Head On Photo Festival captures issues of the moment


Nearly two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, and Sydney’s 2021 Head On Photo Festival is faced with a double challenge that many artists are experiencing: of presenting work that addresses the virus and its impacts in emotive, original and insightful ways, while also exhibiting images devoted to the important contemporary issues of this moment.

Bringing together 100 exhibitions and works by 700 photographers from around the world to Sydney’s Eastern suburbs, Head On is successfully navigating this dualism. “We have work that has dealt with Covid in many different ways,” says Head On director Moshe Rosenzveig OAM, “ranging from straightforward documentary and fine art, to a fun and entertaining exhibition that touches on ‘lockdown craziness’ by American photographer Neil Kramer.

“Other than Covid-themed exhibitions, we found recurring themes on war and violence, the status of women in different societies, sexuality, and work relating to climate change. One stunning exhibition by Michaela Skovranova, End of the World, shows melting ice at the Antarctic Peninsula due to global warming.”

To keep the festival as safe as possible, Head On is taking place almost entirely outdoors at two central venues: Paddington Reservoir Gardens on Oxford Street (which Head On has used every year since 2010), and Bondi Beach promenade. The seaside Bondi has been allocated works that address environmental subjects, such as Skovranova’s show, or water, such as Johannes Reinhart’s Dreaming of Mermaids. Meanwhile Paddington Reservoir Gardens includes photographs with darker, sometimes even violent, themes (and this is being monitored for access due to the show’s public nature).

One of the undoubted highlights of Head On is the Australian premiere of the new series from American-born, South Africa-based photographer Roger Ballen, Roger the Rat. Though best known for his excitingly macabre works that straddle art brut, documentary photography and absurdism, Ballen’s newer works appear to have a slightly more impish, witty flavour.

Roger Ballen, Roger the Rat, ©️Roger Ballen, courtesy of Head On Photo Festival.


“Ballen’s new body of work is quirky and in a way more entertaining than usual, but it still has a strong ‘Ballen’ signature,” says Rosenzveig. “Roger the Rat represents the human consciousness, acting out his inner state of mind on every impulse. He lives in chaos and disorder in a world of societal norms, striving for purpose and stability. He personifies that which is feared, avoided and repressed, all with an eerie grin.”

Another headline exhibition is Disco Bugs from Australian photographer Bridgette Gower. A former DJ, Gower has photographed tiny insects and spiders in a manner informed by the colourful lights and ambience of nightclubs, each tiny beast becoming a ‘reveller’, as it were. “Disco Bugs portrays the joy and excitement of the miniature world of insects and spiders that live in our backyards,” says Rosenzveig. “The work departs from the tradition of scientific macro-photography into a more creative work full of weird creatures and very colourful backgrounds.”

In addition, a long-term documentary project from Younes Mohammad, Kurds’ Open Wounds has its world premiere at Head On, and is a series of sparse and minimalist portraits of people injured during war. “I get very emotional looking at these images,” says Rosenzveig. “The exhibition shares incredibly intimate portraits of wounded fighters and their families, documenting the sacrifices of Kurdish Peshmerga in the fight to put down ISIS. The series is compelling and shares a different perspective on war and its futility.”

Head On Photo Festival
Various Sydney venues
19—28 November

Feature Words by Barnaby Smith