In opening the August show Bill Yan, Executive Officer for the SSCA, quoted French master photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who pioneered the genre of street photography and for whom photography was the art of capturing “decisive moments”. “There is a creative fraction of a second,” Cartier-Bresson said, “when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and must know with intuition when to click the camera.” Yan praised Bonner for capturing such “decisive moments” in the life of Redfern and Waterloo as the community is faced with the prospect of significant structural and social change as a consequence of government plans for renewal and development.
Bonner started taking photos of the area in July 2015 with the aim of preserving the history of the area for future generations. After 350 hours of photo taking and over 3,000 photos, the 30 black and white photos selected for the exhibition tell stories about the loss of an older community, the emergence of a new “hipster-yuppie” lifestyle, and indicate a future “universal”-style environment. They are all of uniform size, 220mm by 290mm and all powder toner on satin paper.
The photographs referencing the destruction of the past while elegiac in mood are at the same time celebratory. In his introductory talk Bonner said that in the process of photographing the Waterloo estate he became more and more aware of the locality’s strong and caring community life. Several of the exhibits feature the “infamous” high rises, demonised by the sensation seeking media, but Bonner endows them with dignity. In his photos they become the “towers of strength” they were intended to represent to the destitute and elderly and invite viewers to question the government’s valorisation of real estate over homes. Shown from many perspectives, it is easy to appreciate how the buildings serve as a landmark and have become inextricably connected with the identity of this historic working class suburb. Once they, and the many homes they contain, are demolished Bonner’s “decisive moments” will remain as testimony to a unique way of life.
Juxtaposed to the often recurring images of walking sticks and shopping bags, are the equally prominent images of bicycles and café culture. There is a lovely satisfaction in recognising a familiar place or object and many of the viewers at the opening were heard excitedly picking out the Tudor Hotel with a characteristically Redfern tableau outside its imposing doors; the Bean and Berry; Tea, Coffee and Me; Tapeo and the quirky mannequin of Chapter Five Espresso. While depicting a lively emergent socio-economic group – on their mobiles or walking quickly with take-away cups – Bonner’s social commentary is evident. An elderly café patron, reading a magazine with the title “Bullies” references the government’s high-handed plans to dispatch the elderly, and the transitory nature of Redfern is indicated by a figure wearing casual a la mode and reclining in a doorway alongside a shop advertising itself as “Designer Outlet”.
The story ends with series of photographs showing new “global village” developments near McEvoy Street. Clean, white high rises with box-like economically sized units, waving palms and other water-conserving plants, straight footpaths and eternal sunshine are destined to replace the present haphazard and interesting mix of communities. However, Bonner’s interrogative style encourages viewers to question the future. Will there be a place for the ubiquitous Lister and other occasional graffitists? What will happen to the Rabbitohs? Will they find a new, upwardly mobile set of supporters as is suggested by an up-market car photographed in juxtaposition to the familiar logo cleverly reflected in the rear mirror?
Bonner’s “decisive moments” in the life of Redfern and Waterloo is intended not only as an archive but also as a challenge to the stakeholders, those who live and work in the locality. What would they like to see preserved of the customs, culture and community character that make up its unique expression so marvelously captured by Bonner’s photography?