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Words and images by Ruiqi Qiu

By July 3, 2023The Collective

Variation is a mixed-media work commissioned by the Museum of Australian Photography (MAPh). It investigates pre-pandemic, pandemic and post-pandemic experiences of the LGBTQIA+ community in the City of Monash through a series of photographic portraits, text descriptions of sound and a group of underexposed portraits with carved interventions. The multiple layers within the series Variation symbolises the existence of both invariability and variability in a person simultaneously.

COVID-19 tore people’s lives apart and the impact of the pandemic continues to ripple throughout society. What became apparent through the interviews with the participants was how their lives had changed if they recalled their pre, during and post-COVID experiences. Indeed, the lives they had lived pre-COVID seemed a distant memory. What slowly emerged throughout the conversations was how stillness and movement impacted their lives.

The series comprises eight ‘traditional’ photographic portraits that represent participants’ pre-pandemic lives. These photographs are constructed scenes that are founded in memory–reconstructing what their daily life was like prior to the pandemic. The location was chosen by the subjects to reflect places that they would often have spent time within before the pandemic as well as selecting clothing and objects that represented that time in their lives. These portraits seek to give a sense of an ordinary day in their lives.

Each participant was also asked to record a sound that was representative of their experience of COVID. This sound was then converted to text. The texts proffer an abstraction of the participants’ experience during the pandemic in Melbourne. An inherent gap exists between the original sound and the descriptive text. It has a different form, shape and texture that presents differently from listening to the initial sound. It sits at a nexus between the two that distances the creator of the sound and its representation as text. The distance symbolises the sense of isolation and the challenges people faced during the pandemic. At the same time, this gap speaks more broadly to the discrepancy between a person’s sense of one’s self to others’ understanding of them.

The seven underexposed portraits with handcrafted translation were etched into using carving tools to reveal the white of the paper beneath the image. These carvings echo a photographic process where an image is altered to reveal its binary version whereby the white pixels become the only recognisable trace of the original.

In the more traditional portrait photograph the subject is recognisable. However in the underexposed photograph there are no distinguishing elements within the black image apart from the carved markings. The camera is set at the highest shutter speed, the lowest ISO and the smallest aperture. This renders the subject unrecognizable, and they appear only a dark void. While each black image may well appear similar to each other, each photograph is unique.

The last process involved taking photographs of the participants and their personal objects. These were then reduced to become binary photographs that informed the carvings. These photographs and interview notes were then translated into a visual interpretations that represent the participants’ pre-pandemic and post-pandemic lives. The intent was to abstract these interpretations, capturing the complexity of their experience rather than produce a realistic rendering. This approach also reflected the passage of time and led to a response that captured the psychological impact of COVID. This was achieved through mark making; etching into the photograph and paring back and piercing the layers of the paper. The feelings and emotions, that are often unspoken and imperceptible, became translated through the marks I made.

The series Variation consists of photography, descriptions of sound and carved photographs. Variation presents three different responses to each participant’s experience of COVID and the changes that occurred over time. Variation has been possible due to the generous support from MAPh Director Anouska Phizacklea, the expert mentorship of David Rosetzky, and the gracious sharing of personal experiences from Liuying Chen, Jo Toner, Qiong Li, Lucia Darcy, Joanna Hlaihel, Michael Barnett, Gregory Storer, Jordan Morise, Harvey Carmody. The dynamic perspectives contained within Variation represents the diverse and complex experiences of the LGBTQIA+ community in the City of Monash as they recall their own experiences of the global crisis.


Liuying’s underexposed portrait with handcrafted translation

Michael & Gregory

Michael & Gregory’s underexposed portrait with handcrafted translation


Jordan’s underexposed portrait with handcrafted translation


Jo’s underexposed portrait with handcrafted translation



Lucia & Joanna’s underexposed portrait with handcrafted translation


Harvey‘s underexposed portrait with handcrafted translation

Ruiqi Qiu

Born in 1993 in Nanchang, China, Ruiqi Qiu moved to Melbourne in 2019 to study for a Master’s in Photography at RMIT University. Ruiqi Qiu is a photographer interested in the relationship between reality and its photographic representation. The photographic and sculptural work questions the sense of reality and the concrete. It disrupts the unconscious reading of authenticity to stimulate a rethinking of the intersectional area of photographs’ content and the real world outside the image.

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