Juno Gemes


Andrew Sayers
Actions On Film... So Much More Than Words
Frances Peters-Little
Incontra Personale
Rhonda Davis
For Hands In Each Other's Pockets
Barry Hill
Juno Gemes


The Long March for Justice and Hope

Portraits from The Movement 1978 – 2003

Incontra Personale

Rhonda Davis

Everything you are shows up in your work. You do not photograph only with a camera, but primarily with your eyes, your head, your heart.
~ Lisette Model, 19791

The taciturn element of the creative process becomes obvious when looking at the work of Juno Gemes; she has transformed the photographic image into a rich visual language that can resist a written interpretation. Her approach and method has evolved from her own personal experiences, as both a child and adult. The fascinating mix of impressions of life, from her Hungarian background, as a young girl finding her way in Australia, and to the sophisticated world she encountered in Europe, have indeed framed her sensibilities in making silent, yet powerful living images. And to contemplate the dedication of Gemes in making those images that speak about the Proof in the spirit and power of humanity is an awesome achievement.

‘Gemes is able to give voice to those who inhabit her images’ – a quality of artistic integrity, in short, that shines through every one of these remarkable, luminous images transforming documentation unmistakably into art.2

Juno Gemes arrived in Australia at the age of five with her beloved parents Alex and Lucy Gemes – ‘One of my earliest childhood memories: I was carried out of my homeland Hungary on my father’s shoulders: he was walking knee-deep in snow. Gunfire rang out in the distance. Eventually we arrived in Vienna amidst talk on where we would go’3 During the post-war shuffle, many people did migrate to Australia. But as a society, Australia was reluctant to accept people who were not Anglo-Saxon. The political environment was dominated by the oppressive White Australia policy that did not accept any form of cultural diversity, which in effect alienated many migrants. As English was the primary language, hence non-English-speaking people were isolated and excluded from the mainstream of society. In many ways this continues to dominate analysis and cultural discourse, despite our recent history of embracing cultural diversity.

In 1949, when Juno Gemes stepped off the ship at Sydney Harbour with her family, seeking a new and better life after escaping from conflict of their war-torn country, she was unable to speak a word of English. Unfortunately, without some enjoin of the English language, school represented a daunting experience for Juno. She recalls being ‘teased for putting the words the wrong way around, so I pretended to be deaf and dumb for a year while I got the hang of the language and how people spoke it.’4 Juno endured that period through her own fertile resources of imagination and her own will to survive – that would eventually give an unwavering direction to her work as an artist. ‘During that year, I learned to read people by gesture, movement, body language and tone of voice. I learnt by using primarily my eyes and my ears. I can see now how that experience benefited me in later years.’5

Some thirty years later, Juno Gemes received an arts grant that would authenticate the inner eye that she had cultivated, ironically, through a harrowing experience as a child. In an act of confidence, Juno Gemes began the arduous process of making the invisible become a luminous presence through the lens of the camera. In 1978, the Photography Board of the Arts Council of Great Britain awarded Gemes the opportunity to learn from the modern masters of photography such as Aaron Siskind (USA) and the English photographer David Hurn. But, more significantly, in the following year she attended the workshop Incontra Personale (translated as Personal Encounter) in Venice during the 1979 International Biennale La Fotografia – The International Centre for photography. In a master class under the instruction of the American photographer Lisette Model, the aperture of Juno’s world was released, which consolidated her vision in reading the gesture and movement in her chosen subjects. Model taught the headstrong Gemes an invaluable lesson in when not to use the camera. Gemes says it went something like this: ‘Never photograph unless you are clear about what you want to say in the photograph.’6

In the work of Juno Gemes, one senses the immense relationship between the photographer and subject. In each image displayed in the exhibition Proof, a sense of trust built upon friendship is evident – a continuation of the personal encounter.

The image One with the Land is imbued with a resonance of peace and actuality, as the woman, her man and her child are comfortable in their identity and setting. Looking resolutely ahead, a silent understanding seems to pass between them that connects the whole composition with land, sea and people. In many ways, Juno Gemes has come to understand her own life through the lens of the camera following her unequivocal destiny. Juno lives and works regardless of judgmental discourses that say that she should not be photographing Aboriginal people.

Mesmerised by the aura present in One with the Land I am reminded of Lisette Model’s advice to Juno to explore and look at how expressive people are from the back in their repose.

Lisette asked me to meet her for coffee every afternoon during the workshop. We would then walk around Venice. ‘Tell me what you see? Now tell me what that means to you?’7

The subjects’ backs are moulded and cast in the various shadows of the afternoon sun they are waiting. The photograph demonstrates something convincing about the spiritual and gives distaste to the materialistic. At the windward side of Mornington Island, people were waiting for days for the Dunna fish to surface. It is a sacred fish that only manifests itself once a year in about October–November. The Dunna contains eggs inside and is considered a delicacy.

Adapting always to the demands of location, Juno Gemes joined the camp on the beach as friend and family – sitting, watching and waiting for days just for a movement breaking. Then, as Juno recalled, the men went out with nets, ready to make the ceremonial scoop from the waters. The food was attentively brought onto the sand and the women distributed the fish to the awaiting people according to their moiety protocol for that area.

The effects of Lisette Model’s words and her influential approach in working the location to its optimum become apparent – as Lisette has said: “‘Don’t shoot ’til the subject hits you in the pit of your stomach.’ She does not shrink from reality. She meets it head on. Concerned with art, the subject is lost. Concerned with the subject, art is found, this is Lisette Model.”8 And this is Juno Gemes.

In keeping those ‘darkroom adjustments to a minimum’, Juno Gemes has produced a remarkable body of work that captures both the immediacy and the meditative effects of ‘The Movement’ – ‘In Gemes images of protest and survival can be found an important part of the visual history of Aboriginal Australia in the late twentieth century.’9

In a movement, a gesture, in the shadows of dark and light, I feel that special moments have passed through the lens of Juno Gemes’s camera, showing the interior her own.

• • • 

1 Lisette Model, Incontra Personale workshop, Venice 1979, as remembered by Juno Gemes.
2 Nicholas Underwood, Letter from London on Eddie Burrup and Juno Gemes, Art Monthly Australia, 2000, p. 12.
3 Juno Gemes, Profile: Juno Gemes, Photofile 46, 1995, p. 24.
4 Juno Gemes, in an interview with Rhonda Davis, May 2003.
5 ibid.
6 ibid.
7 ibid.
8 Preface by Abbott Bernice, Lisette Model An Aperture Monograph, 1979.
9 David Hansen, ‘Juno Gemes in London’, Review, Art & Australia, November 2000, p. 247.