Below are the two most recent articles by Jessica Burdon, written for Soho House.

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The below was one of three pieces selected as part of the Vogue UK Young Writer of the Year competition, for which I was runner up.

How the Australian Dreamtime Became a Nightmare

John was my first gay friend, and my closest friend at law school. In our first year, we hid copies of Australian Vogue in our contract law text book to make it though lectures, and camped out to secure places in scarce Human Rights classes. But when I asked John to volunteer with me at an Aboriginal legal centre, he pulled away. I couldn’t fathom why. 

To me, Australia was an antipodean haven, a classless, sunburnt country of rugged beauty and amiable inhabitants, but I had spent no serious time in rural Australia, and I understood very little of the dark undercurrent in my country’s still recent history.

I did know from high school that 10-30% of a whole generation of half-cast Aboriginal children were stolen from their families between 1919-1972.  The justification was assimilation policies of successive Governments. I found out later that John’s mother was one such child.

She had only hazy memories of her Aboriginal upbringing, the elders painting faces with “whitewash” and sitting around fires in the outback, the flames fuelled by stories of the dreamtime – a land, its creation and laws. 

John had clear memories of his early years in Wangaratta, mostly the drunken rants and tantrums of his displaced mother, Narparoola. They were inevitably followed by thuds of her skin being bruised at the hand of his father, and the crashing of her teeth being shattered. Instead of fairytales, John was spoon-fed accounts of Narparoola being viciously gang raped at 16 and becoming pregnant with a daughter who was taken away from her at birth.

Narparoola was sent to a Catholic school designed to “educate and civilise,” but it failed her at every juncture. There was one story in particular that John heard his mother ramble over and over. It was the day of her junior swim meet. A talented swimmer, Narparoola was leading the race, but she had to stop because the swimming costume the nuns had loaned her was huge and started to slip off her bony frame. She was stripped of any opportunity to succeed – left exposed and humiliated.  

In his youth, John was reluctant to reveal his family’s history. His father was Irish, so his skin was only slightly darker than other tanned Australians. If questioned, he said it was from Spanish blood. Narparoola encouraged him to hide his Aboriginality, fearing otherwise he might be taken from her, or that people would think less of him. Aboriginals have a word for concealing pain - “Quendar.” Literally translated, it means shame, but it also describes events that cannot be controlled.  

Narparoola behaved erratically around girls John brought home. Several of his relationships failed because of Narpoola’s intervention, which gave him a distressing sense of femininity. Before long, John found himself gazing at the scantily clad male models on Calvin Klein billboards. Although he forced himself to look away; in rural Australia the rugby culture was rough, and pink wasn’t a colour men could be seen in without serious ramifications.

After high school, John fled to University in Sydney. When he wasn’t within the strict intellectual confines of law school, he immersed himself in a kaleidoscopic world of hard drugs, saunas and brazen homosexuality. It diverted attention from his Aboriginality. But when he graduated university and entered the workforce, he had to feign heterosexuality. He cultivated a 5 o’clock shadow, chose unfashionable shirt and tie combinations, and equipped himself with rugby facts. 

By that time, our friendship was back on track, and we laughed at how unfortunate my invitation to help at the Aboriginal legal centre had been, given the heritage he was hiding. We decided to volunteer there together, to mark our progress. But the Aboriginals were aggressive towards John. They called him a “coconut,” saying he was brown outside but white inside. As one vocal, toothless Aboriginal woman put it, he was “bourgeois black.”  

They saw success as the antithesis of being Aboriginal.  John was supposed to show that his family were still victims of the “stolen generation,” through a life ravaged by drugs, violence, prison and poverty. The only other way of being accepted was living authentically, playing the didgeridoo. 

Overcoming a difficult childhood can either be smothering or instil passion, and John chose the latter. As the years skipped on, he discovered a talent for writing, and with a life worth recounting, he begun to pen his past. Stripping away the protective layers he had built up, John was left feeling naked, but unlike his mother in the swimming pool a generation before, he didn’t need to feel self-conscious. John had chosen to re-write his own Dreamtime. 

He has been a great mentor to me over the years, and now he is also my muse.

 

 

This article was published on the Worldette Website and replicated below.

 

My life in travel photos

From faded childhood holiday albums to polished instagram shots, travel photography has evolved alongside our own wanderlust. Guest writer Jessica Burdon reflects on the cameras that have journeyed with her through life and the time she gave them up. 

 Since explorers sailed across oceans to conquer foreign lands, writing what they learned in log books and sketching what they saw, recording our experiences has been an intrinsic part of travel. And as soon as the technology was available, it was often through photography.

Yet with its growing popularity, has photography now become more than a way to capture the memories of our journeys? Are journeys now being taken to create memories worth recording?

Family on film

When I was growing up in Australia, the photos of our family road-trips to Avoca Beach or Noosa were matt squares of photographic paper with curved corners and faded pastel colours.

Some hung in frames around our house and the rest were stored in albums stacked in the linen cupboard.

In my teens, my sister set up a make-shift darkroom in our cellar to blow up the shots she took on our family trips. They served as her art as well as our posterity. She won a high-school award for her black and white version of pigeons in St Mark’s Square. 

I took my own turn behind the camera when I went on a school-organized trip to Kakadu National Park in Australia’s north. Flipping through the developed photos afterwards brought both surprises and familiar amusement in re-living the trip. I stuck my favorites on my bedroom wall.

After high school, my girlfriend and I rushed to Europe. We took photos of each other in front of the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Although the proof of where we had been was stolen with my camera in a Dublin bus station. I could only wonder whether those undeveloped photos had captured details beyond what I had taken in with my own two eyes.

Going digital

Digital cameras changed everything.

My holiday snaps of backpacking in Thailand during university holidays were a symmetrical sequence of smiles, sun and beauty. We could see the photos as we went along, and deleted shots with eyes closed. Bad hair days seemed non-existent. We emailed the images intermittently to friends and family from internet cafes.

After graduation, I uprooted to London, just as Facebook took hold. On our European weekenders, waiters were roped into taking a shot of group dinners on every person’s camera.

The digital takes of our plastered smiles could be cropped and primped with Photoshop before being published on Facebook. Trips started to revolve around being photogenic; moments were manufactured.

Throwing the camera away

I rebelled.

I moved to Brazil and gave my camera away to a homeless boy in Ipanema. I was left feeling free and spontaneous, living adventures unrecorded.

I forced myself to remember the moments, the backgrounds, the light, even the smells, because I had no backup. I watched a sunset with more intensity in an attempt to memorize it; I had to be more present.

I returned to London, and Brazil was but a distant passion. Brazilian songs on the radio or coconut water in store fridges triggered memories in abstract beauty and color.

I’m not sure whether photos would have been more or less glossy.

Smart phones

By the time I slipped across the pond to New York, iPhones had become standard, which meant people had cameras with them on trains and at parties, in fact everywhere.

Spontaneous street antics could be uploaded instantly. Daily life became noteworthy; photos weren’t just for special occasions and travel blogs.

The camera quality on iPhones improved to the extent that many stopped bothering with cameras for their travels. When I holidayed with my sister, even her children took photos of each other on her iPhones. They posed instinctively and prompted the adults to take photos of their sandcastles.

By comparison, my childhood photographs seemed quaint with the vague awareness we had of the camera, and the abandon that came from knowing the images would probably be stashed in a cupboard. Yet they were becoming eroded in places, so my mother scanned them onto her computer to preserve them.

I wasn’t the only one hankering for old school charm. Photo booths cropped up in bars and at weddings, taking us back to the Polaroids of my parents’ time. And Instagramimitated the faded look of photos from old film. Its followers even resist smiling, to appear wistful and unaware of the camera; or they stared intently, as if posing for a turn of the century portrait that takes minutes to develop.

Perhaps over time we will become so ambivalent to cameras that we can, once again, be truly natural in holiday photos.

Back to the old school

In the meantime, I have rebelled once again. I invested in an SLR, a glorious Nikon D7000 with an enormous lens.

It is digital, granted, but it feels like a step back in time – the hefty clack and cupping my hand over an enormous lens to zoom, not to mention it’s too heavy for self-takes and the high resolution makes the photos difficult to email.

Friends claimed it would be a pain to lug around and an invitation to be robbed in poorer countries. Yet I took my chunk of machinery to Marrakesh and the snake charmers in the bazaar didn’t take much notice. After all, that whole city is from another time.

No doubt more years of travel will bring more memories, more progression in the world of photography, and more attempts at rebellion on my part.

Perhaps I will regret not taking more photos when I’m old and my memory starts to fail me. Or perhaps I will be happy to have hazy recollections of myself as more beautiful and my travels more fantastical than they really were.

Family on film

When I was growing up in Australia, the photos of our family road-trips to Avoca Beach or Noosa were matt squares of photographic paper with curved corners and faded pastel colours.

Some hung in frames around our house and the rest were stored in albums stacked in the linen cupboard.

In my teens, my sister set up a make-shift darkroom in our cellar to blow up the shots she took on our family trips. They served as her art as well as our posterity. She won a high-school award for her black and white version of pigeons in St Mark’s Square. 

I took my own turn behind the camera when I went on a school-organized trip to Kakadu National Park in Australia’s north. Flipping through the developed photos afterwards brought both surprises and familiar amusement in re-living the trip. I stuck my favorites on my bedroom wall.

After high school, my girlfriend and I rushed to Europe. We took photos of each other in front of the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Although the proof of where we had been was stolen with my camera in a Dublin bus station. I could only wonder whether those undeveloped photos had captured details beyond what I had taken in with my own two eyes.

Going digital

Digital cameras changed everything.

My holiday snaps of backpacking in Thailand during university holidays were a symmetrical sequence of smiles, sun and beauty. We could see the photos as we went along, and deleted shots with eyes closed. Bad hair days seemed non-existent. We emailed the images intermittently to friends and family from internet cafes.

After graduation, I uprooted to London, just as Facebook took hold. On our European weekenders, waiters were roped into taking a shot of group dinners on every person’s camera.

The digital takes of our plastered smiles could be cropped and primped with Photoshop before being published on Facebook. Trips started to revolve around being photogenic; moments were manufactured.

Throwing the camera away

I rebelled.

I moved to Brazil and gave my camera away to a homeless boy in Ipanema. I was left feeling free and spontaneous, living adventures unrecorded.

I forced myself to remember the moments, the backgrounds, the light, even the smells, because I had no backup. I watched a sunset with more intensity in an attempt to memorize it; I had to be more present.

I returned to London, and Brazil was but a distant passion. Brazilian songs on the radio or coconut water in store fridges triggered memories in abstract beauty and color.

I’m not sure whether photos would have been more or less glossy.

Smart phones

By the time I slipped across the pond to New York, iPhones had become standard, which meant people had cameras with them on trains and at parties, in fact everywhere.

Spontaneous street antics could be uploaded instantly. Daily life became noteworthy; photos weren’t just for special occasions and travel blogs.

The camera quality on iPhones improved to the extent that many stopped bothering with cameras for their travels. When I holidayed with my sister, even her children took photos of each other on her iPhones. They posed instinctively and prompted the adults to take photos of their sandcastles.

By comparison, my childhood photographs seemed quaint with the vague awareness we had of the camera, and the abandon that came from knowing the images would probably be stashed in a cupboard. Yet they were becoming eroded in places, so my mother scanned them onto her computer to preserve them.

I wasn’t the only one hankering for old school charm. Photo booths cropped up in bars and at weddings, taking us back to the Polaroids of my parents’ time. And Instagramimitated the faded look of photos from old film. Its followers even resist smiling, to appear wistful and unaware of the camera; or they stared intently, as if posing for a turn of the century portrait that takes minutes to develop.

Perhaps over time we will become so ambivalent to cameras that we can, once again, be truly natural in holiday photos.

Back to the old school

In the meantime, I have rebelled once again. I invested in an SLR, a glorious Nikon D7000 with an enormous lens.

It is digital, granted, but it feels like a step back in time – the hefty clack and cupping my hand over an enormous lens to zoom, not to mention it’s too heavy for self-takes and the high resolution makes the photos difficult to email.

Friends claimed it would be a pain to lug around and an invitation to be robbed in poorer countries. Yet I took my chunk of machinery to Marrakesh and the snake charmers in the bazaar didn’t take much notice. After all, that whole city is from another time.

No doubt more years of travel will bring more memories, more progression in the world of photography, and more attempts at rebellion on my part.

Perhaps I will regret not taking more photos when I’m old and my memory starts to fail me. Or perhaps I will be happy to have hazy recollections of myself as more beautiful and my travels more fantastical than they really were.

Here is just one article written by Jessica Burdon for Breaking Brazil.