts with the 3D printing structure still intact. Photograph: Hoda Afshar

“[Greek] tragic theatre helped establish democracy and brought into focus the questions of the time – slavery, xenophobia, patriarchy and so on,” Afshar says.

“Greek tragedy was dealing those questions but the Greek tragic figure was the one caught between the choices of responsibility and obligation, morality and the law, public and the state – and they always chose public over the state. And they realised, at the end, the public don’t care and yet they have lost everything.

“But in about the fifth century forward there’s a period when the artists of the time shifted their focus, creating statues of ordinary people, so that’s where I find the essence of today’s tragedy.”

Afshar acknowledges her Agonistes collection draws its inspiration from her previous Manus Island project.

A photograph from Hoda Afshar’s series Remain (2018) shot on Manus Island.
A photograph from Hoda Afshar’s series Remain (2018) shot on Manus Island. Photograph: Hoda Afshar

“I see this project as a mirror image of that, or something born from it because it was through working with the refugees that I was first introduced to this idea of Australia,” she says.

As an Iranian immigrant, the idea that employees in a modern democracy could be prosecuted for speaking out troubles her.

“Threatening employees with jail time if they speak out, or forcing them to sign a deed of confidentiality

… it came as a shock to me because I was wondering how is that even possible in a liberal democratic system like Australia?”

Photo 2021 is showing throughout Victoria from 18 February to 7 March 2021


Kelly Burke

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Rising festival ‘hits pause’ the day after opening as Melbourne enters lockdown
Organisers of the hotly anticipated arts festival, which has already been cancelled once, say they are not making any ‘knee-jerk decisions’

Stephanie Convery

27, May, 2021 @5:34 AM

Article image
Patricia Piccinini brings Flinders Street station’s forgotten ballroom back to life
Left to languish for decades, one of Melbourne’s most mythologised spaces is transformed for the artist’s first home town show in nearly two decades

Stephanie Convery

25, May, 2021 @5:30 PM

Article image
National Gallery of Victoria reaps reward from Daniel Andrews' $1.4bn cultural precinct splurge
The Victorian government will fund the construction of Australia’s largest gallery of contemporary art and design

Kelly Burke

25, Nov, 2020 @5:24 AM

Article image
Skywhale grounded after Ballarat winds rip ‘quite big’ gash in balloon sculpture
Artist Patricia Piccinini says she is in ‘absolute shock’, while National Gallery of Australia says a dedicated team is working to repair damage

Kelly Burke

11, Jul, 2022 @7:24 AM

Article image
Melbourne’s augmented reality: is public art the remedy to the city’s pandemic malaise?
Flinders Quarter Augmented Arts Walk is one of many attempts to revive the city’s economic hub. But is it working?

Tim Byrne

06, Jul, 2021 @3:18 AM

Article image
'Droughts, bushfires, and now Covid': Australia's regional arts communities hold on for dear life
The pandemic has only compounded difficulties facing arts centres and festivals outside the capital cities

Grace Jennings-Edquist

17, Aug, 2020 @2:45 AM

Article image
Why five AFL players are being suspended from the ceiling of a Melbourne art gallery
For three hours on Sunday, five players will be suspended in the foyer of the NGV, tied up in rope to recreate a famous mark

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

04, Jun, 2022 @8:00 PM

Article image
From Manus Island to sanctions on Iran: the art and opinions of Hoda Afshar
The Tehran-born Melbourne artist’s confronting photography puts people on the margins in the centre of the frame

Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

12, Nov, 2018 @5:00 PM

Article image
La Prairie art award: photographer Atong Atem wins inaugural $80,000 prize
Melbourne-based South Sudanese artist upturns the dehumanising lens of Eurocentric art history with her joyous and vivid work

Kelly Burke

15, Mar, 2022 @12:32 AM

Article image
Christos Tsiolkas wins $60,000 Melbourne prize for literature
Melbourne writer honoured for ‘outstanding contribution to Australian literature and to cultural and intellectual life’

Kelly Burke

10, Nov, 2021 @7:47 AM