Interview with Ella Cuming, winner GradFoto Award 2023 People’s Choice

Ballarat Foto asked this year’s winner of the GradFoto Award People’s Choice Ella Cuming to tell us more about her project Girl Portraits.


Ballarat Foto: Girl Portraits explores the ‘complexity of the female experience, specifically the experiences of young women.’ What prompted you to produce a project about womanhood? Were there any particular experiences you were aiming to represent?

Ella Cuming: I set out to create Girl Portraits to process my own feelings surrounding my coming of age. My camera has been an extension of me since I was 15 years old, and is my way of interacting with the world, so it seemed natural for me to document my friends as we grew up. Looking back on those photographs now, I can see the way my friends slowly began carrying the weight of their womanhood. It made me sad, when I first noticed. Little by little, they became more guarded or cautious of the world around them. There were moments, noticed and unnoticed, that began shaping our views of ourselves and society more broadly: a boy everyone loved pressuring you, a friend’s dad trying to corner you at a party, someone humiliating you after you’d turned down their advances. These things were not only confronting, they were brushed aside. And not only by our peer group but our parents and teachers—trusted adults we thought we could rely on.

Experiences like this changed the way we saw the world, our assumed safety, and place within it. While we grieved the loss of our naivety, we leant on each other. If the adults in our lives weren’t our allies, we would step up to the plate and protect each other. I remember how strong my sense of responsibility was, and still is, for my female friends. There is a sweetness to that. Texting each other when we’d get home safe or exchanging an SOS look when something wasn’t right at a party, for example. I wanted to pause to consider the loss so many girls feel as they enter womanhood, while trying to image the strength and care entwined with this time. Being in girlhood is special and I didn’t want it overshadowed by the pain of it.


Ella Cuming, Puberty Blues from the series Girl Portraits, 2023


Ballarat Foto: There’s a rich tradition in Australia and abroad of photographic projects documenting the experiences of young people by their peers, a tradition Girl Portraits sits within. What projects informed Girl Portraits?

Ella Cuming: Nan Goldin’s practice had a significant impact on me. Her work not only pioneered an intimate style of documentary photography not seen before but was also for her sitters. The people she photographed were a part of her life, she cared for them. The deep level of trust between Goldin and her sitters is what makes her work so powerful and at the time, so impactful in terms of destigmatising HIV.

I went to see The Ballad of Sexual Dependency at the NGA while making this body of work and it struck me how obvious it was that the viewer was being welcomed into Goldin’s memories. A wall text read: ‘I don’t ever want to be susceptible to anyone else’s version of my history. I don’t ever want to lose the real memory of anyone again.’ And this honestly scared me. It was the first time I realised that not only was my sitter allowing me to share so much of them, but I was also sharing my own experiences and life when showing my photographs. The idea that a photograph of my little sister, an intimate sweet moment, was no longer in my control once shared was concerning. It has encouraged me to be incredibly purposeful and careful about the images I include in my archive of memories.

The early work of Petra Collins also informed my series. Because of the stylistic choices she made, I felt that her images were for the girls she photographed. The feminine colours and lighting reflected the interests and tastes of the young women. The girls’ emotions and experiences were written in a feminine visual language, a language only the sitters themselves could relate to. The photographs were no less valid than the more serious—”factual”—masculine documentary photographs we’re used to seeing.

The practices of Goldin and Collins are in some ways different, but they prioritise their sitters experiences, honouring the trust that is given to them. The values of these photographers are reflected in my practice, as for me my photographs are for my sitters. I will continue to respect and honour the visual language and autonomous representation of my sitters.


Ella Cuming, 4 pm in Our Family Home from the series Girl Portraits, 2023


Ballarat Foto: The photographs in Girl Portraits are compelling, in part, because of the sense of intimacy in them, which is related to your close relationships with the women pictured. Tell us about the collaborative aspects of working with your participants and whether this helped you to refine the project’s visual language.

Ella Cuming: For me, photography can be so incredibly exposing and invasive. This is why when taking someone’s photo, and I do believe taking is the appropriate word, it’s a priority for me to ensure my sitter feels comfortable and supported throughout the whole process. I try to check in with my sitter and offer them as much transparency as possible with regards to why I’m taking the photo, what I’m trying to achieve, and how I’m wanting to portray them. I aim to create a space safe to encourage the sitter not only to open up about how they feel and to know that I am attempting to create photos not just about them, but for them. This is an opportunity for us both to work together to place importance on emotions that we feel have been invalidated or unnoticed. The process is hugely collaborative and I feel honoured that the women I photograph gift me such vulnerability. I also feel a responsibility to ensure I do right by my sitter long after the photoshoot is over.

I went down some pretty intense rabbit holes in regards to ethical viewership because of this. I care about the women I photographed, and it was scary thinking about sharing photographs in which we had both allowed so much of ourselves to seep into the image. This is why I chose to drench the series in colour, referencing the feminine visual aesthetics of the women. I decided I didn’t want people engaging with the work unless they were willing to engage in the visual language of these girls, in my visual language. In further attempts to represent my hand in the image, I left the dust and the developing mistakes present on them—indexical symbols that I took this photo—to suggest I chose to share them and therefore offer some kind of vulnerability, too.


Ella Cuming in the studio


Ballarat Foto: Do you have any advice for this year’s graduating students? Is there anything you wish you’d known about sustaining a creative practice outside an educational institution before graduating?

Ella Cuming: I’m not sure I qualify to give any advice to anyone, but if I had a time machine and went back to my final year I know what I’d say. I’d tell myself that it’s important to remember why you started. Keep coming back to that. For me it’s about connection and memory. Last year I was getting really stressed out about it all—about graduating and my final body of work and finding a career in the art world. It felt like too much until I looked back at my practice and remembered that before showing my work the world was important to me, it was about building a personal archive of my life and my friends. So I started taking polaroids of all my friends again. It was so simple but it allowed me to remember that I was doing this because I love it. That made my last few weeks of university special because I remembered what a gift photography is.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is think about why you’re doing this. Stand firm in that. I’m doing this because I love it; I’m very sentimental and nostalgic. And I think when you follow what you love, follow your passion, that seems to be when things usually end up working out much better than you thought.

Oh and also, your peers. The people I studied with who helped me through my degree are now the same people I draw motivation from in my career and keep me connected to the industry. The people around you make a massive difference. If you’re as lucky as me to have met people who support and inspire you then the big wide world seems a little less scary.