Joe Ruckli, photographer and visual storyteller, Lord Mayor’s Photographic Awards

Play, chance, experimentation – these aspects of falling in love with photography can dim, particularly when you transition your craft into a profession. It’s important to protect this and cultivate it ...

Whether pre-planned or spontaneous, the simple act of capturing a photograph can turn the emotions and stories of a single moment into something tangible and shareable. The power of the still image has remained potent since the first black-and-white exposures through to chance snaps going viral across social media. Although time and place has a role to play in every image captured, the art of photography is one that requires dedication and a level of creative intuition to master. Joe Ruckli has been honing his photographic practice over the years, preferring to use his art form as a way of conveying stories. In 2018, Joe won the Open Category of the Lord Mayor’s Photographic Awards – taking top honours with his candid slice-of-life depiction of everyday Brisbane. Submissions for the 2019 edition of Lord Mayor’s Photographic Awards are currently open, so to help spur a bit of motivation for those photographers amongst you debating on sharing your work, we spoke to Joe about the awards, his practice and his advice on building a career in photography.

We’d love to start right at the beginning – where would you say your love of photography and still images first began?
I always enjoyed cinematography during my film and television studies in school, and as a bored kid I would often stay up late watching arthouse films on SBS. Many of the films were international with foreign dialogue, so I loved trying to make sense of the narrative through the visuals alone. I’m hopelessly film illiterate now – both technically and culturally – but I think those formative years helped develop my eye. 

Did you start your career with any key areas of interest that you wanted to explore?
I’m drawn to telling stories and I think my work will always be concerned with creative non-fiction.

What are some of the biggest influences on your work, overall?
A very difficult question! There is a key suite of practitioners that I’m deeply inspired by, particularly those who work in an expanded documentary context. Practitioners like Taryn Simon, for example, who traverse the line between the observed and the orchestrated, fact and fiction, action and consequence. I’m reminded of her series, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar. In the book, she photographs sites, objects and people of significance that are otherwise invisible or outside the public corridor. One photograph features the cabin where US astronauts spend their final days with family before taking off into space. It’s a simple, visually understated picture, but also incredibly moving at the same time. You start to imagine and project the conversations in that cabin before lift-off – the sense of excitement and anxiety. At the same time, the picture almost concedes its own inadequacy and impossibility of fully capturing these feelings by only giving us the view from outside. The brevity of this interview won’t allow me to do justice to such work, but viewing it may offer a window into the powerful paradoxes, possibilities and pitfalls of photography.

In your opinion, what can a photograph convey that can’t be captured in any other medium?
I’m more drawn to what photography is, rather than what photography can convey. Light and time are photography’s raw materials, which I think can make it a rather profound, almost magic discipline. It’s equally true that photography is thought of as the most trivial art form – it’s the stuff of greeting cards, insurance records and snapshot reminders of where you parked your car. The smart photographer celebrates and exploits these contradictions.

Last year you took top honours in the Open Category at the Lord Mayor’s Photographic Awards. What encouraged you to participate?
I’ve had several friends and colleagues enter and take out places over the years, so I was inspired to enter. It’s great to look through the entries and see so much Brisbane talent.

What do you like most about your entry ‘A chance moment of theatre on the street’, and what slice of Brisbane life do you think it captures?
Like much of street photography, it is a confluence of serendipity and patience. The existing public artwork ‘dressed the set’ so to speak, and I felt if I waited long enough, the right character would candidly enter the public stage. The anticipation of making the picture is perhaps more special to me than the picture itself. I enjoy that a yellow umbrella and green bag can break through the banality to create a touch of whimsy. 

What are some of the biggest challenges about being a professional photographer today?
It depends on what you seek to achieve. It’s never been easier to make and share photographs, nor harder for those photographs to find some resonance with others. Every inch of the world and every moment of our lives has been represented photographically, more ubiquitously so than any other medium. It’s exciting but also numbing. To stand out, photographers must very distinctively author their work, both subject and visual language.

What words of advice would you impart on budding photographers looking to navigate the industry?
I’m still an emerging practitioner myself, but the ‘honeymoon’ phase of bringing the viewfinder to my eye has faded a little. When I make work now it is much more cerebral and less intuitive now. Play, chance, experimentation – these aspects of falling in love with photography can dim, particularly when you transition your craft into a profession. It’s important to protect this and cultivate it. 

Finally, as a Brisbane local, what are some of your favourite spots to shoot, eat, drink and play?
I’m not very fussy when it comes to haunts to eat and drink, and I’ll shoot wherever my projects take me. I’ve recently been introduced to bouldering and have become completely obsessed. There’s also a whole community of photographers that make very clever climbers. The wall is a great space to get out of your head and into your body.

Submissions are currently being accepted for the Lord Mayor’s Photographic Awards, with registration open until 4:00 pm on Wednesday August 7. Click here to enter, or to simply marvel at last year’s winners, click here.


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