Deborah Paauwe: Behind the Myth of Innocence

© Deborah Paauwe ‘Luminous Tresses’ [detail] 2015 from the series ‘Stolen Riddle’

My work is purely autobiographical.


There is a mythology of innocence projected onto children by adults. The young may be naïve, unaware, but the games and pretend of childhood are intimately entangled with the world of adults as they anticipate what it might be like to be grown up, to have agency. A tiger cub leaping onto the back of its sibling, tumbling over and nuzzling its neck may look like cute play, but it is preparation for bringing down a deer or a wild boar. A rehearsal for the struggle of life. The young girl who preens and flirts with her father is rehearsing a role of adult life in a script of which she is yet not fully aware. It’s part of the evolutionary programming: to try things out and see what works. To quarry meaning from effect. And we, as adults, through our responses, determine what patterns of activity are reinforced and which abandoned. In this we are complicit in the roles and narrative of play.

It is within the interstices of childhood recollection and adult complicity that the artist Deborah Paauwe situates her oeuvre. Her photographs are based upon youthful memories of how it felt to be growing up, with life in a state of flux. Each body of work features anonymous female players – sometimes a child, sometimes an adolescent, sometimes a young woman. In each there is an interplay between the qualities of the subject’s costume, her apparent age, and the narratives suggested by her body language. The poses are deliberate and self-possessed. Knowing.

And this is where the tension in Deborah Paauwe’s work begins to tighten its grip on the imagination. How does this apparent self-awareness sit with our expectations of innocence, of some naturally ingenuous disposition? Strong taboos around childhood sexuality are embedded in our culture for the necessary protection of the young, but they have been sanctioned by the constructed mythologies of innocence. It can be disturbing when recognition of the underlying nature of play flickers into consciousness. Deborah Paauwe’s disquieting talent is to create images in which we sense that recognition as something becoming real even as we look.

Alasdair Foster

© Deborah Paauwe ‘Summer of ’83 #7 and #8’ 2018


You were born in the USA, brought up in Singapore, and now live in Australia. Have those experiences and cultural contexts shaped you as an artist?

Yes, they certainly have. Sadly, I have not kept in touch with my childhood friends, so I only hold memories of them. But I was fortunate enough to travel extensively during my childhood and was exposed to many amazing opportunities on many levels, especially culturally. I was also able to visit many major art galleries around the world.

Your oeuvre has been remarkably consistent in its form and theme. How did it begin?

It began in my bedroom as a seventeen-year-old. Here I took black-and-white self-portraits with my dad’s old 35mm Minolta camera. I used to photograph myself a lot. I would either use a timer or cable release to take the shots. The early photos were hit and miss but there were often wonderful surprises. It was a lot of fun. I would process the films myself and make the prints by hand. Looking back, I think that the impulse was to create my own little world behind closed doors, free of interference. That idea of self-revelation has always been central to my work, as has the concept of the very private becoming the very public.

[Left] © Deborah Paauwe ‘At Midnight’ 2004 from the series ‘Dark Fables’
[Right] © Deborah Paauwe ‘Tiny Dancer’ 2001 from the series ‘Violet Window’

What would you say are the main themes that run through your oeuvre?

I believe that it’s important for artists to deal directly with issues that have meaning and resonance for them. For me, photography has been the perfect medium to explore my concerns with the flux between identity, childhood, and adolescence. That sense of floating between stages. I find that fascinating. As children we live in the moment but also look forward into the unknown. As adults we can drift back and forth between memory and the present. We are the sum of our experiences, and our childhood always exists for us in memory.

It is the ambiguity that surrounds identity I find intriguing, because in our daily lives we make choices both consciously and unconsciously. Those choices are shaped by and through a continuous interplay between the intuitive reactions of the child and the considered responses of our adult selves. Sometimes our understanding is clear and thoughtful, at other times it is not.

[Left] © Deborah Paauwe ‘Bedtime Story’ 1999
[Right] © Deborah Paauwe ‘Brunette Muse’ 2006 from the series ‘The Crying Room’

Do you see your work as autobiographical?

Yes, my work is purely autobiographical. The image that probably summed this up the most in the early days was ‘Bedtime Story’ [above left]. I draw on personal experiences that I convey through the imagery rather than discussion, because images remain more open than words. What interests me is the impossibility of fixing a meaning to any image in any definitive way. In life, every moment has the potential to shift depending on the attitudes we bring to it. And it is that tension hovering over meaning that informs my practice. I am fascinated by what lies outside the frame of the image, what is excluded from our view. That sense of uncertainty underpins the work of all my favourite artists: Sarah Jones, Anna Gaskell, Hellen van Meene, Rineke Dijkstra, the early work of Cindy Sherman… I am aiming for an air of the unresolved, a continuing yet unrequited desire for the safety of knowing.

So, if there is a safety in certainty, do you think one of the attractions of your work, which remains ambiguous, is the very way it hints at danger?

That element of the unknown, the uncertain, has underpinned my work from the very start… When I was ten, a girlfriend and I were staying in a hotel. We were wandering the corridors to while away the time when we met the hotel janitor. He offered us money to come to his room, gave us the number and then left. Even as children we could sense the danger that lay in the invitation, but the temptation of the money drew us to the hallway outside his door. We stood there trying to summon the courage to knock for what seemed like an eternity but was probably only a matter of seconds. We were filled with a sense that see-sawed between excitement and fear. Fortunately, the fear overcame the excitement, and we ran away. But that mixture of dread and exhilaration has stayed with me ever since, lingering in the desire to find out something that will never now be known.

[Left] © Deborah Paauwe ‘Snowdrops’ 2002 from the series ‘Double Dutch’
[Right] © Deborah Paauwe ‘Endless Coil’ 2008 from the series ‘Carousel’

One of the ways in which each series is marked out as distinct and separate is in the use of fabrics. How do you go about selecting the materials and outfits worn by the models?

I have a large collection of dresses and fabrics that I have collected over the past thirty years. Sadly, because my family travelled so much, we did not keep things – we took with us only what we needed. Consequently, while I have amassed a collection of dresses that once could have belonged to my mother they have instead belonged to other mothers and daughters. The backdrops recall various memories from my childhood growing up in Singapore in the 1970s and then the US in the 1980s. I remember my aunt in Singapore having many fabulous retro furnishings, which have inspired me greatly.

Who are the models that perform these anonymous roles?

I have worked with a range of people. Some are the children of artist friends, some are women I know, some are professional models hired from an agency.

Do you work with them collaboratively or directorially?

I will usually direct, but I am happy to collaborate if a model understands where I am coming from – that tends to be with the models I have worked with long-term. I often have sketches of how I will undertake a shoot, frame by frame, which we can discuss together.

[Left] © Deborah Paauwe ‘Luminous Tresses’ 2015 from the series ‘Stolen Riddle’
[Right] © Deborah Paauwe ‘Heavy Roses (seated)’ 2012 from the series ‘The Painted Mirror’

The girls and young women in your images always remain anonymous. Why is this?

Initially, because I photographed myself, I kept my face out of the shots so that people wouldn’t know it was me. I also wanted to keep the subject universal and equivocal, so it made sense to portray the subjects without showing their faces. There are a few occasions when part of a face can be glimpsed, but very rarely. I enjoy that ambiguity; the questions it can suggest. What you see within the image and what doesn’t get included in the frame are equally important.

Sometimes I use fabric or hair to obscure a subject’s face. More recently, I have been introducing props such as a painted mirror for a similar effect. In a way, it is an extension of the Asian cultural norms I experienced growing up in Singapore. It was expected that facial expressions be kept to a minimum – for example, one was taught to cover one’s mouth when laughing.

[Left] © Deborah Paauwe ‘Tangled Whisper’ 2004 from the series ‘Chinese Whispers’
[Right] © Deborah Paauwe ‘Double Tresses’ 2006 from the series ‘The Crying Room’

Your images suggest an intimacy and sensuality that some commentators have read as sexual. How would you respond to this suggestion?

I have often found it fascinating that two people can stand in front of one of my images and travel to contrasting destinations. But I am open to any reading of my work. An understanding of the importance of particular experiences in our lives often only comes to us in retrospect. It is then that these events can take on a degree of significance. The associations my images have for the individual will suggest different things for different people because each views the work through the lens of their own experience. At times, my photographs have both disturbed and delighted people.

So, yes, while most of my works are constructed out of quite innocent and childlike experiences, some viewers have chosen to interpret them dark and sexual ways. While I acknowledge the validity of such personal interpretations, it has never been my aim to create overtly sexual imagery. It is the ambiguity of the situations within my photographs that opens them up to divergent readings.

[Left] © Deborah Paauwe ‘Blue Tights’ 1999 from the series ‘Blue Room’
[Right] © Deborah Paauwe ‘Last Night’ 2001 from the series ‘Violet Window’

Can you give an example?

One of my early photographs – one that carries a particular meaning for me – is an image of a pair of dangling legs in blue tights with red polka-dot shoes. It is based on my memories of being a little girl… the way my feet did not touch the ground when I sat in an adult’s chair. For me, there is an air of innocence and vulnerability about it that I feel is particularly successful in capturing an aspect of childhood. The colours are intense, giving it a vibrant, cartoon-like quality to the piece while contrasting the deep shadow cast by the feet in the background. Interestingly, a publisher purchased the rights to use the image on the cover of a book. When it came out, I was somewhat surprised to see that the novel was about a young girl’s attempt to hang herself. It was another reminder that one can never control the interpretation of art.

Your work centres on the period between childhood and becoming an adult. When you began you were yourself a very young woman. Now, as you enter your fifties, do you read the images differently?

That is a very interesting question and something I have not thought about before. Strangely enough, I do not think I view them differently at all. Making these photographs has been a long journey, one that is nowhere near finished. I do not think, over the years, that my mindset or the themes I am exploring in my photographs have changed. Perhaps, when I was younger, I may have imagined that my work would have evolved more, but it hasn’t. I am telling a story that I am still only halfway through.

[Left] © Deborah Paauwe ‘Adorned Tresses’ 2013 from the series ‘Untold Story’
[Right] © Deborah Paauwe ‘Entwined Strands’ 2013 from the series ‘Untold Story’

What are you working on now?

I am currently working on three private commissions as well as new work for the Sydney Contemporary art fair, a museum show which has yet to be announced, and a new series of work to show at GAGPROJECTS, Adelaide [formerly Greenaway Art Gallery], which has represented me for many years.

What have you learned about yourself in the process of your artmaking?

That my favourite part is going through the proofs and the editing process. The actual taking of the photographs I find very challenging and, whilst enjoyable, it isn’t until I see the proofs that I get really excited.

Photography has taught me many things. In the early days it was the immediacy of the medium and the fact that the image you take isn’t always the same as the image that you finish up with. There is an element of surprise in this, and that’s what I love.

© Deborah Paauwe ‘Stolen Riddle #3’ 2015

Biographical Notes

Deborah Paauwe was born in Pennsylvania, USA, in 1972. She spent her childhood in Singapore, Korea, and the USA before moving to Australia with her family in 1985. She has a bachelor’s degree in visual arts from the South Australian School of Art at the University of South Australia (1994), and a master’s degree in fine art from Chelsea School of Art at the London Institute, UK (2000). Her work has featured in thirty-eight solo and over one-hundred group exhibitions in Asia, Europe, Oceania, and North America. These include, in Australia, the National Gallery of Australia and the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra; the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Australian Centre for Photography, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney; and internationally, the National Gallery of Thailand, Bangkok; the 11th Asian Art Biennale, Dhaka, Bangladesh; Sala de Exposiciones del Canal de Isabel II, Madrid, Spain; Naarden Foto Festival, Netherlands; Pingyao International Festival of Photography, China; Singapore Art Museum; Fotonoviembre 2007, Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain; and the Fine Art Museum, Taipei, Taiwan. Deborah Paauwe’s photographic artworks are held in many prestigious public and private collections including the National Gallery of Australia and the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra; the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; and the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth. She lives and works in Adelaide.

This interview is a Talking Pictures original.