Head On: Facing Up to Controversy

Head On Portrait Prize displayed at the State Library of New South Wales during the 2013 Head On Photo Festival [photo: © Moshe Rosenzveig]

At the end of the day people like faces and they like controversy.

And we supplied both!


In 2003, the State Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia, (AGNSW) launched a new award for photographic portraiture. The award was to complement a long-running portrait painting prize, which had proved popular, focusing on faces of the famous. The new photographic prize also set out with a strong bias towards celebrity in both the photographers selected and their subjects.

Not everyone felt that this obsession with the rich, powerful and notorious was the most interesting use of the medium. Among them was Moshe Rosenzveig, a photographer, teacher and film-maker. He decided that an alternative was needed and, the following year, he established the Head On Portrait Prize, a photographic portraiture exhibition and competition that consciously sought to avoid famous names, be they photographers or subjects. The selection of images for the exhibition and the final winner of this alternative prize were made without knowing the identity of the photographer. The key criterion for judgement was the quality of the photograph and not the pedigree of the maker or the fame of the subject.

Head On Portrait Prize was a remarkable success. As the decade progressed, it grew in stature and reputation, while the State Gallery event was discontinued after only four years. The success of the Head On Portrait Prize lay not simply in the quality and variety of the imagery on show, but in the way it energised the photographic community bringing together professionals and artists, amateurs and shutterbugs. In a world that all too often seeks to segregate professionals from amateurs, celebrities from the ordinary people, the Head On Portrait Prize provided an alternative model based on mutual respect and a passion for the creative potential of the camera.

It also made clear that the city held many more photographic talents than it did opportunities for them to share their work with the public. Thus it was that the Head On Portrait Prize evolved through a remarkable process of metamorphosis into Head On Photo Festival. An international festival which one of the country’s leading art critics described as the “unsung success” of Sydney’s artistic calendar, “a sleeping giant”.

How was this achieved? Just what is it about portraiture that so fascinates us? What are the limits of photographic portraiture? These were just some of the questions in my mind when I met with Moshe Rosenzveig for this interview.

Alasdair Foster

[Left] © Keturah Deklerk ‘10 years since’; [Upper Centre] © Jonathan May ‘Mr Universe’ 2010; [Lower Centre] © Richard Kendall ‘Leonard and William at the Alfred Hospital’ 2008; [Right] © Brian Cassey ‘Carol’ 2011


Alasdair: The Head On Portrait Prize began as an alternative to the show at AGNSW – why do you think it became so successful, so quickly?

Moshe: I can speculate… People are fascinated with other peoples’ faces and if they feel they can get an insight into the life of other people. At the end of the day people like faces and they like controversy. And we supplied both!

It was at the beginning of all these ‘reality’ programs on television that focus on ordinary people. That type of program has become increasingly experiential – competitions about people losing weight, dancing, cooking and so on … it’s about ordinary people having a life, facing a challenge.

I think that is what we did with the portrait prize. These were often very loosely defined portraits according to the traditions of the genre, but they captured this interest that people have in other people.

What kind of work did you receive?

At first we had a lot of commercial photography. It was technically good and it presented people looking their best… but few of those images made it into the final exhibition. We selected work that was much freer in terms of how one might measure good and bad. Because of this we initially got a lot of criticism from the commercial photographers, but gradually they began to understand what we were doing.

And then, after that, we got a lot of pictures of pets – cats and dogs…!

How did you deal with that?

We made a rule that the portrait had to be of a human being.

So, what is the definition of a portrait?

Good question. Is it a face or a body or a part of the body…? One year, a picture came in showing only a person’s legs. The legs stretched across a bed beside the weekend newspapers … you could imagine a whole story about this person without seeing their face. The judges decided to include it in the exhibition.

We were criticised, of course. But then, the following year, we got a picture by Jasmine Poole that was simply an empty bed. This was pushing the idea of a portrait to the extreme: no person at all. At first I thought this was yet another person who had not read the rules. And then I read the title – ‘Goodbye Grandpa’ – and I had a frisson of understanding. Suddenly I saw the picture in another way: the empty bed in the hospice where this grandfather might have spent the last few months of his life. I constructed an image in my mind. This person could have been white Australian, Aboriginal, Chinese… he could have been anything. In the end, that did not matter, because the story this picture told was universal.

And after that we stopped getting criticism when we pushed the envelope. As long as it is about a human being, as long as it is real, as long as one can relate to it emotionally, anything goes.

There was an image of an Aboriginal person holding their identity card which reads “Address: None” … another of the hands of an old women holding a picture of herself when young…

You have shown photographs of dead people. Are these also portraits?

I am not concerned if the subject is dead or alive. If it says something significant about the person, for me that is enough.

But there tends to be a taboo around photographing the dead. What kind of response did you get to these images?

Well, in the case of the photograph by Katerina Mantelos, this was a picture of her grandmother in her coffin. Katerina had full permission from the family. This was her private moment with her grandmother. It was not done in voyeuristic way – it was an image made with respect.

A more challenging postmortem portrait was shown the following year. It was a picture by Gil Meydan of a father holding his stillborn baby. The baby was tiny – like a doll – but fully dressed and the image simply staged. It had been made at the Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne and the photographer was a member of the staff. These photographs were a way the hospital helped people come to terms with their grief. The family had, of course, given their permission to show the work.

At the judging, discussion of this photograph went on for a long time. One judge – a very prominent curator – was very uncomfortable about it. In the end, the majority of the judging panel decide to award the photograph first prize. But the curator remained extremely uncomfortable about being associated with the decision.

How did the audience respond?

The public response was amazing! People wrote to say how moving they found the image and how important it is to talk about death and stillbirth, and how little opportunity people have to do so. It was a very simple but very strong image. In the gallery, people were moved to tears.

© Jonathan May ‘Stanford’ 2013

There was an image by Jonathan May of a blind African boy that had a similar impact.

That picture is amazing – it tells the whole story so succinctly. The boy, Stanford, has a skin condition that means he gets burnt just being in the sunlight. It affected his eyes as well. Yet the Spider-Man shirt, his dog… these are universal qualities about being a child. He has a horrific condition but he also has a life.

When it was shown, the image received a huge amount of media coverage. It was featured in ‘The British Journal of Photography’ and received thousands of ‘likes’ and over seven hundred comments. People, were fascinate. But there were also some criticisms from those felt that Jonathan May was ‘exploiting’ this boy for personal gain. In fact, the image was part of a project to help the boy, and Jonathan donated the prize money to help pay for his medical treatment.

Some of the photographs you have shown have been quite fantastical. Are they still portraits? Where do you draw the line?

Over the years we’ve had quite a few images submitted portraying kings and queens from history or religious figures from the Bible. We have discussed these at length. However, while many display great studio technique, they are not about real living people. A portrait must be about a real person, not an imaginary one.

© Lorna Freytag ‘Big Snail’ 2010

But many images you have accepted over the years have been fictional in their setting. For example Lorna Freytag’s image of little girl standing in front of a giant snail…

Yes, but the child is real. It is a portrait of her.

So, the deciding factor is whether this is a real person placed in a fantasy situation or an imaginary person in what may appear to be a real environment?

Yes. I’m not interest in the myth but in the reality.

Otherwise it is just a performance…

Yes. To me it is.

Bruce York’s photo of his son plays on the history of painting, but it is very much about a living breathing person.

Bruce’s work is very clever. It is reminiscent of Piero della Francesca’s [c1415–1492] famous portrait of the Duke of Urbino [made between 1465 and 1472]. Yet the red hat and top are of those of a contemporary skateboarder and the background is not Italy but Sydney. Bruce York has created his own reality – but one that remains true.

© Matthew Bickerton ‘Aaron Paine’ 2008

You are a teacher and festival director and have seen many pictures. But I know myself that once in a while a picture comes along that simply amazes me. Are there any pictures that when you first saw them were a great surprise to you?

Matthew Bickerton’s portrait of Aaron Paine is clever and a different way of portraying a face. It’s quite technical, but I also like the idea. You can explore his face in an almost forensic way. It’s laid out like a map.

So, in terms of the arc of Head On’s development, the portrait competition grew into the photography festival. It then widened its scope…

Yes, first we expanded the frame to include landscape and, later, photographs made with a mobile phone.

What kind of landscapes do you show?

Pretty much anything that could be called a ‘-scape’ (land-, city-, sea-); a vista in which human beings are not the main subject. That said, we did not just want a lot of sunsets or romantic rolling hills. And, as with our approach to portraiture, we included some images that were challenging.

[Upper Left] © Jarred Seng ‘Alltervatn VIII (Everything is Water)’ 2014; [Lower Left] © Peter Solness ‘Waterscape #2, Reservoir, Centennial Park’ 2014; [Right] © Thomas Kellner ‘Siegerland Foerderturrm’ 2014

Yes, Gerald Seng Icelandic aerial shot, for example, curiously ‘echoes’ the form of a tree…

We are trying to avoid clichés and expected definitions. We ask questions rather than make statements. The work of Peter Solness – which is made at night using long exposures and trails of light – takes landscape to a new dimension by folding time into space. In a different way, so does Thomas Kellner, whose architectural images are made up of many individual frames shot in sequence, not all at the same angle, so the solid structure of the building begins to ‘dance’ before your eyes.

Technological advances have also made a lot of things possible.

Murray Fredericks’ image of Milky Way shot in the dry bed of Lake Eyre would not have been possible without the new highly sensitive digital camera back now available. In his earlier images, the stars were represented as long trailing arcs as the exposure time was very long. Now he is able to freeze the moment.

Cameras have become so sensitive. I spent most of my life being able to see things I could not photograph because they were to dark; now I can photograph things I can’t even see!

© Murray Fredericks ‘Salt #400’ 2015

There have been other major technological developments. Today, you also include photographs made on a mobile phone. How was that received by the photographic community?

If you go back a hundred years everything was shot on a large plate camera. When Leica came on the scene people scoffed at it saying that it was too small to be a proper camera. The mobile phone is the Leica of the present day. It’s a device that enables us to do things differently. I wanted to see what people could come up with when they used these devices. We were probably one of the first organisations to totally embrace mobile-phone photography.

Can you give an example?

In 2010 we showed work made in the Middle East by Ben Lowy. He is a tall fair guy with blue eyes, so he was very noticeable in the Middle Eastern context. Yet, having the phone enabled him to get quite intimate pictures because people did not feel threatened by him as a foreigner. The mobile phone was a familiar and non-threatening device. It allowed him to establish a kind of rapport.

If you were starting the festival now what would you do differently?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing! (laughs) You know, if I’d known just how much energy and resources – personally and for my family – are required, I probably would never have begun.

New initiatives do take a degree of naïve energy. You don’t want to be weighed down with the knowledge of the problems to come because you are buoyed up by the energy of what you want to achieve. And Head On has achieved a lot over the years.

True. We’ve given out over half a million dollars’ worth of prizes; presented over 900 exhibitions in the last six years; we have brought to Australia some amazing people that no one else would have invited. There are over one hundred galleries in Sydney that have now shown photography that did not do so before we started. Our online audience is over three million people.

Before Head On Portrait Prize and Head On Photo Festival, there were many photographers who had no hope of a newspaper write-up or a public exhibition or sustaining photography as a job – we have helped many of them achieve these things. We’ve succeeded in changing significantly the photographic culture in Sydney and probably across Australia. That was the reason I began the festival. I was frustrated that the institutional opportunities appeared to be closed to most photographers. Head On has changed that. And we did it without a sugar daddy sponsor or major government support. It was all our own work.

I do not regret one minute of what we did, even including all the headaches. It was part of my growing up as a person.

Biographical Notes

Moshe Rosenzveig is a photojournalist, educator and an award winning television producer/director, whose career in the visual arts and the media spans more than forty years. He studied photography at Hadassah Academic College, Jerusalem, and received an MA in Journalism from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). He initiated the Head On Portrait Prize and exhibition in 2004, establishing the non-profit Head On Foundation in 2008 and launching the Head on Photo Festival in 2010. In 2018, Moshe Rosenzveig was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for services to the arts.

Established in 2010, Head On Photo Festival is an annual festival of photography held in Sydney, Australia. www.headon.com.au

Coronavirus Update

Given the restrictions arising from the coronavirus pandemic, a web-based version of Head On 2020 will be held 1–17 May, accompanied by a program of online seminars and events throughout the period.

During May 2020, Head On is partnering with Auckland Festival of Photography, New Zealand, to share and extend their two programs.

The Head On organisers are working to present a scaled-back physical festival later in the year.

This article was first published in Chinese, in the March 2016 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.

An image from Head On Photo Festival featured on the cover of this issue.

© Lorna Freytag ‘Big Snail’ 2010