A Sense of Place / by Hilary Hann

For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by the concept of belonging; in a physical, social and spiritual sense.  When I was a child I knew my place and where I belonged and it had nothing to do with where I found myself as an adult.  Not belonging is a painful way to live; it tears at the fabric of the life you build, it effects your relationships and it undermines your self confidence.

Photography, or more specifically photography as an expression of artistic endeavour, became a way that I was able to belong again.  Hard to explain and possibly even harder to understand if you have never experienced living ‘displaced in place’.  Last year Sarah Bracking wrote an article for The Africa Report entitled ‘Dissecting the notion of place in society’ which looked at this subject in depth.  Her conclusions were fascinating and she found that how people view their quality of life and well-being very much relates to how displaced they feel in society.  Jim Igoe (Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Dartmouth College) added these comments to the notion of living ‘displaced in place’;  “There are people who experience the severing of ecological and social bonds as a kind of death. There are people who don't believe that ecological and social bonds actually exist or matter, because we have lived our life in their absence".  This is the crux of the problem when trying to discuss the notion of ‘living displaced in place’ with people, who by the very fact that they have always belonged, can no longer have any comprehension of what that means.

So what on earth does all this have to do with my photography, you may well ask?

Strange as it may seem, I have often been asked why my art images are all about East Africa and why I’m not interested in photographing the beautiful Australian landscape which is, after all, much more accessible.  I have struggled to express what it is about the landscapes of my childhood which give me inspiration.  It almost feels that I have a spirit inside me, guiding my eye and helping me to create artworks which are perfect for me and where I feel at home.  My best work is a partnership between all that I have learned and ‘that place’ in the world where I can no longer belong but which is the closest place that I will ever have to a spiritual home.  The images become stories from another time or tell of hopes for the future. Perhaps they even open a portal which allows others to travel to another world.  

A few days ago I read the latest blog by Guy Tal, one of the most eminent living landscape photographers, an artist and an expressive writer, entitled ‘Aboutness’ which said it better than any words I could find.  I would encourage everyone to read it.  As a self confessed story teller, he also feels the need to possess intimate knowledge of his subjects which comes from an ongoing relationship with them.  To quote Guy “Without such knowledge, the best I can hope for is to produce images that illustrate the external veneer of subjects and places, and that rely on aesthetics or interesting anecdotes rather than deeper insight. Indeed, it likely is fair to say that the vast majority of photography of natural subjects is created in this mode, portraying objective facts from the perspective of an outsider, rather than the subjective personal narrative of one who is an active participant having a role in the unfolding story.”

Now I don’t want anyone to think that I’m putting myself and my work anywhere near the status of Guy Tal, but I know that the direction I am heading is all about emotions and a deeper understanding and expression of the soul of a country and its wildlife and people.  This will be a lifelong journey and there is no room, at this stage, for serious relationships with any other place.

For many years the signature I’ve used “clarity in thought comes after challenge” has served me well.  I look on this as just another challenge, finding my place in the photographic world, expressing myself in the way I need to.  It will provide me with a place to belong, the first time I’ve felt this since I left Kenya as a young girl.

My sense of place, near Mt Kenya, 1967

My sense of place, near Mt Kenya, 1967