Dr Kelvin Lau (Ph.D, M.D) is a photographer, ex-mental health GP and researcher living between Foster on Gunaikurnai/Bunurong Country and Naarm (Melbourne). His PhD (completed 2017) used photo-interviewing techniques to understand how mental distress was constructed and understood by young people from trans-cultural backgrounds, and how this impacted upon their engagement with mental health services. His current photographic practice follows on from this research, drawing upon critical auto-ethnography to explore how the self, personal lived experience, and family histories intersect with broader cultural discourses and hegemony within Australian society.
In this conversation Kelvin discusses his PhD research, the process of translation as a mental health clinician between what a patient says and what their inner experiences are (and how photographs can help or hinder), what it’s like to switch from being a Melbourne-based GP to a photographer in a regional location, the difference in pressure (and pay) between being an artist and a doctor (spoiler alert: one is life or death, one is not; one pays well, one does not), and how “the tyranny of the camera” influences his photographic practice.
Download PDF 140 KB
Kelvin Lau: My name is Kelvin Lau. I prefer him and his pronouns. I am currently living in Foster in South Gippsland, but also have a base in Melbourne. I have a background in medicine and health. I have worked as a GP for many years but have more or less retired from that role and have been working as a full time photographer, a commercial photographer. And also I guess you could say a journalist, for the last ten months, covering the local region.
Thembi Soddell: Ok. When you say journalist, what does that mean, exactly?
Kelvin: I’ve been working as a contributor to some local magazines, and so I’ve been conducting interviews and writing feature articles for those magazines. So I do both. Yeah, but that’s only been happening probably in the last three to four months. So it’s a combination of interviews and photographs. Environmental portraits and location work.
Thembi: Oh, cool. And so what is your background in photography, just like how long you’ve been working, or what type of photography, that kind of thing?
Kelvin: Certainly. So I started taking an active interest in photography when I was in high school, so I would say that I’m mostly self-taught, so since about the age of 14, and I did formal training in commercial photography and photographic techniques in 2003/2004, and it really didn’t sort of get into photography as a full time career until this year, well, last year, 2020. But I’d been doing sort of part time and casual photography jobs whilst at the same time doing my own thing when time permitted.
Thembi: Ok, cool. So now can I just ask what your background in medicine is?
Kelvin: Okay, so I graduated from med school in 1997, so my background has been beginning in critical care and emergency medicine. And then I moved to general practice in 2005, so I’ve been working as a GP since 2005.
Thembi: Ok, cool. And you specialize… well, when did you start specializing in mental health GP work?
Kelvin: Probably around, hmm, I think I started doing what they call level two training in mental health… woah, say, this has been a while… probably about 2008/2009, and that really just came from a need. Like, it sort of came about when the government’s 10 session thing, whatever that’s called, came in. It used to be 12 sessions plus another six, if you needed. Then they cut the funding to five plus five, and they needed GP’s as part of that initiative. Yeah, I think it was 2008, and then I yeah, when I started doing my Ph.D., which I honestly can’t remember when I started, I think it was 2015, maybe then I started working with Headspace part time while I was doing that.
Thembi: Is there anything in particular that drew you to mental health besides just the government needing more GPs?
Kelvin: I think I got into it because when I was working in general practice, when I started off work, I noticed it was like a significant proportion of my caseload, so it was definitely a need. I was working out of metropolitan and I would say, you know, anecdotally, probably twenty per cent of my presentations were mental health related, or had a significant mental health component. I think that kind of correlates well with the stats from Bureau Statistics, like it is about one in 20 or one in five, or something like that, prevalence in the community. And I just felt that, it seemed like I was doing a reasonably good job, getting good feedback from the people I was looking after. And it kind of snowballed from there, where people were coming to me instead of seeing other GPs, because they were quite happy with the assessment and service I was providing. So that’s kind of where it led from.
Thembi: Cool. Well, you know that like, one of the key reasons I’m really curious to talk to you is about your Ph.D research, both kind of the findings that you found during it, and also just like if it’s influenced your photographic practice now. And also even just like what the transition is like between working as a mental health GP and photographer. So just so people know what this research project is, could you just give a kind of brief introduction to the project?
Kelvin: Okay, it’s been a while since I’ve done the elevator spiel!
Thembi: Haha yeah I know, it’s one of the hardest questions.
Kelvin: Okay, so. Oh gosh. So my project, uh, I wanted to look into how young people, as in defined between the ages of 16 to 25, conceptualize understandings of mental health. Like, how they sort of understood their experiences of distress, without the sort of, like a presumption of how we would explain it from a clinical perspective. So, wanting to hear from their perspective, how they would define and describe those experiences of distress, and also to try and use visual methods to, you know, to, I guess, augment the traditional method of, you know, talking and hearing about what those experiences are through words and photography. Given that was something I was interested in, I wanted to see how using photography as a visual means to mediate that communication would go in this research setting.
Thembi: Mm-hmm. And so in terms of how useful you found that as a tool, was it different to what you found in a clinical setting where you were only using words? Or, yeah, was it a useful tool, I guess is the question?
Kelvin: Yeah, I think it was a useful tool from the point of view that it resulted in greater depth of narrative, much more complex stories and descriptions. It also helped with the engagement, with speaking with the young people that I was researching and doing research with. But it also was very resource intensive, both in time and the cost of materials and also, I think, the familiarity and expertise or experience with those materials, with the medium that is needed for both the people, you know, both the people involved in the research. The subjects, so to speak, you know, the interviewee and the interviewer. So yeah, that was one of the things that I found. And it also, it was important to, you know, I found that it was important to not come into the research with assumptions of what photography is and what photography can provide, and to keep an open mind with, you know, the limitations of that visual medium.
Thembi: Yeah, Ok. So when you say it was quite, um, I can’t remember the words you used, but that it’s quite intensive in terms of like, needing materials and stuff. What kind of materials were they? Because, you know, I think if everybody’s kind of got a phone that they can maybe take snaps on and stuff like that, but was it a different process than doing that?
Kelvin: Yes. I think I wanted to refer to resources in the broader sense of the term. I think time was probably the most difficult, or most difficult resource to access. So finding the time to tee up an interview, tee up an appointment. And also it was very time consuming for the young person who is doing the photography. They had to set aside time to take photographs and create them and then kind of curate them and create a story around those images. So it was quite a lot to ask for the people involved, giving them, you know, a lot of homework so to speak. So there’s the time factor, the commitment of the subjects, and then when it came to equipment, phones could be used. You know, they were using all sorts of different varieties of devices. It wasn’t so much access to the device as it was how they were using the devices. And as you probably know, there are sort of ethical boundaries within academic research, where particularly with a very sensitive area such as mental health, as researchers, you know, well, as a researcher, I had to set boundaries for how these images were to be published. And so it was very important to clarify how the images were going to be used, but also to accept the fact that these young people were creating these images, and it was very likely that these images might actually be posted on their own social media. And so there were ethical questions about, well, is it appropriate to ask them to take photos about sensitive topics and then not have control over, you know, whether the sensitive images might then be published in an open environment where they might be used, and potentially harm those subjects without them actually being aware of it. So these were sort of major questions that I then had to look into, you know, in the sort of preparation stage, and then set boundaries, or at least provide guidelines on how to create and publish images.
Thembi: Mm-hmm. And do you think that if this kind of technique was used within a clinical setting, that would maybe not be as much of a problem? Or is it like, is it specific to research? And when I say clinical, perhaps even just in a creative setting, like if an artist is doing a project with people with, you know, so-called mental illness, do you have thoughts around that? Yeah.
Kelvin: Hmm. I think using a visual medium in, uh, particularly for photographs in a clinical setting, (so for example, clinical assessment for history taking) I think it can be useful, but there are lots of hurdles that need to be clarified from both legal and ethical perspectives. So I might give you an example, just a hypothetical. So let’s say a clinician, whether it’s a counselor or a doctor or whoever, asks their client, “could you please take some photos before our next appointment so that you can talk about them and show me, you know, your surroundings or what’s going on, to help clarify why you’re feeling so unwell?”. They might come back with some very surprising images of, just hypothetically, it could be substance use, or other illegal activity or, you know, possibly signifiers of the abuse. And then it kind of opens up a can of worms. Well, first of all, as a clinician, did they have to, or are they obliged to, act on those images based on what their assumptions of those images mean? And then also recordkeeping and privacy, where do those images go? Do they need to be part of the medical record? Then also, they’ve asked the client to create these images and maybe the client has then decided, oh I’m going to upload these to my social media, and it might be like a 14 or 15 year old who isn’t fully aware of the implications of doing such an activity. And so that might result in further harm. So these are all just examples of issues where using an image is very different to just talking and, you know, asking for a spoken narrative.
Thembi: I mean, part of what you mentioned there is that there may be images of abuse or images of substance use, but wouldn’t people mention that through words as well, like when you’re talking with patients? Surely that’s mentioned.
Kelvin: It is, but I think the difference is to do with ownership of those images, and also how those images may be used and stored. So, yeah, I think yeah, it’s unclear. So, for example, like if I was personally going to do that for someone I was seeing as a clinician, I probably would not be using or keeping a copy of those images and then putting them onto my office computer in the medical records. But it might be different for another clinician who may choose to do that. So it’s an area that, I mean, it’s not a regular thing that I’m aware of, that it’s done in clinical practice. But if it was something that were to be done in future, like it’s promoted as a clinical assessment tool to ask clients to create images, I mean, maybe this is what is done in art therapy? I don’t really know much about how it’s done in art therapy and what kind of protocols they do there. But for a general clinician, like a doctor or a psychologist, I’m not aware of the set guidelines or set ways of managing these kinds of media.
Thembi: Do you think that it would potentially be a useful tool, if you’ve got the ethical things sorted out?
Kelvin: Perhaps if the clinicians had a good theoretical basis of how to use visual media as part of clinical assessment.
Thembi: So you don’t think the average doctor would be good at that? Only if they’ve got like sort of understanding of art, essentially?
Kelvin: That’s correct, or at least, you know, theories behind visual communication.
Thembi: Do you think like, I mean, I guess I don’t know much about theories around visual communication, and like, would participants know that as well? Like, what role did that play in your research?
Kelvin: I don’t think participants are aware of it, and it’s not really their, um, like it’s fine that they’re not aware of these kinds of theoretical aspects because, you know, the whole idea behind my research was to understand what subconscious theories they were applying when they were creating these images. I was hoping to challenge the assumption that, you know, using a photograph could then provide some kind of objective evidence of what’s happening in this other person’s life, as a very kind of scientific way of gathering evidence. Some previous papers that I’ve looked into, where researchers had used photographs that were created by their participants, then subsequently analyzed these images like some form of visual evidence. And that’s not how I approached it. I approached it as, they’re using the camera and the photograph simply as, I guess just a different way for self-exploration, but the product itself was not objective evidence. The product was simply just a signifier of their experiences, you know, in a metaphorical symbolic fashion which then they could use to subsequently reinterpret those experiences. Does that make any sense?
Thembi: Oh it makes heaps of sense. I have done a little bit of reading around, yeah, when you know, psychiatrists or clinicians take an artwork and then they interpret it and they say, well, this shows this about the patient and that about the patient, and I’ve always found that a little bit offensive. Like, I mean, you know a bit about my position, as a researcher and somebody who’s been a patient for a very long time I find the medical system really problematic in the way that it reads me incorrectly all the time, and it makes assumptions that don’t match my experience, which then has a really negative impact on the ability to treat me effectively, or like, help me, is a better way than treat me. And yeah, and I feel that my whole project became about me creating artwork and then me doing the interpretation and using that to understand my experiences, which I could. Then I mean, my goal wasn’t to take that into therapy, but it did become a thing where I started talking to therapists about that and it was really helpful, and it helped me find my way to things that we had never gotten to through just talk therapy or the medical profession putting words in my mouth about what my experience was. So, yeah, I definitely understand where you’re coming from there. I think it’s good that you used it as this tool to help people self-reflect. How do you feel that the participants found? Did they find it a useful tool?
Kelvin: Yeah, I’ve got really good feedback from that. They both enjoyed the activity and also liked how it was a tool that helps self-reflection and making meaning out of their memories and their past experiences. That was the kind of feedback I got.
Thembi: Do you know much about, uh, what is it called, its acronym is NET, narrative exposure therapy? Maybe that’s what it’s called, where the whole idea is that people who are traumatized tend to not have a clear picture of the place where events happened in time, because like, your brain doesn’t process or it doesn’t imprint the memories with time in it, and it just feels like it’s sort of constantly happening. So the idea of this therapy is to like, look at the narrative timeline of your life, place the trauma within that, but also within the other things that have happened so that you’re not so wholly focused on that trauma. And it sounds a little bit similar to what you’re saying in terms of the photographs helping people make meaning out of their previous experiences. I guess that wasn’t really a question.
Kelvin: I’m not familiar with that narrative theory, I mean, yeah.
Thembi: I mean, I do feel like there’s a million different ways that people look at the same thing, like once you start looking at different mental health theories and research and stuff, it’s just like, yeah, particularly because my Ph.D was looking at narrative, there were so many places to come into it that essentially said the same things. But this is reminding me that when I was having a look through your thesis you spoke about how a lot of the young people, when you ask them about their experience of mental distress, they were telling you a lot about why they thought it happened, but less about the actual experience of the distress. You want to talk about that a little bit?
Kelvin: Yeah. I think that’s got to do with vocabulary. Or, you know. Yeah. So as clinicians, as health experts, we’re trained to look for certain features. So it’s like you’ve got, um, you know that toddler toy where you’ve gotta fit different shaped pegs into the different holes. So as a clinician, you’re not generally looking at a full story, you know, as a narrative. You are looking for keywords or key features so you can find, you know, the triangular shaped peg or the rectangular shaped one. So once you get the right collection of pegs you can then, you know, create the syndrome and the diagnosis. That is how you can move forward with then knowing what kind of therapy to apply. And so there are certain words and certain descriptors for those different types of pegs. And a lot of people who don’t have that background aren’t aware of that language or those different types of descriptors for, you know, you could call it distress or experience in a very quantified or, you know, a quanta of those symptoms. And so what I found in my research was that, you know, a significant number of the participants who were international students coming from different cultural backgrounds, and also those with English as a second language, they either were not aware of the words that an English speaker would use for feeling sad or depressed or feeling anxious, and they just would describe what they what happened in that event, rather than say I felt anxious or I felt stressed. It was, “I was preparing for my exam and I couldn’t get all the work done, and it was very overwhelming”. You know, they would describe the process of what they did when they studied, rather than saying, I felt this. And there was also another young person who kept saying he was very, very anxious when these things happened. But as a clinician, he was clearly describing feeling very depressed. But he was using the wrong word from my perspective, and he was just using what language he could. But through describing the experience and the timeline of the experience, then it was quite clear as a clinician, even though I wasn’t, you know, in a clinician role, that he was not describing anxiety. He was describing what I would describe as depression or a depressive episode. So I think that narrative storytelling of like a chronological event and then representing that in the photograph was a way to clarify what the experience was.
Thembi: Yeah, Ok. And so I’m curious about, like as a clinician, what these things that fit in the different pegs are? Like what are the words that you are trained to look for?
Kelvin: They’re not words specifically, but there are collections of experiences, and I think everyone knows about the DSM five classifications. They’re very, I wouldn’t say very clear, but they’re very specific in describing, you know, episodes of low mood or persistent low mood for six weeks or more. Or, you know, heightened arousal, and impaired concentration. You know, these kind of symptomatic kinds of descriptions that a clinician tries to seek and then place over a timeline. And yeah, it’s almost like a translation. Clinicians try to translate those lived experiences or those accounts or lived experience from a layperson, so to speak, into a more clinical case description. It’s a process of translation. That’s basically what a clinician is attempting to do.
Thembi: That’s really interesting. You know, I’ve sat on the other side of that many, many times in terms of like, I’m the one going to the clinician saying, this is my experience, what’s going on? And I felt that those translations are never very good. I’ve just always felt like they’re getting me wrong. And I think that I mean, you know, the first time I went to a doctor, I wasn’t going there saying I was feeling depressed. I was going there saying, I have excruciating period pain and, you know, I can’t walk properly and stuff. But I walked out not with anything to treat that, but with a prescription for antidepressants and a diagnosis of depression, which like, she was spot on as well, like, I’m not saying she wasn’t. But I didn’t have words to describe that experience. But then I was given that word and also given a narrative around what that meant, which in those days it was just like, you have a chemical imbalance in your brain, which meant we totally overlooked all the circumstances around it because it was being caused for a very specific reason. But then each time I went to a doctor, the only words that I had were those words, it was like, oh, I think I’m depressed. But that was completely misleading. And so I kept getting kind of the wrong diagnosis over and over. So I started reading the DSM and then reading books about lived experience to try and figure out how these two things interact. And it’s really difficult as a patient, and talking to clinicians about it was really difficult, they didn’t understand either, and that whole process of translation was really difficult. And so I find it interesting that you’re talking about how this photo process really helped facilitate that. So do you think that the participants, I mean, you mentioned that they have migrant backgrounds as well, and that potentially meant they didn’t have the same words, so do you feel like through this research, you found different methods of translation that might be helpful in a wider variety of situations than just kind of the narrow thing that I think the mental health field has researched?
Kelvin: I don’t know the answer to that. I think the need for translation in itself is problematic. One of the frameworks I talked about in my thesis was the notion of explanatory models, how there are different cultural ways to explain illness based on different explanatory models. And it’s not like one is better or one is more correct than the other is. That’s just how it is, they’re different models. And in Australia, we have a particular psychological model for understanding, well, and a psychiatric model for understanding mental health, mental distress. I mean, even the word mental health is a model. To say that health, um… I won’t go into that. But it’s not static, it’s a very dynamic thing. Like, DSM has changed and evolved in relation to what is socially acceptable for its period. And so those explanatory models change. I’m trying to think of the, what’s it called, um, I can’t remember, some kind of ontology for explaining that. I think it’s symbolic interactionism or something like that, how it’s always dynamic. But there’s always going to be a gulf between how, I guess the institutions of health explain or understand, you know, these experiences, versus the very diverse ways in which in the greater wide society, how distress is explained and understood. Coming back to how photography and visual images help with that, I don’t think it helps reconcile any difference between institutional and broader explanatory models. It’s more a way for both explanations to be fleshed out and to emerge with the person who’s trying to share their experience. It’s giving them an opportunity to explore it in greater depth as a means of self-reflection and to, I guess, situate those experiences, whether it’s in time or in place. So it’s not one or the other, you know, it’s not either talking or visual. It’s an interaction between the talking and the visual medium.
Thembi: Yeah, I mean, it sounds to me like what you’re saying is essentially it gives the patient, for want of a better word, more power over their experience, and they get a lot more in their hands instead of like, submitting to this larger institution, which, you know, I have plenty of opinions about that, but I won’t go into it. But yeah, I mean, to me, that sounds like a really positive potential shift, I suppose. Was there anything particularly surprising that you found throughout this research that was unexpected?
Kelvin: The participants were quite happy to go beyond the bounds of what I’d sort of set, the boundaries of just using a camera. They started using all sorts of different things like the GPS trackers and Fitbits and, you know, posting. I’m not sure if you saw it in the discussion, there was one guy who printed out images of his sports tracker. So they weren’t photos, and they were just like, the route he was running when he was doing his jogs. And that in itself, he was talking about how exercise, and doing group running with other friends was very important for him, blowing off steam and feeling better about himself. So, you know, it wasn’t a photograph, but it was another way of exploring what was going on. And so, yeah, I think it was good to not get too closed minded about “why weren’t you doing photos? I need you to stick to photos”. And so that in itself, you know, got me talking about, well, photos aren’t different to any other visual medium. You know, some of them were drawing on them and scribbling stuff and doing collage and all sorts of things. That’s not how traditional photography is understood, and so it would probably be more appropriate to say using a visual medium, including photography, as a means to getting these experiences out.
Thembi: That’s great. To me, that sounds like basically it was facilitating people to think more creatively about their experiences and what that means, which I think is, I mean, I love that. How many of the participants were actually sort of, like, had an artistic background or were doing arts or anything?
Kelvin: Only one of them.
Thembi: Yeah, right.
Kelvin: Yeah, one of them had an undergrad in visual communication, and the rest of them were doing finance and accounting and health, those kinds of things.
Thembi: Awesome. I feel like, I mean, I’m a big believer that the more creativity we can add into our lives, the richer it becomes. So I think it’s really cool that that was getting people to think, I don’t know, just engage with experiences on a creative level, because I feel like that is also really helpful for your mental health, basically.
Kelvin: Something that I thought was also interesting was that, it doesn’t mean that using a visual medium is a panacea as well. In some ways it was quite limiting. And you know, there are certain kinds of genres and tropes, visual tropes, that, you know, kind of emerge. In a way I think it was quite telling, what sort of things in popular culture were influencing how these young people were expressing themselves. So for example, depression, you’ve got to present a photograph of someone covering their face.
Thembi: I can’t stand that! It’s like shutter stock images.
Kelvin: Yeah, those kind of things. And so yeah, it’s also something to be aware of that these kind of popular tropes and visual stereotypes are also ways that influence how these lived experiences are understood. So once again, it’s this whole working both ways kind of thing.
Thembi: Which I mean, I would say that about life, everything we interpret and understand is through the culture we exist within, and the knowledge we have and everything, so it’s not surprising. Also, I mean, that was the exact reason, because I started off as a photographer, the reason I switched over to sound was because I felt like it wasn’t as restrictive in terms of like, I had been taught how to analyze images in certain ways and things like that. But also, as I’m saying that now I’m like, oh, but hang on. When I switched to sound, I basically just, I used horror movie tropes all the time, so maybe it’s just not any different.
Kelvin: I think it’s just being aware of it, and not saying it’s right or wrong. It’s just how it is, that’s how experience is described, you know, it’s no different to using words like anxiety or depression. This is a visual language, which is different in different cultures. I think moving away from that sort of objectivity, that positivistic, you know, there’s a right way and a wrong way, it is just what it is and then it’s about creating an opportunity for that person to get that experience communicated.
Thembi: Yeah, actually, my psychiatrist is always on about how sound is a language I’ve developed to discuss emotions because I don’t have words for it. He also says that because I experience things somatically, he says it’s pretty common, it’s like your body becomes a language full of things that you can’t express, which I think it’s super interesting. But I’m also aware of the time, and I really want to talk to you before we finish just a bit more about your practice. And I mean, for one thing, I’m quite curious as to whether or not this research project has influenced your own photographic practice or if they’re just completely separate.
Kelvin: It really has influenced how I approach photography, and yeah, it’s sort of in some ways got me interested in the medium as far as, how can I explore photography beyond how it’s generally accepted conventionally? What can I do? How can I make my camera do things the camera is not supposed to do? And I think being aware of photography as a political act. But photography is inherently, you know, there are things about the technology that were shaped even before, you know, the individual picks up the camera. You know, there’s a legacy in how you’re expected to take pretty pictures, or the camera can only do certain things, it is a very kind of colonial aspect of photography, you know, as a proxy for the wildlife hunter, that kind of thing. There are a lot of things like that. Street photography is a very predatory kind of, almost a sport, you could say, as a generalization. And so I’m learning a lot about it, being aware of the camera, I call it the tyranny of the camera. You cannot escape, the moment you pick up the camera you are doing things for other people, for other powers that you are not aware of.
Thembi: That’s dark, man, haha.
Kelvin: How do you then kind of take that technology and use it to your advantage? You know, the first thing is being aware of where this comes from. Going back to what I was saying about the participants in the research, creating these images. The images had a certain look, or had a certain composition, which in some ways was dictated by the technology they used. So an Instagram filter, for example, a certain look, then it’s not so much looking at, um, ‘m kind of digressing from your question here, but, you know, why did they choose to use the Instagram filter? What were they hoping to achieve? What were they trying to convey? What does it mediate? I’m coming back to my own personal practice, you know, a lot of my own personal work at the moment is to try and stretch the boundaries of what photography is and what I can do with my equipment. What photography can do and how it represents the world around me. I’m not sure if you know about the landscapes I’ve been doing? The landscapes where I basically do, you know, an entire stretch of road. That’s not how landscape is classically or romantically presented. The focal point, there is no focal point, it’s not a snapshot, it’s over a period of time. So it’s challenging all these different notions of how we understand photography. But that’s the time we’re in at the moment, where photography is not just one thing, it’s just a process among many other processes. So that’s, uh…..
Thembi: I’m sorry, what was that?
Kelvin: I could talk for hours about this.
Thembi: Yeah, I’d like to, it’s a shame we don’t have more time. But how do you actually take those photos, or do you not like revealing your secrets? I know some people don’t like doing that.
Kelvin: It’s alright. Without going into specifics, it’s a process called slit scanning, which is in fact a very, very old process. It’s been around since, I think, the 19th century, and I’ve just used modern equipment to make it cheaper and easier to handle. But it’s not a new thing, it’s just using that medium, that process in a new context.
Thembi: Ok, cool. So I mean, essentially, your work is about sort of deconstructing and challenging the sort of colonial tyranny of the medium? And challenging the way you look?
Kelvin: Yeah, particularly landscape. It’s interesting because I’m paying the bills by doing commercial work, which is very much the conventional requirements of presenting property and presenting the land and public image, which is completely the opposite of the things that interests me, but you gotta pay the bills, that’s just how it is.
Thembi: Well that does bring me to a final question I wanted to ask you. So one of the things I want to explore with this fellowship is how do we sustain practice as artists in regional locations? And obviously, it sounds like part of yours is doing commercial photography, and I’m curious if you have any thoughts about what kind of structures or systems or something that might be in place that could support you to be an artist working in a regional location?
Kelvin: Um, I don’t know. I mean, I’ve only kind of been living here permanently for just under a year. I’ve been very lucky in meeting some very supportive people. Last week, I met a local private gallery owner who is expressing interest in representing me. So I think community is a big part of it, making connections and being brave enough to expose myself to other people and go, look, this is who I am, I’m now living here, this is my work, and trying to find opportunities to do that and then trying to find out who has an interest in in my work. I can only speak for my own local area. I think we’re lucky in that we’ve got a bit of an art community. I don’t know what it’s like in other towns.
Thembi: Yeah I mean, I’m curious for you to speak to your experience. But sorry, it sounds like what you did was you looked for the people who are interested in what you were, and approached them and said, ‘hey, here’s my work’. Is that the kind of thing?
Kelvin: You got. It’s really scary because yeah, I’m just like some random guy walking up to different people and, you know, having to both reinvent myself, my own identity, and at the same time, you know, be prepared for rejection. It’s quite scary. But you know, like with any investment, you’ve got to take risks to get a return on investment. And that’s what I found I had to do.
Thembi: Hmm. I have wondered if because you come from a medical background, which I feel like is, you know, a lot more organized thinking goes into having to become a doctor than say, like, me being an artist and going to art school, it just being like disorganized as fuck and that was fine.
Kelvin: As a young person going through med school you kind of have the journey mapped out and the anxiety comes from meeting the expectations of that career. Am I studying hard enough? Am I going to be as good as these people expect me to be? Whereas I think my entry into the creative arts scene, it’s a different form of anxiety. It’s about, I don’t know what the hell’s going on, I don’t know how the system works, I don’t know if I’m good enough. How do I remain true to myself in my work and yet at the same time resonate with an audience? You know, all these different types of stresses.
Thembi: Mm-hmm, that I’m very familiar with. And also, I think the system isn’t clear, it’s not like clear steps to take. Sometimes I’m like, why did I choose this?The most difficult thing? Yeah. Anyway, I won’t go into that too much. But I mean, that sounds a bit like something that might be helpful is, I don’t know, some way of helping people know that. I think I got that through uni a bit, so that’s where I learned some of that stuff, and so if you’re coming to it not from a university background, sort of. yeah, knowing how to network? Networking is not my strong suit, and I was just lucky that I went to uni and so people found out about my work because I could not do what you’re doing, like walk up to people and say, ‘hey, here’s my work, like, are you interested?’.
Kelvin: Coming from a health background, in a way, has helped me from the point of view of putting things in perspective, as in, what the stakes are. I think I’m so used to working in an industry where life and death is, you know, you deal with that every day, and screwing up means you could make someone really unwell or cause some horrible outcome. And that’s very stressful. And then going into this, going, well, what’s the worst that can happen if I talk to some random person and they tell me to piss off? You know, it’s relatively low on the scale as opposed to, like, am I gonna miss this person’s cancer? You know, that kind of thing.
Thembi: Ok. You have really put this into perspective for me right now. I’m going to keep that in mind next time I’m worrying about something, because it’s never a life or death. I mean, do you feel like perhaps this was easier to do in Foster than it would have been to do in Melbourne, maybe?
Kelvin: Most definitely, yeah. I think it would have been almost impossible to break into Melbourne or start a career in Melbourne because I’m old and there are so many creative graduates being pumped out each year in, you know, in the hub. And they’re making connections through schools and they’re in the culture. I think if it were Melbourne, with me coming in as an outsider, it’s incredibly daunting, whereas in a regional place, people see you at the supermarket, people know who you are. And also people seem to be doing what they want to do and not try and fit into a scene. Which, I don’t know, that’s just my observation, initial observation.
Thembi: I mean, that’s really good. It’s funny because my experience growing up in a regional town was like, I had to get the fuck out of there to be able to do creative work. So it’s interesting to me that coming into it a bit older, it’s actually a really nurturing place for, I mean, it’s probably very different locations, like I grew up in Bendigo, which is the largest sort of regional city. And it was, twenty years ago? Oh, my God, it was more than that, like twenty five years ago, when did I get so old? Oh yeah. So I guess it’s potentially different types of towns. How big is foster?
Kelvin: It’s tiny. Yeah, it’s probably about two or three times the size of Clunes. Mm-hmm. Yeah, that’s how I gauge the size.
Thembi: So it’s massive! Haha
Kelvin: It’s got an organic grocery, so that in itself means that there’s some money in the town.
Thembi: Yeah, I think we actually do here now as well. Because all of the bourgie people like me have moved in and like, ruined the town, I think. But I can’t afford it. So I guess I’m not quite that. But uh, you may not want to answer this, I can totally cut it out if you don’t want to, but is it a bit of a like, pay cut, having to go from working in medicine to working as an artist, and is that like, scary or difficult?
Kelvin: Massive, massive. And it’s an ongoing thing that I’m still trying to come to terms with. You know, I’m not starving. I’m not going into debt. But I think the rewards are not just financial. The rewards are, you know, I’m meeting new people, I’m kind of I’m nowhere near as stressed. I, you know, I smile now.
Thembi: You do actually seem a little happier than before.
Kelvin: Yeah. And it’s a joy to do assignments. It’s a lot of, you know, jitters about whether I’ll pull through and you know, in the assignment, whether the photos will look good, but I’m having a lot of enjoyment doing it. You know, It’s not feeling like I’m about to, you know, do my VCE all over again. That’s how I was describing it to my partner. Working as a GP, I was waking up every morning and it felt like, you know, that feeling in year 12 when you’re about to start your final exams. But that’s what it’s like every day. I don’t have that feeling anymore.
Thembi: Fuck, that’s intense. I got my first depressive episode during year 12 because it was awful. Yeah, Ok.
Kelvin: That’s the best way to describe how stressful it is to work as a clinician. Well, for me, anyway.
Thembi: That will explain why when my psychiatrist is always talking about retiring, how much he wants to retire. Yeah, it does sound like a very stressful job. So it’s 12 o’clock, I have one more question I’d love to ask you if you have time? Just with you talking about that, I’m quite curious to know if you would like to combine clinical work and artwork, like just working with other people to manage or deal with mental health in some creative way, as opposed to, like the most clinical way that you used to be.
Kelvin: I would like to do that. I mean, that’s kind of the long game to try and combine both. But, yeah, but I’m not sure how to do that. The doctor world, the sort of medical profession, is very rigid in how therapy is presented and what is acceptable and, you know, when it comes to doing anything outside the book. It’s very difficult and not only would it involve a lot of justification for coming up with a new initiative, whatever that may be, but also how is it going to be paid for, and you know, speaking as a as a medical professional, a lot of medical therapies are bound by what’s in the medical benefits unless you offer the services, a full fee paying service, whatever that may be. And then in itself then creates equity issues, then if you’re going to provide a therapy service or some kind of activity and you want to make it accessible, who’s going to pay for it? So there’s a whole lot of work involved. So I think it really comes down to, yeah, I would like to do something, I would like to create some kind of media/art creative engagement process as part of mental health or whatever. But, you know, there’s a lot of toes that are going to be treaded on, you know? Art therapy professionals, psychologists. There’s a lot of work involved with getting those institutions on board however that may be.
Thembi: Yeah, I find it really funny that when I speak to people with a medical background, they’re always worried about treading on people’s toes. Where I’m like, I want to tread on all your fucking toes, ‘cause like, you’ve been doing some harm for a long time. I’m just like, who made these rules and why should I follow them? But have you thought about coming in maybe the back door, so to speak? In terms of like, designing art projects, you don’t necessarily have to have the support of the broader medical community and that kind of community.
Kelvin: I mean, that would be good. Though, I don’t have the background, as in, formal training.
Thembi: I mean, the idea of formal art training is not as important in the art world, like you don’t need formal training to get grants, for instance. You just need an interesting practice. One person I can think of is SJ Norman, who didn’t go to university for art, but has, like, maybe some of the most interesting work in Australia, really, and has the support of funding bodies. I mean, obviously he’s a pretty unique example and not everyone’s going to be as great as that.
Kelvin: I guess it depends on who the target audience or clients would be. Like, for example, working with young people you generally need to engage schools, or have some degree of interaction with schools. So yeah, that kind of negotiation with other organizations, and being able to present a product, so to speak. These are things that definitely are in the back of my mind. But there are once again also a lot of hurdles to jump.
Thembi: Would you only want to work with young people?
Kelvin: Probably not, but that was just an example.
Thembi: Yeah, because I mean, I feel like because this is kind of the area I’m starting to get into, there’s a lot of interest. And one thing I get very nervous about is the ethical implications, because as somebody without medical training or psychological training, I’m sort of like, what am I going to do to people by accident? So I feel like you potentially have an advantage in that you know a lot more about that and have the actual training to be able to know what to do if somebody freaks out.
Kelvin: I mean, there can be partnerships with people from different professions and different backgrounds. And then once again, it comes down to the basics of what are your goals with running a program, what you want, why you’re bothering doing this and you know, playing 4D chess and going, okay, let’s say this, you’ve finished the program and you’ve discovered all these stories and you’ve discovered all these horrible things that happened in your community, then how are you going to act on those things, if at all, if it’s your responsibility? So these are kind of the implications that, if a program were to be started, then also digging really deep going, why am I doing this? Is it because I’m trying to exorcize something in myself personally, or is it just some other motivation for doing such programs?
Thembi: Yeah, they’re good questions to think about. And I mean, I think also, something about regional funding is that it’s very focused on really wanting to support projects that are community focused, which I personally find a little bit tricky because I’m not great at, like, I’m trying to put my toe in the water, but I’ve always been somebody who works alone, and that very much has to do with my own personality and mental health problems. But it’s potentially an avenue that could be really good for you, because if you’re interested in that kind of, helping other people through community projects…. not that I’m saying you should do that, I’m just saying, if that’s something that’s in the back of your mind, it’s potentially well supported through regional arts funding. Hmm. Anyway, is there anything else you’d like to add before we wind up at all?
Kelvin: I don’t think so. I just hope that what I said made sense, and I didn’t ramble too much.
Thembi: It made perfect sense and I think the only person rambling here was me. You know, it was a really great discussion. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. I was so curious to hear more about your research, and I probably wouldn’t mind hearing more in the future as well. Yeah. So, cool, and your artwork also sounds great, and I’d love to talk to you more about that as well. Yes. So, cool!
Thembi: We can press stop [both laugh] now.
Transcript by Casey Nicholls-Bull