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Photography as Empathy

Head On raises awareness not only for photographers but for the important issues they explore, writes Jagath Dheerasekara.

I chiefly explore vulnerability and conflict in my work. I mean conflict not as war. It traces back to my past as an human rights defender in Sri Lanka. The fact that I am alive today, I believe, is a mere coincidence if not a miracle. Very few people would come out alive from the torture chamber where I was kept in Sri Lanka.

My being there was related to picture taking, disseminating information about happenings on the ground, networking with people who were documenting human rights violations in the late ’80s in Sri Lanka as a key member of Students for Human Rights – a grass roots human rights group led by student movement. My life often went through extremely vulnerable phases. Some with the potential to cause permanent scars.


It made sense for me to explore this. Picture taking is very much an emotional need for me. The foundation of my picture taking is empathy. I moved to Australia in 2008. Just before I left Sri Lanka I completed a body of work entitled Victims/Survivors which was an investigation of burn victims and gender related violence. That work helped immensely to raise funds to build new rehabilitation therapy unit. As soon as I came to Australia I wanted to explore the issues faced by Aboriginal people.

As I made Aboriginal friends and started meeting non-Aboriginal activists I was exposed to the Muckaty (Manuwangku) issue. Muckaty (Manuwangku) traditional owners were struggling to keep
their traditional land free from nuclear waste. I made contact with them and I saw their struggle as one of overwhelming conflict and resilience. Amnesty International through their Human Rights Innovation Fund and Beyond Nuclear Initiative helped me. But another challenge still stood in the way: how would I exhibit the images?

I was not a known photographer here and the content of these images is something of out of sight and out of mind. From the Community’s point of view it was an absolute immediate necessity. I applied for exhibition space through Head On and their response was quick and positive. Manuwangku: Under the Nuclear Cloud was hosted at the Customs House – the 2012 festival launch venue which attracted a crowd of 2,000 who saw my images. A highlight was that Muckaty (Manuwangku) Traditional Owners came too. Head On and Customs House gave the Traditional Owners an opportunity to speak at the opening. It was rather a radical decision by any standard: real people, real voices and their images came together at Customs House.

Thanks to this exhibition the Muckaty (Manuwangku) issue received substantial media coverage. It was a huge boost to the campaign run by the community to stop nuclear waste coming to their traditional land. The visitors comment book was a great testimony to the amount of exposure it reached and overwhelming support of the public it generated. As a result my Muckaty (Manuwangku) images (along with my other related images) are now in the permanent exhibition installation at the Indigenous Australians Gallery in the Australian Museum. The travelling exhibition became an integral part of campaign the Traditional Owners’ campaign to stop nuclear waste coming to their traditional land. My Head On exhibition also helped find the next venues for future shows in Adelaide, Canberra and Brisbane. The show at Customs House helped me immensely to find initial support and funding for my ongoing work – In Outskirts of Australian Dream – which explores vulnerability and shelter.

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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