It’s January 2012. With a digital camera and her eight-year-old daughter Coco, in tow, Louise Hawson turns her back on Sydney life and boards a flight to Hong Kong. This is the first of 14 cities the pair will touch down in over the next year.
Documenting their journey on her blog 52suburbs.com, Hawson photographs 10 countries, 14 cities and 52 suburbs. At the end of this journey she returns home with 30,000 images and some curious gaps in her travel photography. She visited Paris but somehow missed the Eiffel Tower. She went to Rome but didn’t photograph The Colosseum and, unbelievably, she made it through New York without a photo of the Empire State Building.
But Hawson had a different itinerary to most. “We’re so used to seeing photographs of the famous bits of the famous cities,” she reflects. “My project was all about ignoring the famous bits, ignoring the icons and going into regular, ordinary neighbourhoods.” There she’d photograph anything she found beautiful or interesting, be it a wall, person or unusual tile design.
These photographs are then presented in diptychs to give audiences powerful insights into the people and their culture. Hawson illustrates how this works with ice cream truck time again – the end of Ramadan, which pairs a picture of an orange-bearded Muslim man in Queens, taken at an end of the tradition holy month of fasting, with a photograph of an ice cream truck. Besides the complementary colour scheme, the two subjects have no relationship. Yet by displaying them side-by-side with a caption, Hawson communicates a neighbourhood truth. “The kids told me that the ice cream trucks suspend their service during Ramadan because everyone is fasting and it’s only when it’s over that their ice cream trucks come back again,” she explains.
Hawson grants her viewers touching insights into the lives of people all over the world. “I’m kind of saying to people, ‘look at what you can see when you really have the opportunity to open your eyes. Look at the beauty that’s in these regular neighbourhoods’.” It’s this beauty in the ordinary that we often miss out on when we do a whirlwind race around a city’s main attractions.
Hawson’s obsession with unveiling a city’s less-seen sights began in 2009 in her own backyard. Realising she’d lived in Sydney for 30 years without ever exploring it, her first photographic project 52 suburbs (which has since been made into a book) focused on revealing the real Sydney by photographing one suburb a week for 52 weeks. The result was an understanding of Sydney far different and more diverse than the postcards of Bondi blondes consumed by tourists. Hawson’s international tour was then a natural progression when she started to wonder how many other cities had been misrepresented by tourist iconography.
Three years later, Hawson has emerged from her life-consuming obsession a little weary and with a bigger mortgage. However it’s the personal value of her trip that she holds most valuable, “At the end of the day, I walked away with more hope than I’d begun with. When you constantly find beauty in places you wouldn’t expect to find it, you realise that the world’s a pretty good place, despite the 7 o’clock news.”
BY AMELIA SAW
52 Suburbs Around the World runs from July 20 – November 24 at the Museum of Sydney. Click here for more.