Saturday, August 8, 2020

First Response


Photography, Film, Video | Review by Brian Rope

Martin Ollman, Marissa McDowell, Anna Georgia | First Response

Tuggeranong Arts Centre | Until 19 September

First Response comprises four works commissioned to document Canberra’s initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This review looks at the three photography, film and video works in the exhibition. The fourth work was a live dance response choreographed by Shannon Hanrahan, seeking to explore the way that dance artists can work around, and even be inspired, by spatial limitations.

Photographer Martin Ollman is a freelancer based in Canberra. He has had more than 2000 of his images published around the world and has been awarded two national photographic awards. During the initial stages of Canberra’s pandemic response, he was granted access to frontline health services, political figures, and major institutions, including the Australian parliamentary Senate inquiry into it.

Ollman’s work in the exhibition, Plagued, comprises eight large monochrome digital prints on aluminium and a huge digital print on vinyl. The latter is the first thing to attract attention when you walk into the gallery. It is a collage of many images, including portraits of health workers, members of the arts and tertiary education communities and politicians, and it fills two walls. Whilst having impact for its sheer size and vibrant colours, I enjoyed his other works more. Seven of the eight are traditional portraits. Of those, the image of Nigel McRae and Beth Tully revealed something of the importance of companionship, whilst one of Peter Barclay spoke about mateship.

Nigel and Beth, Smith's Alternative © Martin Ollman, 2020

Peter Barclay © Martin Ollman, 2020

The eighth print portrays several frontline health workers by showing some of their personal protective equipment hanging on hooks with their names.


First Response, 2020 © Martin Ollman, 2020

Marissa McDowell is a Wiradjuri woman with Irish and English ancestry who has worked with Indigenous communities telling their stories through documentary film making, photography, and writing.

McDowell’s work here, Isolation, is a short documentary film exploring the COVID-19 experience of Canberra’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, including their unique fears and hopes for the community’s future.

The film features personal accounts from a broad range of community members, including Elders Aunty Matilda House and Uncle Warren Daley, artists Brenda Croft and Dale Huddleston, and local students, offering insights into how they felt about these new and unfamiliar circumstances, how it has affected their families, businesses and education and their thoughts about the future.

The audio can be listened to through headphones, but I found it better to read the captions across the bottom of the video screen. The film is well made and very interesting. I was particularly struck by the fact that many of the issues identified by the indigenous community members were the same as I have heard identified by others, myself included.

Anna Georgia completed a Bachelor of Arts (History, Philosophy, Film Studies), then pursued a Masters of Visual Anthropology in the Granada Centre of Visual Anthropology at the University of Manchester. This quasi-artistic field values the contributions that audio-visual mediums have to offer in the ethnographic description of human experience.

Georgia’s work here, Notes on Canberra Lockdown (A Non-Travelogue), draws on her training in ethnographic filmmaking and investigates many aspects of the lives of individuals during the restrictions and the economic downturn; including everyday circumstances and states of mind, digital engagement, and material spaces.

This film is, for me, the highlight of the overall show. Sitting watching the material on two side by side monitors I was drawn into the story being told and by the high-quality imagery I was viewing. The soundtrack did not appeal as much, perhaps because I found the volume unnecessarily loud. Indeed, it was why I found it easier to read the captions on Isolation which is showing in the same gallery space.

Still from Notes on Canberra Lockdown (A Non-Travelogue) © Anna Georgia

This review was also published in The Canberra Times at

and on my personal blog at, both on 8 August 2020.