Sarah Pannell

Sarah Pannell

Sarah is an Australian photographer who has spent time studying and living abroad in The Netherlands and the United States, as well as traveling around the world.

You received a degree in International Studies before getting one in photography. Had you always planned on a photo degree? I read that you started shooting in 2007-08, but how soon did it became something you knew you wanted to pursue at that level?

While studying political science and Middle Eastern studies during that degree I began looking at a lot of conflict and war documentary photo books, which triggered my direction towards photography. There was a natural inclination towards this growing interest and it was a nice realization, as a 21-year-old, to make that discovery and be able to merge these areas of my life. 

How did your classes (both I.S. and Photo) impact your work and thinking? 

There's always a few courses you take that motivate you more than others, and I was particularly taken by a Middle East conflict and resolution course which led me to where I am now in my photography. It's the news and films you watch, the books and journal articles you read, and the people you surround yourself with, that will shape your way of thinking.

In an interview from 2013, you said you were just starting to find your way as a freelance photographer. How has that been going? Did you relocate to America, too?

Since 2013, I have been able to establish a stable base in Australia for myself involving my freelance photography, which has kept me in country as well as giving me the freedom to travel more. I'm still open to the idea of moving overseas again. Returning to study in the next few years to do my master's is something that interests me. In which case, I would prefer to pursue that in Europe or North America. I've been pretty lucky to have a steady flow of freelance work, and it's led me to some great places. I was able to return the USA last year, and I spent some time in New York during the Art Book Fair at MOMA PS1, which was really fun and motivating to see so many people creating great things. 

You’ve traveled fairly extensively, including spending longer period of times in certain areas. From California to the Netherlands to Hong Kong - not to mention Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, and Turkey. How have all these places impacted you, your mindset, and your work?

Anywhere I go impacts me in a different way, and I'm really fortunate to have had endless positive experiences while I'm abroad, as well as traveling around Australia. Some spots, such as Turkey and Hong Kong, have pulled me back multiple times, and the Balkan (former Yugoslavia) states, as a region, really shook me up. I never studied the Balkan wars at university, but I was recommended a few good books about the breakdown of Yugoslavia and the 1990's war. So it was unbelievable to read about such horrors and then travel to these countries on the edge of Europe - which only 20 years prior were in the midst of violent conflict, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. This makes me consider my direction as a photographer and reflect on how important well-directed documentary photography can make an impact. Particularly in this digital, fast news age. 

Where do you want to spend time in next?

Recently, I spent a month in Iran, and I will be returning in early 2017 to continue developing a new personal project. Apart from Iran, Lebanon and Israel are two countries I would like to explore next. 

How do you decide on a theme for a project? 

It's hard to avoid the mindset that "everything has been done," but I think it's important to consider what needs attention and coverage while focusing on a theme that will interest people and trigger a response of some kind. 

Is Fresh Coat still an ongoing project? How much longer are you thinking you might spend on it? Can you talk about the concept?

Fresh Coat is a long-term study of the unlikely color and beauty of small-town Australia. It's ongoing for the reason that it's always in my head and is something that will take time. It involves a lot of small trips here and there, to new towns. I've made it my mission over the past 2-3 years to spend more time exploring my own country - which is so vast and requires spending a lot of time on the road. It's certainly influenced a lot by Stephen Shore's early work.

Are you still shooting on a Mamiya 7? What do you personally find to be the pros/cons balances of film vs. digital? 

Yes, I have no need to change my format. I don't really see any cons, aside from the monetary cost of film. Any artist or profession generally has overhead costs, so I would happily spend a budget on film, as it's pivotal to the quality and style of my work.

How would you describe your style?

I've heard others describe it as strongly influenced by Australian suburbia, much like the artist Howard Arkley. Composition, color and strong line work play a large role in my work stylistically; fused with a thematic focus on human geography. In a more traditional textbook sense, I consider myself a documentary photographer with a fine-art approach. However, this may seem too generic. 

Tell us about your interest in making photo books and where that desire comes from for you personally. Is it just being able to hold something tangible? 

The tangible aspect to photo books is definitely part of the appeal. Seeing work on a computer screen has its value, and there are clever ways to be successful in showing work in a digital format. However the printed format is a whole other approach, which I really love. You can be really creative in how you lay something out in printed form and both the traditional and more experimental photographic books interest me. Everyone has their own approach to photography and it's the diversity that keeps things interesting and boundaries being pushed. My latest self-published photo book, The Territories, released in 2015, took the form of a large-format poster book, with each page perforated so you could tear the full bleed prints out. It was good to be able to experiment with the photo book format like this, and present something that isn't so precious, and encourages physical interaction.

Are you still involved with the Asia-Pacific Phonebook Archive? 

I'm not directly involved in the same position as I was when APPA began, but I'm still connected closely as it's run by good friends of mine, and I will always be really proud of what the Archive has become and I love seeing it grow and the amazing titles on show.

Do you feel that the music you listen to translates into the photographs you create? If so, how so?

When I'm working at home, and when I'm on the road, music is really important to me. Subconsciously, it definitely has an impact, but I'm not sure how that translates exactly into my work. On my latest trip to Iran, I began shooting a lot more videos while incorporating the music that was playing off my phone. This added another dimension to the moving photograph style I was experimenting with and I can see myself doing more with this in the future.

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Interview by Jack Sommer

Jack Sommer