When you imagine a camera club, what typically comes to mind is a group of photographers, lenses crowded over a flower, swapping Photoshop tricks and debating the merits of this aperture over that one.
For the six members of The Bloke’s Camera Club in Albany, however, things are a bit different. For one thing, they take their photos using simple point-and-click digital cameras (up until six months ago many of them had never held a camera at all), and there’s no careful consideration given to composition, nor post-production re-touching.
But that hasn’t stopped their images from being exhibited publically in pop-up galleries, or inspiring television interviews and online videos by the ABC. Most importantly, the club has changed the lives of its members, six disabled men who’ve gained much more than just a love of photography – they’ve also found friendship, confidence and sense of belonging in the community.
The Bloke’s Camera Club is a joint project between two Albany not-for-profits: the Community Living Association, which supports people with disabilities and their families; and health organisation the Men’s Resource Centre. Through its two employees, Grant Westthorp and Bruce Beamish, the club organises photography outings – at the park, beach or port – with the aim of improving the wellbeing of an otherwise marginalised group of men.
I visit on a sunny Thursday in autumn. Grant, Bruce, Lisa Archibald from the Community Living Association, and a handful of the Bloke’s Camera Club members are there to greet me.
“This is Pete, he’s one of our stars,” Grant tells me. “You took some really nice photos of the beach, didn’t you, Pete?” The incredibly cheerful Pete gives an enthusiastic “Yeah!”, his face lighting up with the memory.
At the door appears another smiling face. “Nathan’s here! Watch out – he’s trouble,” says Grant with a wink, referring to a 37-year-old man with Down Syndrome who’s one of the group’s sweetest yet cheekiest members. A chorus of “Good morning, Nathan!” rings out. The joy in the room is palpable.
I inquire about the inspiration for starting what is the first club of its kind in Australia.
“It really was Grant’s idea,” says Lisa. “There were very few men’s groups in this area. Then when you add disabilities into it, there was just nothing for the guys. The Men’s Resource Centre has been brilliant in filling that need.”
“We originally put the boys through a mental and physical health program,” says Grant, inciting another enthusiastic “Yeah!” from Pete. “They loved that; in fact, that’s how they all met. And then we moved on to thinking how we could get them involved with the community.
“We just thought it would be good to get out as a group and be creative. And it was amazing. People started talking to the guys while they were taking photos, asking what they were doing and having a chat. Social isolation is a killer, so this inclusion and connection is just vital.
“It really means a lot for them to say, ‘We’re The Bloke’s Camera Club and we’re taking photos’. Plus, they’ve taken some great shots.”
Grant with Pete, who he calls “one of our stars”.
“Honestly, some of the pictures are amazing,” says Lisa, looking at the men proudly clutching their cameras. “And taking a photo and capturing a moment; it’s no small thing for them.”
Take Brendan, who has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair. “Holding the camera can be quite an issue,” says Grant. “So we hold it and he presses the button. Normally you’d think, ‘Well, Brendan can’t do that,’ but he could, and he was part of the group. It made him so happy.”
Pete had never owned a camera before joining the club. “At first, he would just stand there, looking through the camera but not pushing the button,” says Lisa. “Even turning it on was a novelty. But he’s learned so much since then.”
Grant is quick to point out that the benefits go both ways. “Bruce and I have definitely learned more from these guys than we’ve taught them. They are all unique, really happy guys and great to be around.”
He turns to the men, “Do you remember the movie we did, boys? Down on Middleton Beach? That’s right – you’re all famous, aren’t you?” Cheering erupts from the men. “We were in the paper and on TV!” says Nathan.
“But it’s terrible now!” interjects Mark, a club member who’s so enthusiastic he now has two cameras. “Middleton Beach is full of sharks!”
Grant’s eyes flash as he gives the men a conspiratorial grin. “We’ll have to get some photos of those, won’t we, boys?”
According to Lisa, the cameras offer a way of getting to know the men. “They can show pictures of where they like to go and what they like to do,” she says. “The plan is to make photo books that the guys can show people. You know, ‘My name’s Nathan, and I like pizza and taking photos of women’s bottoms’.”
The group erupts into laughter. Nathan laughs the hardest. “Yes, but I want to take photos of the Queen, too,” he says.
“You can do it, too, Nathan,” replies Grant, seriously. “You can definitely do it.”
Want to help? Governmental funding covers only 75 per cent of The Men’s Resource Centre costs. To donate, visit mensresourcecentre.org.au.