Fabian Muir's photo as part of the Urban Burqa (2017) series.

Prism of perception

4 October 2017
A photographer with knowledge of the unknown

People are usually happy if a photograph catches a nice smile or a beautiful landscape. Fabian Muir wants his photographs to capture more, and he travels to some of the world's most ostracised countries to take them.

Children at an orphange in North Korea

The playroom of a provincial orphanage in North Korea.

Looking at the big picture – literally – is what drives photographer Fabian Muir (LLB ’91).

Muir’s work is a journey into the unexpected. From the stark black-and-white shots of his Sydney series Emerge to his humanist treatments of “outsider” countries such as North Korea and Iran, disrupting traditional narratives about place and people is a key feature of his work.

Muir himself is sincere, funny, genuinely interested in people and, at times, delightfully cynical. We don’t get to meet, but he talks on the phone from his apartment in inner Sydney’s Paddington, where his mobile surprisingly sputters in and out of reception. His voice is warm, and the conversation is littered with jokes. He is not a hard subject to interview.

Muir grew up in a family heavily embedded in the arts scene; his mother, Elke Neidhardt, was an actress and opera director; his father, Christopher Muir, a documentary film director and head of drama at the ABC; while Norman Kaye, his stepfather, was an actor and musician. Surrounded by art and discussions on literature, theatre and art-house film, it was perhaps inevitable that he would follow a creative path, though for a teenage Muir, the last thing he wanted to do was follow in his parents’ footsteps.

Iranian women in desert landscape

Muir's series taken in Iran shows how different the lives of Iranian men are compared to women.

Muir explains: “If my parents had been lawyers I might have said I want to be a filmmaker or an actor or something like that. But they had pre-empted me, so I thought right, I’m going to become a lawyer.”

While studying law, writing work with publishing house Studio Magazines led to a job offer as the Spanish correspondent for their newly launched photography publication, Black & White. Reviewing photography and photographers helped him develop a visual aesthetic and an internal philosophy that would serve him well when he finally took the plunge to leave law after several years in practice. Being completely self-taught as a photographer, it was a leap that took courage.

As it turned out, Muir’s law studies have also played a role in his work as a photographer, “Studying law gives you a forensic approach,” he says. “It also helps you find some kind of ‘objective truth’ in your subject matter.”

Blue Burqa in a sunburnt country

From the Blue Burqa in a Sunburnt Country (2014) series.

This is expressed in his fondness for exploring human nature within complex political backdrops, which has led him to Iran, Cuba, North Korea and 15 former Soviet countries. After many years living in Berlin, he now spends six months of the year in Sydney with the rest of the time working on his continuing projects overseas, where he has found that speaking a number of languages (German, French, Spanish and “terrible” Russian) helps greatly. He believes being multilingual is invaluable for photographers.

Anticipating potential situations forms a big part of his photographic process, and he often waits long periods for the right elements to emerge. This measured process was challenged when he went to North Korea, and had to take photos in the constant company of minder-guides. In typical Muir fashion, he is expansive towards his guides.

“They’re constrained by the rules as much as you are. I tend to be less harsh on minders than other people – certainly there are journalists who see them simply as this impediment and forget that they’re human beings as well. If you can establish a good rapport with them, they’ll help you as much as they can.”

Fabian Muir with children in North Korea

Fabian Muir at a kindergarten show in North Korea.

On his first visit to North Korea in 2014, he was surprised to discover a complexity he had not expected. “It was the things that ran counter to the established narratives that surprised me the most,” he says.

“Children playing and laughing and coming up pinching you and that sort of thing. I thought that’s really worth exploring … It’s an incredibly layered place. It’s too simplistic to just sit back and rely on the clichés.”

He is cynical about tourists who say they’ve risked their lives to smuggle pictures out of North Korea. In his experience it is what you bring into the country that the authorities are interested in – his pictures get checked on entry, not on exit.

One of his most challenging assignments was in Abkhazia in 2008 when the Russo-Georgia war broke out. Despite his vulnerability taking photographs in a country at war, the Russians were remarkably tolerant. There is the sense he is able to defuse tough situations by sheer virtue of his amiability.

When I put this to him, he laughs. “I’m not trying to particularly charm anyone or manipulate them, but I’m just completely normal. I would talk to a North Korean minder in exactly the same way I’m talking to you now. You know, throw in some jokes – not in an attempt to soften them up, but just because it’s my nature to throw in some jokes.”

The Mansudae Grand Monument in Pyongyang - bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il

The Mansudae Grand Monument in Pyongyang.

In a similar way, Muir’s work aims to bring out the best in the viewer. Nothing sums up this approach more aptly than the series Blue Burqa in a Sunburnt Country (2014), which sets a woman in the distinctive blue of an Afghani burqa within central Australia. The work emerged out of the tense political landscape in Australia regarding its treatment of refugees.

“I wanted to put together an artistic visual response to this, over and above the kinds of articles appearing in the newspapers,” he says.

“I really do believe in the power of an image to have an instant impact that is more visceral and longer lasting than even the most eloquently put together article.”

He developed the series further this year with Urban Burqa (2017). In the final image (shown on page 14-15), striking visual compositions that play strongly on angle and colour are put into juxtaposition – the shadow of a skater reaching out to the woman in a gesture of solidarity. Much like the man himself, the image suggests and provokes fundamental questions of humanity and the value of benevolence.

A wider view

You can see more of Fabian Muir’s work or buy his images on his website.

Written by Rebekah Hayden
Photography by Fabian Muir

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