The only stories worth telling are the stories of the poor.
Based in Melbourne, Glenn Sloggett has built a unique and insightful body of work documenting the parts of the city no-one wants to think about: the suburban underclass. As an artist, he is drawn to the dysfunctional and the dispossessed, and, in particular, to the last glimmers of dogged hope that linger amid the ashes of the most dismal of situation: the eagerness of the leashed dog; the fey optimism of the can man; the proud boast on the side of the pink hearse (an image that has become iconic for the artist). He frames and celebrates the things we would rather turn away from. There is no nostalgia here, just the forward plod of life without expectations. Here, beauty lies not in the roses (which are diseased) or the wedding dress (which is cast off) or the Pavlova (which is NQR: not quite right), but in the tenacity of an underclass who keep going while their world is crumbling around them.
In many ways it is easier to say what his photographs are not, rather than say precisely what they are. Certainly they are not the spectacle of the abject snapped by some middle-class ‘tourist’. Glenn Sloggett refuses to take any but the most menial ways to earn a living. He paid his way through university by cleaning sex-club cubicles between clients. Since then he has held a series of dead-end (his description) jobs in factories that print junk-mail fliers, mould cheap plastic display units or synthesis own-brand food items. It is only by sharing the experiences of those who live in the places he photographs that can he stay true to the people he most admires.
Glenn Sloggett’s photographs do not have the glossy beauty found so attractive in today’s art markets and lining the walls of Western museums. For many years he has remained an ‘outsider artist’, working far beyond the inner circles of the art world with its twin economies of money and prestige. He has steadfastly stayed true to his values and to the things he holds most dear. But slowly the art world is changing. The democratisation of the arts and the opening up of criticism and collecting to a wider field has brought with it a new appreciation of the melancholic and the quotidian. Recently [2013 when this article was first published], Glenn Sloggett’s work was featured in major new exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales called ‘We Used to Talk About Love’. As its title suggests, this exhibition does not focus on the usual narratives of romantic and erotic happy endings, but on the fragmentation, uncertainty and misalignment of human relationships.
But this recent success will not change Glenn Sloggett. He remains in the poorest parts of suburban Melbourne, wandering the streets after work, searching out the next subject for his camera. He will plan meticulously and take only one shot so as not to waste precious film. Each image is like a small epiphany.
Alasdair: What made you become a photographer?
Glenn: Photography saved my life; gave it meaning and answered the universal question of ‘who am I?’
I guess growing up I always felt an inability to express myself. This caused me to feel a lot of frustration. Even to this day, I don’t think I have ever lost my teenage angst and it is something that, over time, I have come to cherish.
I came from a poor family with a lot of dysfunction. A natural outsider, I was prone to daydreams of something better, but I had no model to base it on. I was full of insecurities and secrets. “Keep your voice down or the neighbours will hear.” It was a life full of tiny little shocks; I did not quite know the causes, but I knew enough not to ask why?
Movies were always a comfort and escape for me. They have been a lifelong friend. I can always get lost in a movie…
…and football. Though, after my third concussion, I decided as a teenager to retire (from football) to my bedroom to contemplate the world through Punk music and super-8 movies. By accident two friends and I borrowed this 8mm movie camera and made our own version of ‘Dawn – Portrait of a Teenage Runaway’: a Punk-aesthetic epic, full of empty street scenes, alienation, vomiting. It was a life-changing exercise.
My first attempt at art school was studying film. But I was socially awkward, out of my depth personally and hid in movie theatres instead of attending class. I ‘dropped out’, only to return 10 years later after an odyssey of dish washing and drug taking, but I also spent this time doing photography.
Photography! Jesus told me to do it. One night, when I was really ‘out of it’ … in my own voice: “Don’t worry Glenn, just be a photographer.”
My wait was over; my penance served. I had my answer, and never looked back.
How did you begin and how has your career developed?
Well, as I said, I was a failed film-maker.
I couldn’t write dialogue. I had no idea or interest in what any character may have to say. My films consisted of desolate urban landscapes and endless scenes of rubbish. Bleak.
I just work an ordinary job, loading boxes in a food processing factory … I have done so for years … and I take photos. To say my photography is a ‘career’ is probably a wrong classification. It’s a calling, a pursuit, a reason … not a career.
How do you choose what to photograph and what are you looking for?
I couldn’t really say, actually, other than I know what it is when I see it.
I have a ‘wish list’: ‘Best photo of a dog’; ‘Something scratched into wet cement’; ‘Hand drawn sign’… things like that. Something desperate, tragic, sad … Images that evoke empathy for an inherent loneliness or loss.
My methodology I borrowed from August Sander [1876–1964], the great German portrait photographer. He took one photo of each profession and so, within the demeanour and attire of his subjects, their social hierarchy is revealed. My photographs represent a social disadvantage and life of struggle that I’m drawn to: equality, in my terms.
Equality? In what way?
By ‘equality in my own terms’ I mean: as if the world that I photograph is the only one. No rich or middle class concerns or neighbourhoods. Just as each class has no thought of the other, so the concerns of other classes are, for me, irrelevant. I think of it like a ‘gated community’ for the working poor and the luckless.
What is it that attracts you to signs of misplaced optimism and imminent failure?
It’s humanness. Failure is heroic… Life affirming.
Can you give an example?
The photograph called ‘Mattress for a Homeless Man’.
One of your best known photographs is called ‘Cheaper and Deeper’. How did that shot come about? Was it set up?
No, it wasn’t set up. It was just waiting for me. I’d been on a tram the day before looking out the window and spotted this pink car roof in the distance and thought: “I’ll have to come back tomorrow and investigate.” And so, at the beginning of my ‘career’ (as you call it) I took one of the photos that you’d think would signify the end of my story … and I have been working in reverse since. It was no ‘big deal’.
What equipment/materials do you use?
I use the same camera I’ve used for the last 20 years: a 1960 T-model Rolleiflex camera with 120 Kodak 400 film and a Pentax hand light meter. I have a Rollei Flash unit that uses flash bulbs
Do you spend a lot of time shooting and take a lot of pictures?
No. I’m really frugal with materials and hate the thought of waste with anything.
I only take one photo of each subject, so I apply a really stringent visualisation guideline to potential subjects. This is the key for me. To be personally sure that it is an important image that needs to be seen.
Preparation before shooting – listening to music, studying, reading and so on – is important to me and seems to lead me to where I should go.
Shooting is invariably the easy part of the equation.
Are you inspired by the work of other photographers? If so who?
Of course. Many photographers. All heroes!
Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, Weegee … really traditional stuff.
Although you have a degree you have chosen to work only in unskilled factory and service jobs. Why is that?
Initially, it was circumstance. Standard stuff: pay the bills, you know… I need a job that I can leave at the end of the day and forget about. I’d rather have a tired body than a tired mind. There isn’t anything I want to do other than my art practice, but these crap jobs give me a routine and structure that can be useful. They carry little responsibility; the repetitive manual labour allows time to meditate on my physical suffering and the exercise helps alleviate my depression.
It’s unusual, but so is a culture like mine [in Australia] that rewards sports heroes far more than arts ones.
Anyway, why shouldn’t someone in the arts work in a factory? Is it supposed to be ‘beneath them’? Does culture belong exclusively to the educated and well off? What about my story and the stories of my friends at the factory?
The only stories worth telling are the stories of the poor.
What’s the worst job you have had and what did you learn from it that has fed back into your photographic work?
Work is really important to me. Any job will do. Without it I drown. My desire is the social connection of belonging. The money that comes in keeps my art practice alive, the labour endured satisfies my masochism. When I was younger so long as I had money for a roll of film and a movie ticket I was content.
For a while I thought I was some kind of ‘performance artist’ prepared to undertake the filthiest of tasks: mop out ‘wank booths’ in sex shops; clean the muck from printing machines; repetitively drill tiny holes in numerous pieces of plastic. I was a specialist! Someone asked me: “What do you think about when you’re drilling holes for days?” Answer: “Photography and sex.” Physical work keeps you grounded so you don’t start to believe your own bullshit and become a snob or elitist just because you’re in the arts. I’ve met a lot of dumb people in the arts. Believe me, stupidity is everywhere.
Most regular people don’t think art is important anyway. They should, but they don’t. Fair enough, I don’t like camping. Does it matter? But being exposed to situations and people different from your own experience informs you. My dreams are blue-collar dreams.
Working in the laundry at the Hyatt hotel wasn’t a lot of laughs… But the worst job is the job you don’t have.
What does success as a photographer look like for you? What is your dream?
For me, success as a photographer is about continuing to produce images that I enjoy looking at. I started with no aspirations other than to study photography and to learn from it. It has benefited me, helped my life and aided my understanding of aspects of living that are of much greater importance than anything measured in such trivial terms as ‘success’ or ‘dreams’, which are both so fleeting.
What advice would you give to a young photographer starting out?
Take yourself seriously. Be a fan of your own work. Don’t be a fraud, tell the truth. Work hard. Make mistakes. Enjoy the fear. Be observant of the world. Respect the rich history that has gone before us as photographers. Speak and write well about your work, with courage and honesty. Do the best that you can and don’t forget it’s meant to be fun.
Lastly, and most importantly: figure it out yourself.
 ‘Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway’ is an American-made television drama from 1976. It tells the bleak story of a 15-year-old girl who runs away from home and becomes a prostitute in Los Angeles.
Glenn Sloggett was born in Brisbane in 1964. He has exhibited widely including his solo exhibition ‘Cheaper and Deeper’ which was toured nationally by the Australian Centre of Photography. His work featured in a number of significant survey exhibitions including ‘New Australiana’ (touring nationally in 2001–2002); ‘Photographica Australis’ (touring internationally, 2002–2004); ‘Melbourne Now’ (National Gallery of Victoria, 2013–2014); and ‘Australian Vernacular Photography’ (Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2014).
His work is held in numerous private and public collections including the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Victoria and Monash Gallery of Art. In 2001 he won the inaugural John and Margaret Baker Memorial Fellowship for an Emerging Artist and, in 2008, he received the prestigious Josephine Ulrick & Win Schubert National Photography Award. [2020 update: Glenn Sloggett currently works as a labourer in a cheese factory in Thomastown, Victoria. His artist book ‘Fibro Dreams’ is available from the artist at: glennsloggett.com]
Photo © Natasha Frisch
This article was first published in Chinese, in the May 2013 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.