Buzz Gardiner is an Australian-Solomon Islander photographer whose work encompasses portraiture, still life, interior/food and fashion. Born and raised in Vanuatu, Gardiner relocated to the Gold Coast, Australia at sixteen to complete his education. This amalgamation of cultural influences is strikingly clear in Gardiner’s work, which focuses on the balance between assimilation and holding onto cultural identity.
Gardiner’s calm and moody portraits of the Melanesian diaspora challenge the perceptions of his people and the way in which they have historically been presented through the ‘white gaze.’ Historical narratives of the islands either being destinations full of violence and struggle or an ‘untouched paradise’ are challenged through the incorporation of contemporary clothing paired with traditional artefacts and jewellery while his subjects are captured expressing a soft vulnerability that has rarely been associated with the Melanesian diaspora.
Gardiner’s work is showcased as part of the Walking Through the Darkness exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Photography until 10th September.
In this Colour Box Studio interview, Gardiner discusses the importance of creating ‘counter archives’ to better represent Melanesian heritage, the power of solitude in the creative process and his upcoming collaborative project with photographer, Alana Holmberg.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.
My name is Buzz Gardiner. I am a Photographer born in Vanuatu to a mother from the Solomon Islands and father from Australia. My work is mostly research based, sometimes about identity, sometimes about decolonising, sometimes about the diaspora, sometimes about history – but always about Melanesia.
Where did you grow up and how has it influenced your practice?
I grew up in Port Vila, Vanuatu. I’d say it is almost entirely responsible for the direction and intent behind my practice. After a lot of discovering and learning I began to better understand photography and what makes a good photograph. This led to me looking at how the islands have been portrayed visually up to that point, and the composite of what I saw did not resonate with me. The photographs were technically well done but I felt the message and portrayal was off. This was the point where I pivoted towards what my practice is now. If I hadn’t grown up in the islands I would probably be a mediocre street/landscape photographer with a lot less burnout.
Who or what inspires your practice?
Lately I have been taking inspiration from the sampling culture in HipHop. Taking instruments or vocals from an old piece of music and reworking into something new. When done with intention, this can hold a very powerful message. My favourite example is Jay Z’s ‘The Story of OJ’, which samples vocals from Nina Simones ‘Four Women’ which provides a portrait of the legacy of slavery through shades/features of blackness – “my skin is black… my skin is yellow… my skin is tan…” Jay’s song touches on the erasure (attempted) of personal black identity by those who reach stardom / riches / are praised by the white world – “I’m not black I’m OJ”. Jay comments on how fickle this can be and how quickly you can be reminded that you are black in a white world. (Shoutout Dissect podcast for doing all the analysing.) My recent project ‘Banyan Coast’ takes inspiration from this by overlaying parts of images (people/artefacts) of Melanesia held by Museums and NGO’s, onto images taken by me to create a counter archive.
In terms of photography, I never leave for a shoot without looking at the work of Bharat Sikka, Gordon Parks or Gregory Halpern. I never put out a project without looking at the work of Lisa Hilli, to make sure I haven’t strayed too far from her standard. I believe she is currently the mark for Melanesia. Her work here: https://lisahilli.com/
Where do you feel most creative and why?
Solitude. Unadulterated solitude. I find that isolation allows me to enter a sort of flow state of creativity, one where I can fully process thoughts and develop ideas. I’d love to say out in nature or something cool, but my most creative environment is locked in a room with no indication of another human nearby (is this anxiety?). I obviously love being out shooting with people/approaching strangers, and while this is also a state of creativity, it is more of an instinctive creativity.
What do you hope audiences take from your work?
For anyone that has not heard of Melanesia or the Solomons or Vanuatu, I hope to change that. For anyone that does know of these places, I hope that my work shows something other than the two extremes that have been shown historically: Struggle/violence or beautiful ‘untouched’ paradise (a white sandy beach with no one around). While these two portrayals are not untrue, there is so much life that happens in between. My images of home are these small moments that don’t seek to sell or say anything, except that life happens here.
What gets you through creative challenges or tough industry times?
Absence does. But I’m in a period where I don’t feel comfortable being absent so I practice partial absence. This just means that I focus on some other aspect of the work. There are several aspects that make up this photographic practice. There is the shooting, there is the editing, there is the research and there is the writing. So if I begin to feel fatigued from writing about a project, I will allow myself to go out with my camera and just take photos (substitute any of the above here).
What future projects are you looking forward to?
‘Getting there is Half the Fun’ is a collaborative project I am currently working on with good friend and incredible photographer Alana Holmberg. It looks at tourism in the Pacific and we plan to exhibit it in 2024.
Kastom Keepers is not a project of mine but I am so happy to have been brought on board to handle the documentation for the project. Kastom Keepers is a project by brilliant Solomon Islander Millicent Barty, which aims to promote climate action centred on Indigenous Melanesian wisdom. Milly is an Emerson Collective Fellow and you can read more about her and the project at: https://www.emersoncollective.com/persons/millicent-barty
Whose work are you digging at the moment?
This past year I have had the opportunity to work with some very smart curators, so I have developed a real appreciation for that practice. For that reason I am very excited about the work of Jocelyn Flynn, who is an emerging writer and curator with Melanesian (PNG) heritage. To have a talented wantok curator/writer in this contemporary visual space brings me joy. She was on the curatorial team for Mare Amoris | Sea of Love now showing at The University of Queensland Art Museum, until January 2024. You can see her writing here: https://www.jocelynflynn.com/about/exhibitions-gnwsx
Where can we find and follow you online?
Buzz Gardiner will appear in conversation with filmmaker and founder of Colour Box Studio, Amie Batalibasi, as part of the Walking Through the Darkness exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Naarm/ Melbourne, Saturday 9th September, 2pm, free event. More information here.