From 19 February to 7 March 2021, Hayley Millar-Baker‘s series I Will Survive will be featured in an immersive outdoor photography display on the Library’s lower forecourt as part of PHOTO 2021.

We spoke to Hayley, the inaugural winner of the Library’s Photography Fellowship, about the creative process behind her work and the importance of storytelling.

black and white photo of woman looking through binoculars
Hayley Millar-Baker, courtesy of Simon Strong and Vivien Anderson Gallery

Q: What inspired the concept for I Will Survive?

A: I Will Survive was inspired by two ideas. The first was quite simple; wanting to tell stories from my own childhood, with my own voice.

The second was following on from my research for A Series of Unwarranted Events, where I chose four frontier war stories that took place on Gunditjmara Country and recreated empty scenes of the conflicts.

Over the past four years of my practice, I’ve been focusing on how White ‘settlers’ documented tragedies of Aboriginal people (specifically my Gunditjmara family), and what was included and left out in their documentation of events. So, wanting to start a new chapter in my practice, I was naturally lead on from massacre research to looking into the survivors, who were generally women with children.

This research was met with dead ends because there was no further information on the survivors and what they went on to do. This made me look within myself and see that my existence is literally that of pure luck.

Gunditjmara mob lost an incredible amount of people to frontier wars, so for each of my ancestors to survive to bring about my existence is magic. This is where my research met with my want to tell my stories. I started to think about what ‘survival’ looked like to me as a child and my own survival stories.

Q: How did you approach producing the series?

A: Before approaching the production stage of I Will Survive I spent several months researching concepts of ‘constructed memory’ and how the brain remembers according to the feelings, thoughts and people present at the time.

I critically analysed my own memories in order to build them into full-fledged stories truthful enough to believe, but not truthful enough to be quite real. I then spent roughly two months travelling to photograph the environments for each story and the characters.

This series in quite simplistic in its making compared to my other work. Other series of mine can contain up to 300 individual images to build one full image, however I Will Survive is merely 3-6 layers of imagery.

Q: Talk us through the narrative of I Will Survive – what journey are we being taken on as we explore each piece?

A: I’ve purposefully created I Will Survive in a way that the works can be read as individual stories, or the full body of work can be read as a narrative dependent on how the sequence is ordered.

Each image is left quite open to interpretation. There is just enough information to start the thought-train, but not enough to take you from A to B; that’s up to the viewer.

Watch the installation of I Will Survive

Q: The series draws on your own childhood memories – can you tell us a bit about your background?

A: My maternal side is First Nations Gunditjmara from South-West Victoria, going back 65,000 years. My paternal side are migrants from India and Brazil. My father is first-generation ‘Australian’.

I would say I grew up in the bush until I started high school. We spent long stints camping many times a year for over 10 years. Real camping like bathing in lakes, digging holes for the toilet, cooking food on fires, not seeing another person the entire time.

It was great, I’m glad that was my childhood experience, and I guess with so much time out there as children with only me and my sister, our imaginations would have been booming, amplifying anything our parents and grandparents would tell us.

Q: What importance does intergenerational storytelling, one of the key themes of the series, hold for you?

A: Storytelling is everything. It’s the key method for First Nations people in teaching children rules, morals, guides, lore, everything.

Before White man came and started to document us, our method was the passing down of stories. I am me because of my parents, because of their parents, because of their parents and so on. There is no escaping that I am all of these people, and their stories and lives made me today.

It’s a continuum; time doesn’t break, and the stories keep melding from one life into the next as the next generation come forward. We inherit strength, trauma, tragedy, connection, memory from all of those before us.

Q: What do you want people to remember about your artwork?

A: Ideally, I would like people to think of their own stories when thinking about my work. How it (hopefully) evokes their own memories and where it takes them back in their lives. Of course my work is about my stories and stories passed down to me by family members, but there’s a certain level of empathy I believe it evokes and prods at the viewers own existence. 

Q: Where do you find your inspiration to create?

A: My mind and life are deep wormholes of stories; all I need is a memory or experience to act as a steppingstone and I’m off. I am heavily research driven so the smallest of ideas expand far and beyond their original form. Just like I Will Survive; a simple continuum from a previous project that grew and evolved far past its original foundation.

I like to believe that each series I make is its own little mini world that only exists within its boundaries. And if I ever run dry of ideas or get the dreaded block, I go back and reread research, notes, talk to my family, and revisit old ideas.

Q: Can you share a bit about what you’ve been working on recently?

A: Recently I have been working on growing my second baby! He is now four months old so I’m just slowly readjusting my life now with two children.

I am also in the research stages of another major project that will be set to be released later in the year but it’s all hush-hush at the moment. So, stay tuned!

PHOTO2021: I Will Survive is an outdoor work and will be accessible from 10am to 6pm daily on the Library’s lower forecourt from 19 February to 7 March.

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