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Queens of the Midwest

Queens of the Midwest

Cathy McKenna’s image found inspiration in the movie Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Photography Carlo Fernandes.

If you are a woman in rural Australia, people have been known to make certain assumptions about your life on the land. Some city dwellers assume life on a pastoral station, or in a remote town, must be simpler, quieter – duller, even. Or that jobs for women are more limited. Or that rural females couldn’t possibly be as cultured, smart or downright saucy as their Sex and the City cousins. Or could they?

Hunting for Foxes is a Western Australian photographic project that takes hold of such stereotypes and cheekily hurls them somewhere beyond the Black Stump.
Fifty women living in the rural community of Mullewa, an hour’s drive from Geraldton, seized the chance to explore aspects of their personalities that rarely see the light of day, sidelined by busy lives working and raising families in the bush. The result is a series of extraordinary portraits of their lives and dreams in the small midwest town. Some are touching, others bold, and each one a fresh revelation.

Rachel McKenzie, coordinator of Community Cultural Development at the City of Greater Geraldton, said the concept for Hunting for Foxes was born during a meeting of members of the Mullewa Arts Development Group – known affectionately as MADs.

“We talked about the impression we had that city folk didn’t think their country cousins were very cultured or sophisticated,” says Rachel. “We discussed how it’s not necessarily true, but because of where we live we don’t get the chance to express other sides of ourselves.”

A professional photographer, a makeup artist, a hair stylist and an artistic director were hired to help the fifty women – aged from 13 to 78 – to take part in a personalised, one-day photo shoot.

Just as hunting for foxes in the bush can prove tricky and elusive, the search for the ‘true’ face of rural women has taken Hunting for Foxes in many directions.
Liz Bradshaw is a health promotions officer who opted to model as a sultry burlesque dancer. “It’s so secret, it’s sexy and it’s dark... so many things that are far from my world. And just the chance to wear something really glamorous and get made up was amazing.”

Police constable Casey Patten, reinvented as a 50s housewife.

Constable Casey Patten from Mullewa Police Station chose to dress up as her alter ego, a 1950s housewife. Showing typical country camaraderie, friends and neighbours arrived on the day of the shoot with a huge array of old-style kitchen utensils to lend as props.

“After a few more years working as a police officer, I would rather like my life to more resemble the classic 50s housewife,” says Casey.

“I like the idea of running around after my children and baking cakes for family and friends.”

Each woman has her own story about how she came to make a life on the land. Several met their future husbands while just ‘passing through’, be it as an infant-health nurse, a cook, or a travelling barmaid.

Rachel says she was struck by how individually each woman responded to the brief. “Some people have gone really deep, with personal messages about where their life hasn’t gone and where maybe it could have. Others have just had some fun with it.”

Belynda Mills opted to be shot in an outdoor bath, McLeod’s Daughters-style. 

“I really envied the girls on that TV show McLeod’s Daughters, living on a farm and riding horses,” says Belynda Mills, who chose to be photographed outdoors, in a bath. “I used to think what a luxury it would be to live that life, to have a bath out in the middle of the bush. Having married a farmer in 2010, this city girl is living the dream.”

Mother of four Kylie Rowe, who came to Mullewa as a community landcare coordinator, settled on a portrait of herself as her favourite singer. “I’ve always loved Marianne Faithfull, who epitomises the 60s and 70s hippie rock epoch. There’s the psychedelic dress code, the tunes, the sense of rebellion against conformity.

“Marianne is a survivor of the times, unlike her less lucky fellow rockers who succumbed to a certain lifestyle. She’s tough, humorous, honest, able to adapt… I guess my picture shows a chick content in herself and in her surroundings.”

Each shoot had challenges – hats blew off, swarms of flies invaded and makeup melted in the sun. But Rachel says there were moments of inspiration, like the shoot featuring community worker and artist Wendy Jackamarra.

“We had trundled out into the bush and a problem cropped up with an essential prop. The painting of Wendy’s that we took with us wasn’t the right size for the frame we had.

“Then someone said ‘Why don’t we sit Wendy inside the frame, so she becomes part of her own painting?’ I thought, ‘Beautiful, that’s far better than anything we’ve thought of before’.

“There aren’t many chances to explore fantasy here in the bush. People in harsh environments  have to dig deeper into their character than those living in comfortable situations.”

For Cathy McKenna – who was photographed frocked up on the back of heavy farming equipment – inspiration came from a classic Australian movie. “It was just after a long seeding season and, like Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, I was feeling that ‘I will survive!’,” she says. “Handling luxurious fabrics in gorgeous colours reminded me how much I miss both colour and texture.”

Superwoman Eliza Thomas steps out.

Eliza Thomas opted for a wry take on the Superwoman myth, using an abandoned telephone booth on her family farm. 

“It’s a relic of a bygone era where life was simpler. Today, all that remains is cords and connections of the manual telephone exchange, a few post boxes and the phone box. For me, it conjured the image of Superwoman flying out the door, grappling with modern living.”

At the end of the shoot, all fifty women and their families gathered to view the images.

“The night we all came together was magic,” said one of the women. “As they showed each picture, there were gasps from the audience. People you knew looked so different.”

Another woman felt sheer exhilaration after her photographic shoot. “On that fantastic day, with the cooperation of neighbours, workers and husbands, I felt liberated.” 

Hunting for Foxes, published late in 2014.

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