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Artist In Profile > Emma Thomson, Wild Child



Emma Thomson, Dubbo’s Artist-in-Residence, placed an ad in the Daily Liberal with the above text. Just last month, both she and a 19-year old model who responded to the ad, received death threats on their mobile phones. This scandal in the regional city of Dubbo soon became a national news item, polarising opinions and putting art at the heart of a wild debate. Interview by Estelle Pigot.


Can you tell us a little bit about your creative work, prior to the start of your Dubbo residency?

I attended the National Art School from 2004 – 2006, I completed an artist residency in Paris and did my Honours in 2008. After this, I exhibited in Sydney and in other states focusing on photography and moving image. I was the artist-in-residence at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery during 2010-2011.  

How do you feel about the opportunity to work in a regional community?

I was really excited to be funded by Museum & Galleries NSW and Copyright Agency Limited with the grant, it was quite an honour. I hadn’t really worked with regional communities before this. I don’t know much about regional communities, I had been in Sydney and suburban places so I didn’t really know what to expect.

Dubbo is beautiful, I love the region and it’s certainly cheaper than Sydney. I think the cultural centres are really important and are an important point of contact when it comes to educating young people about the power of art for telling a message and a story.

Your initial aim was to explore the popularity of the sport ‘pigging’ amongst women in Dubbo, is this still the theme of your work during the residency?

I have a friend who grew up in Darwin and she reads the NT news, there are some great images and funny stories in the pages, including photos of female hunters which she showed me. She asked if I had checked out this hunting magazine she reads which has a section on women hunters with images of them. It was an avenue that I hadn’t explored and thought would look quite interesting in portraits.

My original proposal suggested pig hunting, because the images I had seen were mainly of women posing who had gone pig hunting, but then things always change when you get out into the community, I put the ad in the paper and listening to the responses that came from it – “I hunt goat” and “I hunt deer” and on and on – that opened up the idea to include all kinds of game. I wanted to photograph women posing with their kill. What attracted me to the idea is that you see a lot of images of men hunting, but a female in the role is something really different. Most people haven’t seen that.

Previously, I had done a female only project – Amateur Girls (2010) – whilst living in Sydney. Being a female photographer and working with a female subject was interesting. I had put an ad in the paper calling for the kinds of models I wanted and I found that the women who responded to my ad were my age and it felt like we’re on more of a level ground, it was easy for us to work and communicate with each other because we were both female.

What do you aim to express with your images?

Overall, what I’m interested in is the desire for people in front of the camera and then for their image to be on public display. I’m looking at a sub-culture of society, and investigating that ‘need to be seen’. These days, with photography, technology and social media, the power of the image is quite strong, perhaps stronger than ever.

With the photo shoots, they provide an opportunity for people to be in front of the camera; something they want to do but haven’t had the chance before, and I try to capture the performance of the image. They bring their own ideas to the photo-shoot and what they want to wear, I don’t direct the costuming. We collaborate and see what works best with the pose. The models present themselves as they are.

It’s more of a feminist statement, I’m not selective about who they choose. It’s a comment about regional women and what are their roles today versus traditional female roles. I’m documenting something that some regional women are they doing; this is what this subculture is involved in. It’s exciting.

As you are participating in a residency in the regional city that houses NSW’s zoological treasures, did this influence your subject choices in any way?

I went to the zoo on my first day in Dubbo to check it out. It seems quite removed from what’s really happening in the community, other than just being a tourist destination. The zoo hasn’t really registered as an influence. But I do think it’s quite a scary idea if all those animals got out and into the streets in town.

You have attracted quite a bit of controversy since you have been in Dubbo, what has this been like for you as a professional artist?

A residency is a development phase. By living and working with the community, you gain more material to work with. The controversy has definitely fed into the development of my work. I didn’t expect it would cause this much of an issue. Of course, I knew that pig hunting is controversial, but it’s surprising because the critics haven’t even seen the final work.

I’m very interested in engaging with society. I get ideas from seeing what other people are up to. People’s different perceptions are interesting and while there is a lot of conversation coming from within the town, it’s also coming from urban environments like Sydney. From my point of view this is why art is important. To start a conversation and get people interested.

The media has suggested that your work glorifies animal cruelty; do you think the criticisms have any merit?

I think it’s fair for people to have their point of view and everyone is entitled to speak out about hunting. But my project is about women in the bush. I don’t condone animal cruelty. I didn’t invent hunting. This is an activity that goes on, which I am documenting, but it is not my intention to glorify it.  Did the critics think hunting didn’t exist before my photos?

I have spoken to the women about the ways they go hunting, but I haven’t been that close to it, personally. I’m meeting them after they have gone hunting. Before this project the only dead animals I’d seen were road kill. I’m fascinated that these women are comfortable being up close.

19-year old Katrina Byrnes modeled for your photos and subsequently was embroiled in controversy. Some threats suggested she deserved to be “burned alive”. What are your thoughts on the Facebook abuse she received and how she handled it?   

It was really barbaric. Fair enough, everyone in a democracy can have a point of view or direct a complaint through the gallery or lobby government, that’s their choice. But to personally attack the artist and the model is terrible. It’s harassment. I think she was quite shocked when she got a lot comments through Facebook. None of us were prepared for it and it seemed unfair that they attacked without seeing the final work.

I don’t think you can let these people bother the way you work, so I’m sticking to my original proposal. These people will always have their point of view, and it’s given me the chance to reflect and maybe do things differently, but my process has always been the same and it works for my projects. I put an ad in the paper and the way I find my models is a big part of it, I don’t think I will change that. I’m aware of the issues surrounding working with communities, but I couldn’t foresee the reaction we received. You’ve still got to make the work.

Andrew and Kent from the gallery have been a great support. They are fully supportive of the project and there has been no change in project since it has blown up in the media. You’re not making work for the audience. You’re making an artwork and then later you let the audience judge.

What is your personal opinion of hunting, now that you have spent time getting to these women?

Personally I wouldn’t go hunting, but I don’t live in the countryside. These women have grown up with it and around it. When I was younger, I went fishing a lot because I lived near the ocean, so I guess it depends on your surroundings. It’s a cultural activity; it’s a sport or form of entertainment. Maybe my view would change if I lived in the countryside for longer. Many of these women are hunting to protect their properties and stock.  You can see where they are coming from when they are doing it to protect their livelihoods.

Since I have been here, the townspeople have shared lots of stories with me about hunting they have done or that they know about. I’ve heard lots of memories of their encounters with feral animals. I have heard many sides to the story, but the necessity of hunting for farmers is a very common theme.

I’m presenting some of the long history of this culture and if there are meaningful conversations which follow afterwards, that’s my main aim. I’m very grateful that MGNSW [Museum and Galleries NSW] and CAL [Copyright Agency Limited] put this program in place so that artists have a substantial grant to research and make new work.


Image credit : “Rachel” (Emma Thomson, 2013)