The focus on connecting worlds explores the way in which storytelling can be personal and unique. This can happen through the use of alternative ways to the spoken, such as the written, the photographed, a mixture of both; or, as Hayley Millar Baker (@hayleymillarbaker) shows us, through collage or film too. The second article of this series features the work of Hayley Millar Baker, a Gunditjmara Djabwurrung photographer and artist from South-West Melbourne, in Australia. In her work, Hayley combines photography and collage to create stories within images. She explores themes related to identity, existence, culture and human experience.
"I use collage to be able to bend the documental aspect of photography. Photography is seen as factual. I aim to go further."
Talking about 'identity' can be a daunting thing to do. After all, it is generally accepted that throughout our lives as ever-changing humans, we are constantly developing and trying to understand ourselves, how we came to exist, and our role in the world. In this article, the focus is on how our perception of "self" shifts throughout the time. It engages with topics of past, present, and future to understand if connections can be made between these times in our lives. Perhaps there have been moments lived in the past, which shaped our present, which then, may also influence the future. The questions are: how can we look at ourselves from a critical perspective? Is it possible that by doing so, we will learn to understand ourselves better? How does art connect us to ourselves and others?
Identity is broad. It can relate to how you feel, how you see yourself, how you live, and, broadly, who you are. Therefore, it is important that when we talk about identity, we try to understand ourselves individually. Exploring this involves accepting a process of self-reflection and self-acceptance that, at its core, also involves research of some kind.
In doing self-portraiture, for example, one learns to accept the discomfort of exposure and to open themselves to the camera, to see themselves. Hayley Millar Baker's stories within her photographs, happen in the context of self-representation, where she is the character within her own story. But what she acknowledges in the creative process, both before and during it, is that there is always a research process to be done before creating, which involves critically analysing the conditions for creating, and what inspired the creation.
"I spend a lot of time doing research. And while doing so, I am critically analysing the story I am telling. It only belongs to me because I can only speak for myself and my stories."
Having completed a Bachelor in Fine Arts in 2010, and a Master of Fine Arts in 2017 at RMIT University in Melbourne, Hayley has an extensive career having exhibited within Australia and internationally in museums and art festivals. Additionally, she has been a finalist of several prestigious national and international art prizes, and won the John and Margaret Baker Memorial Fellowship for the National Photography Prize (2020), the Darebin Art Prize (2019), and the Special Commendation Award for the Churchie National Emerging Art Prize (2017). In terms of projects, in 2022, Hayley presented Nyctinasty for the 4th National Indigenous Art Triennal: Ceremony at the National Gallery of Australia, and in that year too, she moved to Prato, in Italy, for a residency at Monash University Prato, where she has been working in upcoming projects too.
I Will Survive (2020), is an autobiographical project in which Hayley reflects about her memories of childhood, from her perspective as an adult:
"This project allows me to reflect upon the stories and experiences I have had when I was younger, which shaped me culturally in connection to my indigenous heritage. Looking back, all of the stories I was told, the things that I did and experienced, all shaped my identity."
In her overall work, she explores themes related to her own identity, which span from spirituality, womanhood and the psyche. Likewise, in I Will Survive, Hayley delves deeply into the stories of caution, superstition, survival, ghosts and hauntings that she got from her Aboriginal and migrant parents and grandparents. Looking back at these, Hayley analyses not only how these stories have contributed to who she is today, but how they accompanied her through growth and learning. Through intersections of herself with the past, Hayley created intimate black and white photomontages which engage with environments, landscapes, animals, plants, and references to family and ancestry. With the help of collage, she allows the work to be revisioned and reconstructed, almost creating surreal, yet realistic and "inspired-in-memory" situations.
It seems that often, we look at the past as an intrusive shadow that does not abandon us. In fact, a lot of people try to get away from the idea of "past", aiming to focus entirely on the present. It is interesting to see how instead of "running away", we can perhaps critically engage with it to understand ourselves - what we are currently living, how we are doing it, and who we became as individuals.
How does art connect us to ourselves and others?
In her work, Hayley aims to bring the viewers' experiences to the artwork. She says:
"I like people to be able to find themselves within my work. I always ask the audience to reflect or bring their own stories to my work to be able to connect deeper. I think that is one of the most beautiful things about art: to create a connection."
But in art, and in storytelling, it is perhaps relevant to note that portraying identity is not only intimate, but also personal: the artwork belongs and represents the artist and the artist's experiences. This means that it is necessary to recognise the role of the spectator in relation to the artwork, which can be done by positioning ourselves according to our own experiences and roles in the world. Recognising differences and having the self-awareness to think and understand these is also important in the process of connecting with both the artists and their artworks.
When someone creates and shares with others their own view of the world and their critical understanding of their past and present experiences, they put themselves in a vulnerable position. Our choices to engage with art, and other people's stories can, however, be purposeful. On the one hand, we can understand how our differences have been shaped, and therefore, how they still shape our existence in society. On the other hand, we adapt and readjust to our own realities, while learning to reflect and critically self-analyse.
After all, we are all still building our stories. And these are ever-changing. Some people turn to writing, others to photography, others to painting perhaps. Others may spend time reflecting and mentally assessing their lives. In the end, what is most meaningful is that, even if we do not fully understand ourselves, we can connect to one another through either experiences, questions, or art.
"It doesn't really matter how or when people find themselves, but I always ask the audience to stop, reflect, or even bring their own stories to my work to be able to connect deeper."
This article is the second of a series of articles called "Connecting Worlds and Identities Through Storytelling." This series aims to approach the art of storytelling through different lenses, featuring three different photographers and storytellers. Each of these articles has two topics in common: storytelling and identity; however, they all differ in perspectives and themes. Storytelling can be done in many different ways, and identity can be explored and approached in several ways too. This series explores the issues, the difficulties, but also the freedom that comes with telling stories. Whatever the story being told is.