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Artist Interview: Eliza Gregory

Eliza Gregory is a portrait photographer, but more than that, she is one of those rare photographers who looks beyond the lens. These days, Eliza calls herself a social practice artist, though she still uses photography extensively in her projects.

Hanna and Hiba
24×30 inches.
Archival inkjet print

Eliza makes pictures through a collaborative process and frequently conducts interviews that she pairs with the images. Her work focuses on the relationships between people and places, and the role of cultural identity in contemporary society. A lot of her work has been photographing refugees from other parts of the world. Some of these people have moved to a radically new place without families, or friends. Eliza experiments with how to share stories using pictures, words and social interactions within a community.

Her work is powerful and non-judgmental, and she emphasizes relationship-building in her projects.

Joy and Hussey
24×30 inches.
Archival inkjet print

A couple of years ago Eliza and her husband were offered an opportunity to move to Melbourne, Australia for two years. So, Eliza and Ryan, excited for a new and exciting adventure, upped and moved to Melbourne. There, she in a way became a refugee, far from her California family, and got to work. She built a large-scale project in her neighborhood there which she called The Local, which included an exhibition. She paired that show with a second one of pictures of her family in the redwoods—a sharing of her own cultural identity even as she asked her friends and neighbors to describe theirs.

Eliza recently returned and had a baby girl, and currently lives in the San Francisco area. Here is her story.

I’d love to hear about your stay in Australia. Can you tell me about your experience there?

Ryan (my husband) and I lived in Melbourne for just under two years, and we had a fantastic time. It was very hard to leave! There were a lot of things that inspired me there. One was the social services available, and the way low-income housing is distributed. It seems that instead of everyone being piled into one neighborhood, there are many subsidized housing complexes—basically one in every neighborhood. That system still has plenty of challenges, but it meant that the neighborhood where I lived, Fitzroy, had a really broad range of people living in it, which was the foundation of the project I did there, called The Local.

Joy Boy and Uncle Donnie
24×30 inches.
Archival inkjet print

What about the differences or similarities between the U.S. and Australia?

Another thing I found really interesting and inspiring is how different the myths of national identity are in Australia and the US. I had this amazing conversation with an artist when I arrived, and he told me, “You have to understand, Australia is founded on myths of failure”. The Bourke & Wills expedition, which was searching for a “great inland lake” found no such body of water, and everybody in the party died. Contrast that with Lewis & Clark here in the U.S., and with the USGS expeditions, all of which were discovering and cataloging more and more water.

It is amazing to think that Australia is the size of the continental US, but with 20 million people living there as opposed to 300 million, and with a tiny fraction of the water that the US has. Australia is the driest continent in the world, in terms of rainfall. The harshness of the country also meant that individuals couldn’t survive that well—people really needed to form communities and work together to make a living. So both countries have a legacy of tough pioneers slowly taking over the continent (by killing and subjugating the indigenous population), but Australia’s history set the stage for a communal mentality among the colonials (which you could say led to today’s better social services) while the US’s history—and abundance of water—set the stage for the rags-to-riches, up-by-you-bootstraps, rugged individualism that informs so much of our national identity and national dialogue.

Rueben and Tegan
24×30 inches.
Archival inkjet print

I feel like I am so steeped in the American idea of “success” and how important it is in one’s life, that when I first encountered this notion of a national identity not focused on success, I was really confused. In Australia people talk about not liking the “tall poppy”—if one flower gets taller than the others in the field, it’s cut down. In the US, everyone is desperately trying to be the tall poppy.

So doing a community-oriented project in a country with a community-oriented ethos was really great. I got a huge amount of support for the project from both the people I met in Melbourne, and from my personal community back home.

Could you tell me a little about “The Local”?

The project I did was called The Local, and is comprised of a series of interviews and photographs with people from many different backgrounds, all living in the Fitzroy/Collingwood area of Melbourne. The project also included two exhibitions, a series of audio portraits made from the interviews, partnerships between me and a few local organizations, and a series of relationships between me and the participants in the project.

Was there something in Australia that interested you specifically?

My work has been about cultural identity and cultural adaptation for quite a while now. I’m also very interested in the relationship between people and places, and how that informs or creates culture. So Australia turned out to be a really natural place for me to keep working in those themes. They have the second largest refugee resettlement program in the world, after the US, and a long and complex legacy of immigration. And the immigration continues now, as well as a huge influx of foreign students studying at the universities there. And they have an indigenous population that has been successful in bringing issues of cultural difference, oppression, resource management, and the colonial legacy to the forefront of the national dialogue, in a way that we haven’t really experienced recently in the US.

Duc Toan Diep
24×30 inches.
Archival inkjet print

Was there any “aha” moment that helped you to change your work to the new environment?

The big “aha” moment in this project was moving away from grouping people according to one moniker like “refugee” and turning the same lens on everyone, in order to try and get rid of the “other” all together—make everyone both “the other” and not the other at the same time. I worked really hard (with a lot of help from Ryan) on refining the two questions that I asked everyone, so that they would be universally relevant but also yield really specific, interesting, personal answers. And I think they really accomplished that, which was one of the real successes of this project.

The other big step forward I took with this project was more clearly defining what I was asking for from the participants, and what I would be giving them in return. Creating more discreet, finite relationships and forms of exchange turned out to make both me and the participants more comfortable. It was a big relief to figure that out.

Now that I’ve had a little bit of time to reflect on this project, I am trying to figure out how to document the non-visual aspects of this work. That is one of the constant struggles of a social-practice artist—how do you communicate about art that is intrinsically intangible? So I’m hoping my next minor epiphany will be about how to tell the stories of the relationships I build and the experiences people have participating in these kinds of projects in a way that is accessible and compelling for an external audience.

For example, when the exhibition of the images and text and audio portraits produced during The Local happened in the neighborhood I lived and worked in, it was a huge hit. Everyone who participated in the project was invited, and they almost all came. The opening felt so awkward and amazing, with all sorts of people seeing themselves on the wall, and seeing each other on the wall, and seeing each other in the space, and aware that they were being celebrated in a way. It was kind of wild. It definitely felt unusual to me. But then, when I took the show to a festival in Sydney, it really lost a lot of its potency. People came and looked at the pictures, but the electric feeling, the generosity and excitement and the sense of reaching out across perceived boundaries, that was absent. It was dull! So I’m thinking a lot about how this kind of work can and can’t function outside of the context in which it’s made.

Anna and Neel
24×30 inches.
Archival inkjet print

Are there any photographers who inspire you, or you admire?

There are many photographers whose work I admire and who I look to for guidance or inspiration, icluding the work of Tina Barney. Studying with Mark Klett and Bill Jenkins in Arizona had a big impact on me, while studying with Emmet Gowin and Andrew Moore really shaped the way I approach the craft of picture-making and how I translate my interests into images.

How about other influences?

In school I studied literature and creative writing, so there are also a lot of writers I go back to again and again. Salinger is a big one! Anytime I really want to get excited about making things again, I re-read Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters! and Seymour, An Introduction. I also stumbled upon Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion a couple of years ago, and that’s become another favorite. I’ve always been a huge Faulkner fan. And I’ve also become totally obsessed with Sherman Alexie, and I’m trying to make my way through all his works. For me, he has the strongest and most exciting voice right now in fiction.

So, what are you up to now?

I am back in school again—I’m in the Art + Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University, so this year my courses and the time I’m spending with the program directors, Jen Delos Reyes and Harrell Fletcher, are having a huge impact on my thinking, and my ability to articulate the non-visual components of my work. Over the next two years I’m going to be editing a book about photo-based social practice as well as participating in a lot of collaborative projects. This program puts on a social practice conference every year called Open Engagement, so I was really involved in putting that on in May, and I will be again in 2013 and 2014.

Matt and Steve
24×30 inches.
Archival inkjet print

Now, with a baby, and going back to school, and knowing you how you always have something going on, are there any projects that you are thinking about now?

Heaps! (As I’d say if I were still living in Melbs.)

I want to get The Local going in other cities, in collaboration with institutions. I have also partnered with a Melbourne-based graphic designer to create a zine from some of the quotations in The Local.

Now that I’m living in California, I want to make a project that will let me explore an aspect of my home state that I haven’t delved into before. Food, food production and the natural environment are really big parts of California’s identity, and so that’s what I’m gravitating toward as a topic. I’m in the initial stages of a project about the social infrastructure of agriculture in the Western US, primarily in CA.

Pregnancy! It was so weird to get pregnant and realize I knew nothing much about what was happening to me, or what could happen. (I was like, “You can be nauseous for 9 months? WHAT?!”) And it made me realize—at other times and in other places, I might have been exposed to childbearing throughout the course of my life, but somehow I have been cordoned off from babies and pregnant women for most of my life so far. Now suddenly I am totally immersed in baby-related stuff, and it just seems unnatural. A desert, and then a flood. I feel like it’s another red flag about the unhealthiness of our society, that we know so little about the physical processes that lead to life, and also those which take away life. We just don’t spend much time really thinking about the beginning or the end, and so I see an opportunity there to start a conversation (and also to share some animal facts).

I’m currently working on all the things I wanted to do when I was pregnant and nauseous and couldn’t do anything! I feel like I’m standing in front of a buffet with my eyes glinting. I’m trying to figure out where to begin.

Follow the links of each photograph, and listen to the subjects talking about sexual identity as a component of cultural identity, national identity, being part of the mainstream, marrying someone from a different cultural background, and what it means to be indigenous.

 Selected Websites:

 Eliza Gregory

The Local

“Interviews with Joi Arcand and Paul Chaat Smith. Both these interviews were part of a course I took on Contemporary Native American Art with artist Wendy Redstar. AWESOME course. The blog is a database of contemporary North American Indigenous artists and curators and each semester the course adds to it. Each student is responsible for conducting and editing an interview. I think it’s such a great teaching model.”

Quotations from The Local project.


  1. Lisa Marie Sipe (Reply) on Thursday 16, 2012

    I love where you are taking your work Eliza! The audio bits add a completely new dimension to your photography. Good luck with your MFA, I can’t wait to see where it takes you!