Fraud Blocker

Is it worthwhile exhibiting as part of the Head On Photo Festival?

By John Slaytor

This article was originally published at

In 2011 I photographed train commuters on their way to work in Sydney. The work was beautiful but I had felt foolish photographing them.

Curious passers-by wanted to know when the exhibition would be. I mumbled that there would be an exhibition. But I had no idea when, where, or even if.  I was an unknown photographer and my images were of anonymous people, who appeared often troubled or despairing, and the idea that a gallery would want to exhibit such “anonymity” seemed unlikely, especially at a time when art galleries were closing all over Sydney and it seems that to get anywhere one either needs to be a “name” or photograph a “name” or, best of both worlds, be a famous photographer photographing someone famous!

I applied to Head On when it called for exhibition proposals and to my surprise and relief (bearing in mind I had told passers-by there was to be an exhibition) I was offered a gallery.

In my former life I was an accountant and so, on being given the gallery space I was immediately concerned about the cost of mounting an exhibition. Could it be justified? I didn’t have the answers so I wondered whether my exhibition would be anything more than vanity publishing. But then I remembered all those freezing winter mornings when I photographed the early morning trains. I thought about the positive response of friends and family to my images. I also remembered the strong reputation of Head On. If Head On thought it fit to take up my proposal, why should I doubt my work?

So, I put my accountancy mind to rest and I committed to the exhibition. I spent $4,000 framing 19 images, paying for gallery space, printing flyers and paying for opening night drinks.

People were enthusiastic about the works and my thoughts behind the work (I mounted a few paragraphs about the works as well as a technical explanation for those people interested in that kind of thing). One image sold on the opening night to a couple I had never met.

Ultimately six works were sold during the exhibition – all to people I didn’t know (so the nightmare scenario of walking into my parents’ house and seeing my six images never eventuated). Another three images sold after the exhibition.

This meant financially, the exhibition had broken even (and I was left with ten framed images). The accountant and artist were appeased. But was that all I had accomplished?


The exhibition had made me believe I had an artistic voice, one that people were prepared to pay to hear. Now, my self-doubt still exists but it is no longer deafening since I can hear a quiet but persistent inner voice telling me to photograph what is important to me.

The exhibition also opened doors. When I went into a Paddington art gallery, I discovered my work had preceded me: attendees at my exhibition had told the gallery owner about me which meant the gallery was amenable to taking the conversation further.

The exhibition also opened wallets. Penrith City Council wanted a photographer to photograph an outlying suburb of Penrith, St Marys, and mentor six students. My new found reputation led Penrith City Council to contact me. I spent eight sessions with six students in June photographing St Marys with an exhibition of all our work held in November.

The exhibition also found me an audience across the world. The American blog, The Online Photographer, discovered me and featured my work in its “Random Excellence” column. All of a sudden my website, launched the week before, went to 2,000 hits a day and I received inquiries from people wanting to purchase prints. In the comments to the blogpost, I discovered at least one Sydneysider who thought my exhibition was the highlight of the Head On Photo Festival. The blogpost and subsequent one produced a mass of comments and made me realise my work struck a chord, not just in Sydney but elsewhere. My work then featured on other blogs, including one from Denmark which again resulted in enquiries for a book. Following this interest I photographed the train commuters in 2012 and I am now investigating how to publish a book of the commuter images.

So would I recommend exhibiting in Head On? Absolutely.

But what about just attending a Head On workshop?

I attended a one day seminar at Bondi Pavilion and heard luminaries such as National Geographic photographer David Alan Harvey speak. I also heard Alan Davies, the photographic curator at the State Library of NSW, speak. I had sent an email to Alan the day before the seminar, attaching some of my commuter images, since the topic of Alan’s talk was selling your images to the State Library. During the talk, Alan mentioned that he had received an email from some guy and that the images were not wanted by the library. However, he said that whilst the commuter images hadn’t interested him, my email signature, which mentions my funeral photography, was.

The State Library subsequently bought 20 of my images from wakes and funerals and when I contacted the families for their consent, I was reminded that my images were very much valued by them and that they were pleased to be in the State Library’s collection. So this one day seminar opened doors and let me down roads I hadn’t even anticipated. It also proved financially rewarding, led to some good networking opportunities and gave me renewed confidence in my funeral photography business.