In 2011 I photographed train commuters on their way to work in Sydney.

The work was beautiful but I had felt foolish photographing them.

Passers-by, more curious than wanting to reproach me for invading peoples’ privacy/acting like a terrorist, 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), Head On offered me a gallery.

In my former life I was an accountant and so, on having got 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 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 and spent $4000 on getting 19 images framed, paying for the gallery space, getting flyers printed, paying for opening night drinks, and etc…

One image sold on the opening night to a couple I had never met. 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).

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 in Head on 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 and I and six students spent 8 sessions in June photographing St Marys with an exhibition of all our work to be held in November.

The exhibition during Head On 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 2000 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 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 resulted in enquiries for a book.

So would I recommend exhibiting in Head On? Absolutely.

But what about just attending a Head On workshop?

I attended the one day Head On 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 Davies 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.

As a result of exhibiting in Head on 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.

So would I recommend exhibiting in Head On? Absolutely.

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Head On Photo Awards 2024

Entries to the Head On Photo Awards 2024 open in May/June.

Image detail: Gary Ramage