Interview with Zina Sofer, winner GradFoto Award 2023

Ballarat Foto asked this year’s GradFoto winner Zina Sofer to share more about her work and how she brought this important story about Australian women to life.


Ballarat Foto: Out of the Shadows is a response to the demolition of an apartment complex in Elsternwick, Melbourne, a site that will soon be redeveloped as luxury units. The complex was once used as housing for war widows, an initiative of Jessie Vasey, founder and president of the War Widows’ Guild of Australia, who features in your work through archival imagery. How did you initially encounter this history? What compelled you to make work about it?

Zina Sofer: As a volunteer photographer for the Glen Eira Historical Society, I was asked to document approximately 130 historically significant properties in our area.

The War Widows’ Guild constructed the large estate at 87 Seymour Road in Elsternwick in the early 1950s for war widows and their children. The organisation had established a nationwide housing auxiliary to aid ill and elderly war widows, as well as organising craft groups and weaving courses to keep members engaged and, crucially, to supplement their income. It has permanently and positively altered the lives of thousands of women and their offspring.

The Seymour Road property was not scheduled to be photographed. Recently sold to a local consortium of developers, this property will be demolished to make way for a new development. I was outraged that Jessie Vasey’s housing estate was not considered significant enough to be included on the list and I wanted to include this important history that was omitted and overlooked from Australian history books.


Zina Sofer, Out of the Shadows, 2023


Ballarat Foto: Your finished works combine photographs with textiles. How did you decide on this approach?

Zina Sofer: Jessie introduced weaving [on a loom], which had recently been introduced in Australia, and weaving classes to teach the war widows this craft. The woven products served as the foundation upon which the guild was established.

The widows worked their way out of poverty, the trauma of the loss of loved ones by weaving. I am weaving their incredible story of survival back into history by combining archival and new photographs.


Ballarat Foto: As part of the project, you created a statue of Jessie Vasey, staged in Ballarat Botanic Gardens. Why did you choose this location?

Zina Sofer: I created a mockup of a statue for Jessie Vasey that was unveiled in Ballarat next to the permanent statue of former prime minister Ben Chifley 1945-49. The reason for choosing this location and this particular statue, is because Chifley was the prime minister at the time when Jessie and the guild were fighting for the widows, pension, entitlement and housing. And because his statue, like all the other Australian prime ministers, is located in Ballarat.



Ballarat Foto: You’re currently undertaking a Master of Photography at RMIT University. Are you continuing to work on Out of the Shadows? If so, how do you see the work progressing across the next few years? Alternatively, if you’re working on something new, could you tell us about the project?

Zina Sofer: The Out of the Shadows project is now permanently housed at the RSL Vasey Care. The plan is for this work to tour all RSL Vasey care facilities. I was asked to do an artist talk at every facility and the plan, eventually, is to erect a statue for Jessie. This work will be used as publicity material to apply for grants. I am involved in this project but in a different capacity.

I am now working on two projects for the Masters degree. Both are visually very different but the underlying issue is very much the same. The first project, for a subject called Themes, considers identity, belonging and home as areas where I dwell simply because I do not feel that I belong anywhere. When the pressures of day-to-day life are getting the better of me, I grab my camera and escape to nature. Wandering among the trees in the natural forests or nature reserves is a cleansing, uplifting, and healing process for me. You can view some preliminary images on my website.

For the second project, Studio 3, I am taking on the subject of antisemitism. I am Ukrainian-Israeli-Australian Jew and antisemitism was, is and hopefully won’t be an integral part of my existence. It is a heavy and painful subject to deal with but I feel the need and duty to create a body of work and address some of the outlandish preconceived beliefs about Jewish practices and our way of life. My plan is to have a video installation on several screens. The project is still in a very early development stage so I don’t really have anything to share. Stay tuned!


Ballarat Foto: Do you have any advice for this year’s graduating students?

Zina Sofer: My advice for this year’s graduating students is the same advice I always gave to my two children and my grandchildren. Find something that you are passionate about and don’t be afraid to take on subjects that might be very challenging. Don’t try to please everyone, you will only waste your creative energy.