Harry Culy & Sam Stephenson: Evidence


Evidence is a two-person photography exhibition which aims to encourage discussion about mental health in Australia and New Zealand. The exhibition consists of two complimentary bodies of work by each artist, with framed images, a publication, and an installation of found objects at China Heights Gallery in Sydney.

The Gap by Harry Culy — presents a meditative look at an ever-changing horizon; a gap between sky and sea. This series was photographed looking east across the Tasman sea from the cliffs at Sydney’s south head between 201402016. Inspired by colour field painting these pictures are studies of light and colour, stillness and movement, and the tension that exist between the two. Beneath the images of intense natural beauty lies a dark history. Don Ritchie (9 June 1925- died 13 May 2012) was a member of the royal Australian navy and a successful life insurance salesman. He lived opposite Jacobs ladder beside the cliffs at an area named the gap in Sydney Australia. He would offer distressed strangers a cup of tea and kindness. It is estimated that he has saved the lives of over 400 people.

Lived Experience by Sam Stephenson — Sam has been documenting his kith for over 10 years. Realizing how common it is for individuals to have mental health concerns, he has recently sought to engage in conversations about mental health with his friends. He started making portraits of those closest to him in their personal space and then had the sitter write some text about their lived experience on the print. The aim of the project is to reach out to people to feel normal about ups and downs, to shed light on delusions and paranoia, and in doing so, squash the stigma associated with mental health while creating a greater awareness.

— Harry Culy

1. What prompted you to start this project?

I used to live just around the corner from these cliffs at Sydney’s South Head – I would walk by the cliffs most days on my way to work or whatever and it always looked different every time I walked by it. I began shooting pictures there just as a way of noticing and observing the light and weather and the different moods of the sea. So, the project started out as just experiments, of photographing at the light and colour on the sea. I had heard that the area had a pretty dark history, which was at odds to the how beautiful it was. There was this tension or something between the beauty and the darkness. I think at the time I was going through my own issues, feeling pretty down and stuff so this process seemed like it helped a bit – a cathartic kind of thing maybe? So, it was from this purely selfish thing, making me feel better by taking pictures of something beautiful and kind of scary too. like around a quarter of the population in NZ I have some mental health issues – I’ve had some ups and downs in my life and started to realise that so many other people around me live with these things too but it’s not talked about I the same way we talk about other sicknesses. It’s this unspoken thing in a lot of cases.

2. What were your influences when making this work?

Actually, just hanging out with Samoh and talking to him was a big influence, sort of talking to him about how art can help turn something painful into something else, and the power of that. Another influence was my girlfriend Lucy; and other friends too. Those people were always the most influential but I also looked at a lot of other art and photography- a seascape is such a cliché thing to photograph and I was interested in that idea. This Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto has a famous series of seascape photographs shot all around the world- which were really beautiful and but also had some nice ideas underneath the pictures. Those pictures were a big influence but also a struggle to try and work with that just behind you. I remember reading this book that said landscape art often reflects human’s inner worlds more than the actual landscape itself. Colour field painting was a big one, I found this kinda cool quote by Mark Rothko: “You’ve got sadness in you, I’ve got sadness in me – and my works of art are places where the two sadnesses can meet, and therefore both of us need to feel less sad.” – Mark Rothko

3. Why did you want to present this exhibition in collaboration?

I think both me and Samoh have the same ‘need’ to photograph, kind of as an outlet, for that mental stuff. We are mates, I spent a bunch of time with him while living in Sydney and have worked on a few little projects together and have both had pretty strong personal connections to the theme. I thought it would be cool to approach the same theme from completely different angles. Also maybe this collaborative approach in regard to mental health is important – working on stuff together can help in that world maybe? It’s been much easier working on this show together- sharing the anxiety!

4. What do you hope people will take away from the exhibition?

I don’t know- I kind of have done this project for selfish reasons, to feel better myself, photography has helped me just get outside and notice everyday things in the world- maybe that’s enough? Just maybe just finding interest in the everyday world around you – that can be a powerful thing maybe?
One other thing I found doing this project was the story of Don Ritchie- a guy who lived by the cliffs, He would talk to people who were about to jump over the fence beside the cliffs. just by being kind to strangers, offering them a cup of tea or whatever, he would convince them not to jump, they reckon he saved over 400 people from jumping! He is kind of like a real-life superhero – That’s a good story to remember, one guy who made a big difference.

5. Where do see the future of this project?

I want to continue the series for another few years- every time I come back to Sydney I shoot a few more pictures. I have seen the sea have so many other moods that I haven’t photographed yet, I would never have thought through photographing one subject you can get so much variation. I want to make a larger body of this work and in the end do a proper book with the project. I have a connection to Sydney even though I live back in my homeland of New Zealand again, I come back about once a year to see friends and will continue to shoot this work until it feels like it has run its course. Kind of as long as it’s interesting to me to look at that same old view I’ll do it.

— Sam Stephenson

1. What prompted you to start this project?

Having been in an out of mental health wards of hospitals for 10 years and being linked with mental health community centres for a similar amount of time mental health is always on my mind. In school, we learnt nothing about mental health. So when i had my first psychosis it took a lot of rejuvenating. I was embarrassed to say why i had been in the hospital. I was in a low place watching a lot of Judge Judy. Finally, after some discussion with some close friends I felt better about it. A lot of them had not been through something similar. But later in life i found people that had. Sharing lived experience with some story telling always seemed to help with recovery, making more sense of the delusions and false beliefs i had that the clinicians didn’t want to hear about. So, over the past 2 years I have had more discussions rationalising the experiences we have had. The quick brain is irrational my Dr says. I thought it would be good to have this experience documented. So, the project began with people wanting to share something about their mental health concerns, recovery or journey people from different backgrounds, different diagnosis.

I read an article that there are twice as many suicides than deaths from car accidents each day in Australia, it mentioned how we have warnings about drink driving, wearing a seat belt and speeding everywhere from radio, tv, to advertisement on the road that help prevent these accidents. There may be a focus on depression in the media, but there doesn’t seem to be much prevention for suicide, or information on mental health. Celebrating mental health month and having this exhibition might help change that in a way. I have absent friends/family that have ended their own life, with the statistics so high I’m sure a lot of people do. Don Richie who had a home overlooking the gap saved over 200 people lives by having conversations one on one. Some of the material in the exhibition may be sensitive but I believe that this exhibition will create some better awareness around mental health and open up more of those discussions to prevent suicide.

2. What were your influences when making this work?

Jim Goldberg’s book ‘rich and poor’, I liked how in his images the text and hand styles of text became more of a portrait than the photograph itself did. Margaret Ellen Burns’s ‘100 Bedrooms’ I saw this exhibition years ago and I like the theme of people in their personal spaces. Years later I became friends with Margaret and we discuss purposeful photography projects a lot which helped motivate me.  Also, some x-pan portraits i saw in a book of work by Australian photographers. I can’t remember their name. All these projects are black and white, I’ve always been drawn more to black and white from the earlier influence by Ari Marcopoulos, Boogie and Elliott Erwitt.

3. Why did you want to present this exhibition in collaboration?

I can’t remember how the thought of having a show on mental health together first sparked. Harry had already been doing things with his ‘Gap’ series, winning prizes, having exhibitions and making zines, that inspired me, I was learning more about lived experience and the affect it can have on recovery. I liked the contrast between aesthetic of Harry’s and my work, we have been on trips together always talking about doing projects, whether its booklets, exhibitions or to do with skateboarding.  We don’t live close to each other anymore, but i visited him in Wellington, NZ early last year and we did an 8 hour hike so I guess we talked about it a lot then too. I went to Ed at China Heights with the idea I hadn’t even started and he believed in the project so we started planning it from probably almost 2 years ago now. I have learned not to rush these things. With exhibitions, it only creates unnecessary stress.

4. What do you hope people will take away from the exhibition?

Hope is a good word to start with. I have been lucky enough through my mental health distress had a lot of good outcomes including getting into ceramics through a mental health workshop, I’ve found employment in work from having a lived experience and sharing it, also this project itself came from a personal history of having a mental health concern and talking about it with friends. I would like people to be inspired and take action with their ideas in a positive way. Open more discussions so if people are in distress I would like them to know its ok to seek help, that there are chances these feelings and experiences will pass. Maybe that people get into some arts and crafts because of it. Flow in creativity has a very positive affect on the brain.

5. Where do see the future of this project? ongoing? etc? whats next?

I feel that ‘Lived Experience’ was a small part for a bigger project. It may have a change its name, I going to take my time but I want to photograph clinicians, psychologists, mental health nurses, OT’s, psychiatrists, physical health nurses, but then also carers, siblings, peer support workers. Get a better picture of what mental health means to the community. Again, I would shoot them in their personal spaces. I might find this difficult at first. But i plan on doing the project for a long time. Hopefully through this exhibition I can reach some people who will like to participate in the project. It would always be nice to make it into a book that’s dense.

Evidence is on show at Sydney’s China Heights Gallery — Opening reception: 6pm-8pm, Friday October 6 and continues 12-5pm following Saturday and Sunday, then by appointment until October 20. Fro more information head to Chinaheights.com