Artist Fiona Clark, best known for her spirited photographs capturing Auckland's queer scene in the 1970s, has always rolled her sleeves up and got the job done herself when no one else wanted or thought to.
When she was a student at Elam School of Fine Arts they didn't have, or see the value in having, a dark room that processed colour film, so Clark took it on herself to create one. Later, her exhibitions were closed and she was threatened with prosecution over indecency, but she kept on shooting. She converted a factory in Taranaki into a home when she returned to the area and it is there where she says her work “progressively becoming a political tool to fight community issues”.
Fiona's work, be it documenting the burgeoning queer scene, environmental efforts in Taranaki or the realities of the AIDS pandemic in Aotearoa, is all centred around community - a legacy and body of work that is explored in the new documentary Fiona Clark: Unafraid, directed by Lula Cucchiara.
It is said in the film that Fiona gave validity to people by photographing them where they live their lives. The documentary adopts the same approach, taking us into the daily reality of Fiona's life - the outcome is a rich, multifaceted celebration of one of Aotearoa's most quietly groundbreaking artists.
We talked to Lula about her film, celebrating Fiona’s work, and the shifts within the local rainbow communities.
What was it that first struck you about Fiona and her work?
The way the photos are presented and the way people are documented, it feels very real and honest and proud to be there.
I just think her work is very important for everyone to see not just our LGBTQIA community. I think everyone should see how important and beautiful her images are.
I read that your work is influenced by censorship and growing up within ideas of suppression, can you tell me a little about that?
I grew up in a very small German town in Argentina established after the second world war. There were a couple of schools, a catholic school or a German school. My parents are atheist so we went to the German school, it was very strict.
I never fit in there, especially when I came out when I was 14. I was labelled as the weirdo, or the lesbian, not only from school but even the town.
My parents were really happy for me to be whoever I wanted to be and they always supported me. I started seeing this girl and we held hands in the town and someone called my parents and said how outrageous it was. My parents said I was always welcome to do anything at home but just try and not be out there doing anything that people would start talking about. It really sucked because I had to hide. That's when I started wanting to leave home.
We were studying at school about New Zealand and I knew about Lord of the Rings. I learnt that as an Argentinian I could get a working holiday visa and I became obsessed about coming to New Zealand. I turned 17 and got a weekend job, started saving money and when school finished I came to New Zealand.
New Zealand was completely different (than imagined). In my head I was coming to like New York and I arrived in Auckland and thought "Wow this is not what I'd pictured" because at the time I was looking at encyclopaedias and blogs, not images.
It wasn't what I imagined but I was stoked to be in a place where nobody knew me, I felt free. I miss my family and wish I could live closer to them but I have my wife and kid now and I'm really happy here.
I resonated a lot with Fiona in the way that I didn't feel like I fit in at all, I was always a weirdo.
Fiona says a similar thing in the film - she was surprised that you wanted to make a documentary about her because she never gets picked, that she was always different?
I have an attraction for minorities because I've felt like a minority and still do in a lot of situations, being an immigrant.
She was surprised, but I was surprised that no one had made a film about her. I was surprised that I couldn't find anything other than a couple of old articles about her.
The press pack for the film describes Fiona as living amongst dusty treasures - she seemingly never throws anything away. What was it like having full access to her archives?
It was amazing. She has the most amazing archives and she's very organised. She never throws anything out because for her everything has a story behind it and everything is there for a reason.
I couldn't believe it. You can pick up something and think "Oh it's probably been here for 20 years" and she can tell you exactly where it was given to her.
Fiona’s niece talks about how she keeps in touch with all the people she's photographed and when she last talked to them.
Fiona contacted every single person we interviewed. Half the people she photographed have passed away but she still has the contact information of their families and she still reaches out to them, sends them a print, when the print has faded or aged she'll send them a new print.
She's very caring and the images are very important to her. It's a whole story and she wants the family to continue to have that.
Do you think the rainbow community has made enough progress since Fiona started her work?
Absolutely I think we have. I mean look at us [Lula and her wife Siobhan], we have a baby!
When we were making this film, we were interviewing someone and they were telling us they had electric shock treatment because of the way they wanted to dress and they would have loved to be a parent. We were there interviewing them and my partner was 12 weeks pregnant.
We heard things that we'll never have to go through. That is why we made the film too, to honour the older generation that really paved the way for us.
Fiona Clark: Unafraid plays in Auckland on January 22 and 28 as part of In the Shade film festival. It will also screen for free on February 20 at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki as part of Auckland Pride Festival.