Capturing the Unfamiliar with Sarah Pannell

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Sarah Pannell is an Australian documentary photographer whose vibrant imagery captures composed moments, effortlessly balancing modernity with old world tactility.

Words by Lora Ward

Photography by Sarah Pannell

Sarah’s major works focus around travel and the stories within different cultures, traditions and communities she captures along the way. Her photographs encourage the viewer to take a moment and observe her warm glimpses into often foreign worlds, challenging frequent misconceptions and preconceived notions from exterior onlookers.

On Themes and Explorations

Sarah’s earliest memories of what sparked her interest in photography stem back to her school camp days, likely in primary school, equipped with a disposable camera. Memories of her mother’s immaculately kept photo albums arose an appreciation for beautifully curated imagery from an early age. She has always been drawn to strong compositions and colour is a big part of her work stylistically.

“If I think back to when I tried to do painting in high school, I was always terrible at painting, but studying art history I was always drawn to the 20th century. The paintings I was into were always really vibrant, sort of like abstract works. And I think my photography in some way references that.”

Sarah studied photography at RMIT, with previous studies in international relations. Alongside her distinctively vibrant aesthetic, it was a natural matrimony of interests and curiosity that initiated her travels abroad. There, she observes and explores the essence of a particular tradition or aspect of a culture. This fascination with humans’ and their surrounding environments has led to an array of projects focussing on everyday life, preservation of traditions and communities around the world such as architecture (or the streets in general), food, interiors, music, ceremonies or celebrations and styles of fashion. 

Over the last few years Sarah’s work has sparked a definitive interest in food and the vital role that it plays in certain communities. She has begun to explore the passing down of traditions around food and the preservation of these traditions. She became particularly interested in the preservation of these cultures and communities as they are so distant from her own experiences growing up in Australia.

“Within Iran, and more recently I’ve been in Ukraine, I have been exploring the pivotal importance food has in many cultures, particularly when it comes to special celebrations, such as Nowruz (New Year) in Iran but also in everyday life. Routines and traditions around food preparation, the sharing of meals and the significance this has in social settings, particularly when entertaining for family and friends. But I guess I’ve become interested in that sort of thing because it’s just very different from my own upbringing back in Australia.”

On Travel

Sarah chooses her destination of travel depending on her own fascination and curiosity at the time. Something may catch her attention or an opportunity may arise and she will usually follow suit in that way. She doesn’t delve into projects too quickly, always giving consideration as to her time and creative energy. “Each project I do doesn’t necessarily start in the same way, you know things pop up and sometimes I’ll spontaneously follow something if there’s a particular lead. Whereas other things like my work in Iran has been a much slower process, with a lot more research and a lot more time spent between trips.”

An example of this spontaneity was Sarah’s recent trip to Turkey, where she has been shooting a project in the mountains near the Black Sea, exploring the preservation of beekeeping traditions, which are very quickly fading. The project was inspired by her friend Nic Dowse who founded a beekeeping collective in Melbourne named Honey Fingers.

“Nic and I got chatting over Summer. We realised we had similar interests in terms of stories further abroad, and I told him I was going to Turkey. Nic was already familiar with these particular types of hives – black hives – and Turkey has a very ancient form of beekeeping. So we spent a little time researching and got connected with some great people there. We were just over there for the past week and decided to collaborate on that, he’s a writer and he’s going to write a piece. And now we’ve got a few more ideas in the works.”

“Through the Iran work I used couch surfing as a way to meet people and get close that way.”

As some people and communities are less open to collaboration than others, it has sometimes created challenges for Sarah. But by investing time, being patient and getting to know people, she has found people are welcoming and willing to share their stories.

“Through the Iran work I used couch surfing as a way to meet people and get close that way. It really just depends on which place you go to and how you meet people. You know, in some places, it’s really difficult to get access, it just depends, but that’s the challenge of it all.”

Among the challenges Sarah has faced, her willingness to immerse herself in local cultures has seen her make great friends and memories that she keeps close to her. Sarah recalls arriving in Tabriz on the overnight train from Qazvin, and Faeze, who is now a good friend of hers, picked her up and took Sarah to her house where she laid out a traditional spread of breakfast for Sarah.

“I met Faeze through Couchsurfing and was immediately struck by her warmth. Tabriz is famous for its food, such as Tabrizi cheese which is popular throughout the country and its different varieties of bread. I’m a big fan of breakfast and while not elaborate, this breakfast remains one of my favourite food memories in Iran. The highlight was the Noon Roghani which is a type of bread I’ve only eaten in Tabriz, with homemade rose jam that Faeze makes. After staying with Faeze for a number of nights and again recently on a seperate trip, this breakfast is a regular fixture but still remains very special to me.”

On the Role of Photography

Sarah believes photography has a constant everyday role, even though it’s always changing and morphing. The presence of photography today, compared to five or ten years ago, has vastly changed due to the internet and social media usage, but Sarah believes its roles and purposes haven’t altered in terms of how it impacts people. 

“I think the role of photography is unbelievably broad. And because of that, it’s one of the most powerful tools in the world. And I think without it, imagine even just everyday news or understanding other parts of the world, it would kind of be impossible without photography in some way. I think there’s no doubt that it’s the most important visual language available to us.”

 In her own work, Sarah uses the power of photography to alter perceptions of lesser known parts of the world. Her ethereal glimpse into the often foreign and unknown aims to soften the outlook and perspectives of generally harsh outside views.

“I guess that’s always been the main pull for me towards photography. When I first became interested in it, it was for that reason and… you know with that sort of idea in the back of your head that when used correctly, photography can actually make a difference in some way, whether that’s changing people’s perceptions of things or bringing something into the public eye.”

“The work is purposefully developed to challenge how we look at Iran from the outside and to demonstrate the vibrancy of their culture.”

Her latest released publication, Tabriz to Shiraz, and her ongoing work in Iran, has been created with the hope of breaking down people’s misconceptions about Iran as a country and a society through her western perspective. 

“The work is purposefully developed to challenge how we look at Iran from the outside and to demonstrate the vibrancy of their culture and gain a better understanding of everyday life in Iran. This is particularly important I believe at this point in time, where relations between Iran and the US are extremely tense and Iran is suffering greatly under US imposed economic sanctions.”  

“I believe there is this really problematic and idealistic notion that to succeed as a photographer, there is one set way to do it. And if you can’t do it that way, you’re a failure.”

Photography has always been Sarah’s chosen medium to express ideas, and a large part of her being able to express those ideas has involved letting go of preconceived notions of what a photographer looks like in the twentieth century. She wishes she had a better sense of that from earlier in her career, but this is something that takes time to embody and understand.

“I don’t know how you would define a photographer in 2019, regarding how you make it work and how you make an income and a career out of it. Yes there are some people doing it in a very traditional sense but I don’t think it’s that black and white.

In terms of the way my photography career has been shaped, there’s no set formula around it. I believe there is this really problematic and idealistic notion that to succeed as a photographer, there is one set way to do it. And if you can’t do it that way, you’re a failure. But it’s not that simple, especially in this day and age with so many photographers out there, and the increasing influence on photography of Instagram and smart phones for example. Freelance photography is the reality for the majority of people trying to make a living from this medium, and this is a challenging and competitive way to earn an income, so you have to be creative.”

On Equipment and Formats

Film as a format has had a large impact on Sarah’s style and how it has evolved. When it comes to the aesthetics of her work, her choice to shoot film is a large part of that, but she doesn’t see it as being integral to her work. 

“It’s not defining. I don’t want to be completely tied to that. But I think I’ve always been obsessed with colour and the power of colour I guess. And even though I have dabbled a little bit in black and white photography, at the end of the day colour is the most important thing for me, in terms of how I see the world, how powerful it can be and the sort of feelings that colour photography evokes.” 

Sarah loves the sense of slowness when shooting film, something that is lost in the digital world of today. She is very comfortable with the processes and intricacies of shooting without instant results, but there are always going to be times when shooting digital is the most practical option.  

“I shoot digital for most of my commercial work in Australia. Not all, I do some projects on film if the client is after that, and I enjoy doing that of course, that’s great, if you can get the budget and they’re after that. But truthfully, most of my income comes from commercial work which I shoot digitally. But my personal work, since I was at university, I’ve always shot it on film and that’s just what I prefer. But both have their positives of course. The major con of film is the cost. But I also love the process of it, I like not being able to instantly see the work and I like being able to sit on it and look at it… at the moment I’m not seeing my work for months, which kind of is a good thing, and I sort of prefer it. But I realised that that can be quite impractical.”

“I definitely went through a phase of always studying the photographers from generations before us, but nowadays I’m very much tuned into what’s happening around me.”

Sarah mostly shoots on her Mamiya 7 which she acquired in university to shoot her final project. She doesn’t carry much gear with her, but one item she does carry are lens filters. They have taken her some experimenting to figure out what suits best, but she finds she gets good results especially whilst shooting on her Mamiya.

“I obviously always use UV filters but I hadn’t really ever gotten into the ND filters until a few years ago when I was shooting in brighter conditions more often. Particularly when I went to Egypt last year, I knew I was going to be shooting in the desert a lot, and I wanted to be able to do better portraits. And especially with the Mamiya it’s quite limited in terms of shutter speed, so the ND filters made it possible.”

On Inspiration

Cinema has always been a large source of inspiration for Sarah’s work, informing how she captures the world around her in terms of different perspectives and vantage points. She also turns to contemporary photographers as a means of inspiration.

“I definitely went through a phase of always studying the photographers from generations before us, but nowadays I’m very much tuned into what’s happening around me. And obviously Instagram’s a big part of this in terms of who you can follow and sort of like, keep an eye on and keep track of. And I think more than anything it would be the other artists of my current generation, for sure. And that’s probably where I subconsciously take much more inspiration from.”

On Social Media

As with all things used by the masses, Sarah believes there are going to be negative side effects of engaging with social media giants like Instagram. But she also believes it offers wonderful opportunities. She views it as a powerful platform that has been a big part of the way she reaches people.

“I think social media is brilliant and I think it can be used in really wonderful ways. But I can understand people’s antagonism towards it as well. I think it’s tricky in its format and its size, and of course I’m often sharing photos and I’m thinking, ‘this is so ridiculous that people are looking at this on such a small screen’. It has its shortcomings but I think it’s quite insane the sort of power that it has come to be. I would struggle without Instagram.”

“Hang out with locals and be a good listener.”

On Advice to Other Photographers

Sarah’s advice for other photographers whilst taking photos of things or places that are foreign to them is research. She says, “Educate yourself and be open to learning a lot more once you’re there. Hang out with locals and be a good listener.”

For projects within a particular area, country, region or community, Sarah always starts with research, even looking at really vernacular imagery on the Internet or in books.

 “I was in Latvia a few months ago and I wanted to shoot this story about their midsummer events there. And I ended up going into this funny and awkward Internet hole of old school images of Latvian midsummer. And finding these really out of date images because there wasn’t really that much online and everything was either stock photo style, really glossy digital sort of stuff or like pretty funny, old postcard type of images. I guess that sort of research kind of gives me more inspiration when it comes to really going in depth on a particular story.”

On Upcoming Projects

Sarah has worked on numerous publications, and though they aren’t at the forefront of her projects it is something that is kept in the back of her mind during the creative process. Her work over the years at Hillvale has opened doors to collaborations, one of those being Tabriz to Shiraz which was released through Hillvale and Perimeter Editions to document her travels through Iran. She enjoys presenting work in the format of photo books and plans to publish more work in the future.  

“For the Iran book, I always had in the back of my mind that I’d like to make a book, but was not really having a clue what that would look like. And certainly the book I released a few months ago is not even necessarily the book I had in mind. And I’m still working on this longer term project which is why I’m going back next week. Things change, obviously and it’s hard to know what a story looks like. And in that case I decided to publish that as sort of like chapter one of this work and then I’ll see what happens down the track. Generally any other print publications that I’ve done, any other self-published works in the past… I kind of had something in the back of my mind and then worked it out once I got back, it didn’t necessarily start out as a book project. But it’s one of my favourite ways to present work so it’s probably the natural way to go.”

In the near future Sarah will continue working on her beekeeping story in Turkey and her ongoing work in Iran alongside a plethora of projects that she has been shooting in Eastern Europe. Sarah has an extensive bucket list but the project she wants to tick off next involves visiting Georgia to continue the project around traditional beekeeping as well as explore the fascinating old-world winemaking culture there. Lebanon and Russia are sitting high on the list too, alongside some creative pursuits in Australia.

“I think I probably struggle more with pursuing stories in Australia, that’s something I’m really trying to be better at, because I’ve kind of always had this urge to go further afield, and yeah I’m trying to settle down a little bit and try and work on stories back home.”

Sarah will be having an exhibition in Melbourne at Missing Persons gallery in December.

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Sarah Pannell

Sarah Pannell is an Australian visual artist whose work concerns culture, landscape, tradition and community. She lives and works in Melbourne.