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Julie Sundberg – I Remember Everything

Stories 2022 Shortlist

Based in

Photographed in
Australia & USA

I Remember Everything

This is a story spanning my 35 year relationship with Danny Abood. It is about identity and gender, addiction, ageing and illness, love, loss and death.

Danny Abood is feted for his anarchic public performances in the ground-breaking 70’s art troupe, Sylvia and the Synthetics, but my photographs are of the private collaborations we made together.

I met Danny in 1986 when we both lived in NYC. I loved photographing him because he wasn’t invested in being flattered and didn’t fear awkwardness or vulnerability. We were only ever interested in making something truthful. I photographed him as a beautiful young man, later when HIV+, at the end with cancer and everything in between.

Danny called me when he went into Palliative Care. Despite no longer being able to speak clearly, he asked me to bring my camera when I visited him. I understood and photographed him on his deathbed. The last thing he said to me was: “We always said we’d do this to the end”.  

And we did.

I met Danny in New York in 1986 and we roamed around the city, often stopping for impromptu shoots like this one where he commandeered an abandoned car to pose as a crash victim. There was some damage to the negative that I did not retouch. It reflected his lifestyle at the time and the illness and death of so many contemporaries.

Our first drag shoot together took place in the apartment of a friend who also happened to be a coke dealer. Danny took no time at all to locate his coke grinder and suffice it to say we were both high for this shoot.

I Think Of You is Danny’s favourite song by his friend Wendy Saddington. This photo encapsulates how I think about Danny’s essence and the distillation of his attitude to drag and gender. Over the years we had many conversations about gender presentation and identity, particularly how this plays into his love of vintage fabrics and dresses as objects with no innate gender. As Danny put it “You can still be masculine even when you’ve got a face full of makeup and are wearing a dress.”

We joked that this persona was a questionable religious character. An unsavoury priest in the confession box, perhaps. We often had short hand names for the characters he created. There is an interplay between this image and the previous one, I Think of You. I have previously exhibited them together because they show two sides of masculinity. Here, Danny is dressed in notionally ‘male’ clothing. In the other, he wears a dress and make-up, has plenty of body hair but no wig, and there is no attempt or desire to present as a woman. There’s also an edge and both these images reflect the way I remember Danny.

Around this time Danny became ill. He was HIV positive and had other health problems as well. I started noticing syringes around his apartment after he’d been clean for some time. I felt angry that he was compromising his health by using again and it caused a rift in our relationship for a while. This was a painful time.

Initially I wanted to photograph Danny in a suit with many glittery brooches on the lapels much like the medals of a war veteran, because he came dressed like that to one of my openings. I saw him as a survivor of the 80’s and the AIDS war. However, it was a very hot day and too hot to be in a suit. He was dressed in a kimono and was fanning himself, so I photographed him like that. He put on a vintage women’s corset when his back started hurting.

Danny missed his friends from the old days. So many of his closest friends died in the 80’s, and others at regular intervals ever since. His house in Eastwood was full of memorabilia and photographs, “Everyone has gone” was a familiar refrain.

Despite mourning his departed loved ones and times past, Danny was a consummate performer able to create and fully inhabit a persona. When he was ‘on’ he was fully present.

The last time Danny wore drag was for Elizabeth Burton’s 70th birthday party at the Red Rattler. We did a practice shoot for his look beforehand at his home in Redfern. It was difficult because he wasn’t well. He had to feel in character and this started with the shoes. He had trouble finding the right shoes in the right size, his makeup was also old and difficult to apply but there were some moments at the end of the shoot when he came alive and I felt that same animated spirit as in the first drag shoot in 1987.

Left: Danny gets ready for our first drag shoot NYC, 13th March, 1987. Right: Danny on his deathbed, 20th May, 2021. Danny died 3 days later.

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