“Reading” the Images from the “Beneath the Tamar” exhibition

Yesterday I went to the QVMAG‘s recently opened exhibition called Beneath the Tamar: more than silt. Here is the blurb from the exhibition:

The exhibition Beneath the Tamar—more than silt shows the diversity and beauty of the animals living in the Tamar estuary. With a mix of underwater photography and video this exhibition presents a visually stimulating, informative and educational display of organisms that will surprise you. It shows a side of the Tamar that most people never get to see.

The exhibition is curated by David Maynard and Dr Troy Gaston, both lecturers at the Australian Maritime College at the National Centre for Marine Conservation and Resource Sustainability. Troy has over 13 years research experience in estuarine, coastal and marine biology and ecology. David has been photographing Tasmanian marine life for 10 years.

To really understand this exhibition in its social and political context, I’ve included some links below to history and discourses around the Tamar River.

Firstly, its important to know that the Tamar River has a significant problem with silt, and that historically the Launceston Council has spent up to $1 million per year dredging the river. But they have hotly contested their role and responsibility to do this. They commissioned a number of studies, and all of these can be located on the Launceston Council website.

Based on these reports, in January 2010 the Launceston Council absolved themselves of committing further funding to the problem, making it a Tasmanian State Government issue. This caused a media flurry such as this report from the Examiner:

Council to stop Tamar silt efforts

For some time now the silt problem has been on the “green” agenda of conservation societies and sympathetic media, for example:

In a 2006 article from the Tasmanian Times, The Saga of Tamar Silt, Jim Collier outlines some of the issues about the silt, about scientific studies of the silt problem, and about the Launceston Council’s reaction to those issues. (Tasmanian Times “is a forum of discussion and dissent – a cheeky, irreverent challenge to the mass media’s obsession with popularity, superficiality and celebrity.”)

The Tasmanian Times has continued regularly articles about the silt problem, publishing images such as these:

(photograph copyright Geoff Smedley, 2009)

The silt problem has been on the political agenda as well. Earlier this year (just prior to the Tasmanian Government elections) the Tasmanian Liberals used the Tamar Silt problem as a running platform, promising to: invest $9.5 million in the economic and environmental future of Northern Tasmania by tackling the major and continuing silt problem in the Tamar River and establishing a single state authority to manage Tamar River and the Esk River catchments into the future.

(photograph copyright Craig Heerey, 2010)

There are other broader discourses and cultural histories at play here as well. Tasmania has had a strong green movement for decades, with a very active wilderness society, a more recently formed conservation council which amalgamates the activities of more than 20 conservation groups within Tasmania. Additionally, Tasmanian photographers have had a long history of documenting the wilderness and using those images for political intent. One of the earliest examples of this was Peter Dombrovkis, whose website states:

Some of Peter’s photographs have been instrumental in the conservation of various Tasmanian wild places including the prevention of the damming of the Franklin River.

When I was a University student all of my friends and I adorned our dorm rooms with Peter Dombrovkis posters, and participated in rallies against the damming of the Franklin River.

(photograph copyright Peter Dombrovkis and the National Library of Australia)

We also collected hundreds of the following image (in the form of stickers, badges and cards) from the local Wilderness Society shop and placed them all over town (we were radicals in those days!):

(image source: http://www.sandarac.com.au/)

And although that campaign ran 25 years ago now, all of the sentiment from that event (concerned citizens having the power to campaign and prevent the damming of the Franklin river) has resurfaced in the past few years since the proposed new pulp mill – Gunn’s pulp mill, at the edge of the Tamar. As the Age reporter states:

But the huge pulp mill on the Tamar river proposed by Gunn’s poses similar questions to those raised by the Franklin river. What happens in a democracy when the two major political parties commit to a project which the majority of the population see as environmentally abhorrent?

In fact, a check on wikipedia for Franklin Dam reveals the following:

The campaign that followed led to the consolidation of the small green movement that had been borne out of the non-violent protest campaign against the building of three dams on Lake Pedder in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Over the five years between the announcement of the dam proposal in 1978 and the axing of the plans in 1983, there was vigorous debate between the pro- and anti-dam lobbies, with large protests from both sides.

In December 1982, the dam site was occupied by protesters, leading to widespread arrests and greater publicity. The dispute became a federal issue the following March, when a campaign in the national print media, assisted by the pictures of photographer Peter Dombrovskis, helped bring down the government of Malcolm Fraser at the 1983 election. The new government, under Bob Hawke, had promised to stop the dam from being built. A legal battle between the federal government and Tasmanian state government followed, resulting in a landmark High Court ruling in the federal government’s favour.

So it is with all of this background and in this social, historical and political context that most locals walking into the exhibition will view and interpret the images.

Prior to the exhibition there was a week or two of enticing updates on facebook, and some of the images were uploaded to a gallery via the QVMAG facebook page:

(image snapshot from facebook QVMAG photo gallery)

Interestingly, the comments at first were of disbelief that these images could actually have been taken in the Tamar, given the ongoing problems with the ugly silt, which is all that many people get to see of the river. But one of the most interesting parts of the exhibition was the fact that maps were used to prove that the images were indeed, credible.

(image taken at the exhibition with permission from David Maynard and Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery)

Here you can see the photograph of a mollusc, then to the bottom left is a map showing the location along the Tamar that the photograph was taken, and a caption of the particular mollusc shown in this photograph. To the bottom right are two analytical diagrams of a mollusc, under which is a scientific description of a mollusc.

Close to the entrance of the exhibition is a description of the two scientists (one the photographer, one a researcher) from the Australian Maritime Museum, lending further credibility to the scientific accuracy or “truth” of the shots. An underwater video sequence is playing in one corner, shot by students of the Maritime College, revealing footage of the river bed landscape in which the macro photographs were taken.

Interestingly, one comment on the facebook page, perhaps flippant but nevertheless revealing, was that the photographs looked cartoonish. Indeed, the colour saturation is very high, and they call into question the kinds of lighting or post-editing techniques that might have been used to illuminate the brilliance and beauty of the subjects. One has to imagine that such techniques were done deliberately to possibly exaggerate the beauty to make a political statement and emphasise the chasm of contrast between the images we are accustomed to seeing on the surface of the Tamar, juxtaposed with what lies beneath.

So, for my students… let me state some theories about literacy which shapes a reading of this exhibition (where the exhibition is a multimodal text) (more info on these theoretical positions and our understandings of literacy can be located in articles by Jim Gee, Allan Luke, and Colin Lankshear) :

  • Literacy is a social practice that takes place in Discourses (Gee)
  • Instances of language use are not the sacred production of a single ‘voice’ or perspective but in fact are instances of “heteroglossia” where differential ideologies, struggles over difference and unruly social relations come into play (Bahktin)
  • Discourse is not the sovereign production of human subjects, but in fact takes on a life of its own, constructing peoples’ identities, realities, and social relations; that is, that we are produced by discourse as much as we are producers of discourse (Foucault)
  • Texts involve the play of inclusions and exclusions, presences and silences. (Derrida)
  • Lexical and grammatical operations of texts can be systematically traced to ideological representations (field), social relations (tenor) and textual formations (mode). (Halliday)

So, how can we read this exhibition?
1. With an understanding of Tasmania’s history and politics about the WIlderness, about social action, and about the role of photographs in that social action (and indeed, in a broader more global sense, the role of images to ‘reveal’ a truth and cause change as a consequence is a well known phenomenon)
2. With an understanding of the current political climate and the threat that is looming for north western Tasmania in terms of the proposed pulp mill
3. With an understanding of more local controversies within the local Launceston council and the costs associated with dredging the Tamar river
4. Through an understanding of the specific conservation issues associated with silt
5. Through person experience, both current and historical, with issues of conservation in Tasmania, with knowledge of what the Tamar looked like in the past (the local bookshop has whimsical historical photos and local stories about the Tamar on sale, taking up an entire shelf in the “Tasmania” section of the shop… stories about regattas and royalty and even smuggling)
6. Through understanding that the two people responsible for the exhibition are scientists with the Australian Maritime College
7. Through understanding the scientific discourses within the exhibition: truth, unambiguity, fact, reality
8. Through close readings of images such as the maps and thinking about their purpose
9. Through close analysis of the modality of the photographs themselves, which are macro, well lit, fully saturated in colour, aesthetically stunning and emotionally evocative

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