Around The World In One City?

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My blog, 52 Suburbs came about when I was scouting for a new photographic project. I have always thought it odd that many people regard the world as fascinating but shut down when it comes to their own backyards, regarding them as ho hum and not particularly interesting. When I applied this thinking to my own city, Sydney, I realised I was just as guilty as anyone else — I had been drawn to many places overseas and constantly fantasised about travelling far away — but I was not very interested in Sydney. It felt like I’d stopped exploring it a long time ago and had been stuck instead in my own little patch for years.

So I got out a map and had a really close look at Sydney.

I was astonished to find that there were so many suburbs I’d never even heard of — like Canoelands. What on earth happens in Canoelands I thought?

Then there were the suburbs I had heard of — like Lakemba, Cabramatta and Cronulla — but only because of occasional negative press. What were they really like, I wondered, beyond the clichés?

Of the 600-plus suburbs that make up Sydney, I realised I knew only a handful of them well. The rest were foreign territory. Almost overnight I became intensely curious and settled upon a plan: to visit one new suburb every week for a year. One a week seemed realistic — although at one point I was considering one a day! — and a year seemed like a good amount of time to devote to the project.

I knew I wouldn’t have time for an in-depth study of each suburb so I needed a focus. I was convinced I could find beauty in the ‘burbs — beauty in this case meaning old, original, faded, or the repurposed and recycled. I was seeking the beauty in the ordinary and everyday, the stuff we all walk past without noticing on our way to the train station or shops. And, at the same time, I wanted to look for beauty in different people and their cultures.

I decided I’d share what I discovered on my travels through a photographic blog. Instead of presenting my photos as single images I wanted to present two photos side by side as diptychs with a caption as the third element. This would enable me to make a comment and tell a story without hitting someone over the head with the message. The diptychs could be humorous and light-hearted or more serious and thought provoking. Or they could just be two images that complemented one another through colour or composition.

Before I started the project, I thought that I would focus more on the built environment but I soon realised how large a role people play in making up the visual fabric of a suburb. So I started to include lots of people shots.

Early on, it occurred to me that I was taking photos of people in Sydney that many inner-city dwellers don’t see very often — either in the typical tourist shots of Sydney or on the streets in the city centre. For example, I ran into a Muslim man in Lakemba who had the brightest red beard and hair you’ve ever seen. So bright I spotted him a mile down the road. You could tell that it wasn’t his natural colour and that he hadn’t dyed his hair for fashion or fun. He explained it was a very old religious practice, not followed much anymore. I thought it was fascinating and I loved just how different he was to the typical image of an Australian.

Showing such difference is something followers of the blog enjoy, I think. As one person put it, it’s refreshing to see something positive and upbeat about suburbs such as Lakemba and Cabramatta rather than the usual drama-filled headlines.

Personally I’ve been amazed to discover just how diverse Sydney really is in terms of race and religion. It’s one thing to read about it and quite another to see it in action. For example, until I started this project, I had no idea just how thoroughly Muslims have made their mark on a suburb such as Lakemba. The main street is altogether unlike so many other main streets I’ve walked down, bordered by signs in Arabic and filled with women wearing the traditional hijab. Similarly, I was blown away by the large African community in Blacktown and how much Cabramatta reminded me of Hong Kong, where I grew up.

Almost every week I have one or two "you’re kidding me!" moments, where I come across something I find quite remarkable. I’m not sure how many people know, for example, that there are amazing Botanic Gardens in Auburn. It’s five minutes from the chaos of Parramatta Road and it’s quite beautiful with a Zen garden and sublime peacocks wandering around, shaking their feathers at every opportunity.

I think this is why 52 Suburbs has sparked so much interest, locally and overseas. This isn’t the glamourous beach or harbour version of Sydney as the postcards present it. It’s the hidden Sydney, the one that lives, loves and works beyond the clichés. And every week there’s another new part of Sydney that’s "discovered" and celebrated.

As one 52 Suburbs follower commented, who needs the rest of the world when you can travel to so many countries within Sydney — from Turkey and Lebanon to India, Vietnam and China.

Aside from all that, I experience great joy in finding beauty in the more ordinary aspects of suburbia. I’m a little obsessed, for example, with old iron fences, rusty garden gates and ceramic tiles on stairs. Fonts and typographical oddities of any sort always catch my attention, whether they are name signs on 1970s red brick buildings or etched into the glass doors of an old pub. The beauty in the ordinary is all the sweeter because it’s modest and uncelebrated.

In the end I hope to be less of a stranger in my own city. It all feels a little like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. Every time I add another suburb, the overall picture becomes a little clearer.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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