Stories of Strength
For The Cancer Council
A body of work by Ireland & Izzard
Here, Ireland and Izzard expand on the project:
How were you approached to do this project? What was the most important motivation for you to take it on?
CI: My first ever significant body of work explored Mesothelioma and asbestosis, an incurable cancer which starts with exposure to asbestos. The exhibition was called BREATHE and toured Australia, featuring large environmental portraits of the women left to experience life without their husbands. This project taught me a lot about suffering, listening, and cancer awareness. It was a significant ideological undertaking.
It’s important to listen to your internal motivation when creating work, because art can have significant power as a means of illumination.
I’m not entirely sure if the creatives who chose to work with me knew about this project. As it happened I was exhibiting a project called Inside Out for our POOL IX exhibition at Special Group Studios. It was a 10-minute video installation and featured super slow-motion portraits of public housing residents depicted inside their homes.
I met Helen and Alex at this show and shortly after was briefed on the project.
How did you work together with Chris to shoot these stills and portraits?
SI: We have both had experience shooting stills and directing on film sets and know of the inherent problems that can occur. As such we treat the assignment as a whole. We understand that both elements have equal importance and there is none of the usual director/photographer smack-downs that can happen on this type of gig. We both share responsibility for the whole job and actively think about how can make it better for each other. We are very much a team.
You travelled to several parts of Australia and spoke with several families, what steps did you take in your planning?
CI: I planned in much the same way that I would for an art project, then combined this with commercial production experience. Alex the writer, together with myself and Belinda, the project producer from POOL, made a series of calls and did some initial research.
It was simply a case of listening to what motivated each person in their experience with cancer and making a loose production schedule around ways we thought we would most likely get great material.
Creatively it became important to use restraint, and portray things in their most natural light.
It’s funny in a way because this approach of keeping the shoot simple still required a great deal of planning. We needed to consider people’s ability to deliver to camera (Keith was undergoing treatment very recently), and most importantly, gain people’s trust and willingness to open up and share their experiences as honestly as possible.
For a mobile project like this, what kind of crew did you work with?
CI: We call it a skeleton crew. It’s actually less about what the crew is and is more about who the crew is. I work very hard at gaining trust on a shoot. For my personal documentary work where it’s just me and my brother (running sound), it’s quite easy to achieve a mood of trust during an interview. When you throw in clients, crew and agency, that mood is harder to achieve. Each member of the crew from DOP to Wrangler, were assembled carefully to deliver the right feeling on set. Sean and I also worked very cohesively so we achieved uninterrupted and seamless creative flow.
Working like this makes a huge difference. It shows the talent we work with a great deal of respect.
Given this is such a sensitive and personal topic, how did you approach directing the pieces? Did that method differ from how you usually direct?
CI:I recall one of our first meetings at CCNSW, our client talked about having counselling available to crew after the shoot. I laughed it off and said I’d worked on some fairly heavy territory across the years but thanks anyway! Well, I didn’t require counselling, but I was surprised by how heavy the shoot felt. I think much of this came down to really wanting to do the project well from an ideological point.
There was a moment when I was interviewing Sue, and she was a little cautious in telling me her full experience. It was the 4th interview and I needed to take a breather. Sean took Sue and Greg outside for some portraits, sensing I was at a crossroads. When we resumed the interview Sue completely opened up, it was quite emotional. Her account was poignant and powerful.
I had to be quite flexible and patient and understand that each person I was interviewing was unique. Dealing with such emotive content, my style had to pare right back and I drew heavily on that first project BREATHE from 10 years earlier. Alex and Helen, the Havas creatives were a great set of ears and provided a brilliant sounding board for the interviews.
SI: It was amazing to experience just how open and honest our subjects were. The interviews delved quite deeply into their lives and opened up a lot of emotion. Of course, we have to be sensitive and respectful, but to be able to capture moments authentically really comes down to the generosity of our subjects – their willingness to open themselves up and allow us to record them. Keeping crews really small and unobtrusive also really helps.
Chris, did any previous projects you’ve done prepare you or inform your approach?
CI: As creatives, it’s fair to say every job prepares you for the current one. I’ve spoken a bit about BREATHE, but subsequent projects shaped this work too. My first short film Alchemy of Fire taught me about letting go, and letting creativity shape itself. Greenway, my ongoing work inside a Kirribilli Housing Block has trained me to be comfortable working with a wide range of people in front of camera. I’ve been working extensively on a documentary inside Greenway that puts together vignettes from a multitude of perspectives inside the building. This really shaped my interview style and willingness to ask difficult questions. A commission for CommBank earlier this year drew heavily on this Greenway work and challenged me to put the skills into a commercial sphere. Then there’s the multitude of creative shaping than happens inside the POOL Kiln, where robust creative dissection allows all of us to thrive.
What was your experience like working with non-actors? What is the biggest challenge and how do you overcome that?
Real, human, authentic, spontaneous. These have all become buzzwords lately.
I used to have this battle mixing my personal work with all its rawness with commercial jobs which were glossy at the time. This marginalised my work for some time, but it also strengthened me.
Now I’m completely at ease working with non-actors. I thrive on it because I love seeing their confidence grow as they find their voice.
Actors are great (I imagine), but life is pretty amazing if you know where to look.
The biggest challenge is always managing their expectations. I swear they expect to see a bloke show up with a camcorder and a small fluffy mic, maybe flanked by a producer. I often joke, if I showed up with an iPhone and sat it on a small tripod, my subjects would be less surprised than they actually are when the full contingent arrive.
The only way it’s ultimately overcome, is to make something great, and let the end justify the means.
Sean, what moments were you looking to capture and what did you want to achieve overall with this body of work?
SI: The stories told of many things. At their heart were sadness and loss but also strength and courage. More than that, many of our subjects had come through their experiences and were actively giving back and supporting patients through their involvement with the Cancer Council. We wanted the portraits to be honest representations, embracing the emotion as well as shining a light on the lives and contributions that they and the Cancer Council make.
Does this style of shooting differ from how you usually shoot? If so, what about those differences are more appealing or more challenging?
SI: Traditional advertising work is usually based around a key idea or insight and mostly captured in a single image. Sure, often there are multiple executions that form a campaign, but the role of each shot is essentially to communicate the idea. This we create from nothing, and the challenge is to create a picture that tells the story in a way that resonates. The difference on an assignment like this one is that we are documenting what is in front of us. Telling a story. Not limited to a single image, instead creating a photo essay that has a flow, a variation of portraits and vignettes that together form a more complete picture.
Chris, a project like this is very open-ended and can transform throughout the process, what was it like working with the agency and the cancer council on something this fluid?
CI: All a director or photographer wants is to be given creative freedom. Early in your career you need input and direction. As you master your craft, you prefer to be left to make something. When the team around you is great, they know when to come in and when to let you go. In this sense, I couldn’t have asked for a better commission.
Havas had the vision and the energy to see that vision through. I was asked to explore how we find strength, and what life was like when we were at our weakest. The brief was strong, and straight forward, giving us the perfect platform to mould the work.
Alex and Helen were a very good team, and were very measured and insightful throughout the process. We all felt ownership over the final pieces. For all of us, it was about showing some level of restraint. It was crucial too that the editor was on the same page. Michael O’Rourke did a beautiful job with the edits. We understand each other well, having made work together for 5 years. He took restraint to a whole new level, deciding to hold the overlay footage right back, and keep it personal- see the emotion.
I’ve enjoyed collaborating with Sean too. This is our third collaboration. Having his mind to bounce off is a really nice luxury, and our work tends to inspire each other.
Much credit needs to go to Cancer Council. They were brave enough to let us do our thing and that has resulted in impactful, meaningful work. What more could you ask for?
Sean, this authentic, documentary style of photography is very different to a lot of the commercial work you’ve done previously that use composite images and have a whimsical, polished feel. It also falls in line with what we see in your personal work. Is this a direction you want to explore more of?
SI: I really love this way of working. I started out as an editorial photographer shooting for newspapers and magazines so I’m used to thinking on my feet. Funnily enough, with the commercial work you mention, my aim is usually to bring it back into this realm but it usually becomes more like ‘reality with a twist’. I love the challenge of both, but certainly, shooting what I see in front of me and creating a story or series is something that really appeals and to be asked to work in this way again is really exciting and rewarding.
DIRECTOR: Chris Ireland
Photographer: Sean Izzard
PRODUCER: Belinda Barrett
DOP / Camera Operator: Ashleigh Carter
Camera Assist / Data Wrangler: Oliver Rose
Sound Recordist: Jeremy Ireland
Photographers Assist: Sarah England
Editor: Michael O’Rourke
Executive Creative Producer: Seamus Higgins
Art Director: Helen King
Copywriter: Alex Bolderoff
Account Executive: Maddie Pulver
Broadcast Producer: Gabe Hammond
Senior Print Producer: Claudia Brookes
CLIENT: Cancer Council NSW
Brand Marketing Manager: Andrea Chung
Senior Marketing Project Manager: Rebecca Wood
Senior Digital Producer: Amanda Doherty