Overview, Images

Under Observation

Nayuka Gorrie

Under Observation

There is a phenomenon called the Observer Effect: things change under observation. Whether we intend on it the act of looking changes the thing we look at. This is true of people and electrons. For years I’ve been plagued with a singular provocation – who are we when we are not being observed. CCTV and ubiquitous panopticon design mean we are often under observation. Does this observation always change the observed? When a cop kills a black man and the body cam is rolling, does it matter whether or not someone was observed? What happens when the camera isn’t rolling? When Scott Morrison went to Lismore after the first flood this year he requested no media. Who is he when he is not being observed? Who am I when I am not being observed?

I have few memories between old enough to have memories and five years old but I remember seeing a police photo of my mothers bloated face, broken nose and bruises from strangulation around her throat. I remember the events surrounding the photo but it is the photo that I remember the most. Not long after those photos were taken we fled the small Gippsland town we were living in and moved to Bundaberg, Queensland. The upheaval meant whatever couldn’t fit in our luggage had to stay. As a result there are few photos of this time. What was I like in that time? I rely on oral history to tell me who I was. When my Dad passed away photos of us resurfaced and it punctured the oral history I had been telling myself in lieu of photos and presence.  We have come to rely on photos to tell us about ourselves or what we experienced. We have used photos as a sort of outsourcing of memory. Perhaps outsourcing is not the right word, maybe I mean the construction of memory.

I am obsessed with the work of fellow Gunditjmara artist Hayley Millar-Baker. In her latest series I Will Survive she places herself in different landscapes wearing period clothing. At a quick first glance the untrained eye (mine)  doesn’t clock that they are manipulated images. Upon closer inspection its clear that they are. Her manipulation of photos, her construction of photos reminds me that photos, like history, like memory, can be manipulated.

A few months ago my iPhone stopped working after I left it on a surface that pooled water overnight. I tried to dry it out but not even the rice could save me. I took the phone into the Genius Bar to hopefully be fixed but it couldn’t be saved. They could keep it alive only while it was connected to a power source. I hadn’t backed up my phone in almost two years – the entirety of my kids lives. They gave me time to try and save what I could but so much was lost. I don’t remember what was lost, how many mundane photos that helped me construct the narrative of my first few years of parenting. When I could no longer delay the inevitable a part of me felt grief akin to turning off life support.

My memory has been disjointed for a long time. It’s probably a combination of COVID, a concussion, pandemic induced inertia, sleep deprivation, giving birth and pregnancy. Combined it makes for a disorganised mind. At one point during a period of sleep regression each twin alternated waking up every hour. The severe sleep deprivation of this time means nearly all but one or two moments completely dissolved or emptied from me like a loose sieve. Photos from that time helped me put together my story. I can look at photos of me smiling, candid photos of my boyfriend with the twins, photos of all their firsts and remember that time wasn’t all lockdown, there were moments of joy. It wasn’t all just hard.

Already my kids have started posing for the camera. One twin mounts a large unicorn, lies on it and demands my brother take a photo. They smile and say cheese. I wonder what these people I created are like when they aren’t in my care. Since they were born they’ve been manipulating me through various hormones to make me love them and it really worked. Their big eyes and smiles are all a protective factor but still right from the start we are geared to perform or change under observation.

As I write this I start to observe myself, my breathing starts to feel unnatural and I am hyper aware of every sensation. So now I write this still thinking about who I am when I am not observed. What of myself can I trust to be true if no one else there can witness it? How do I know my face stays the same when it is not observed by a camera, a mirror or other people? I cant rely on photos or oral history. Unobserved is the most honest any of us can be.