louise whelan's photographic document of a changing australia

Her images of Nadine, a refugee from the Congo and aspiring model, show the ways Australia is evolving.

by Briony Wright
15 July 2015, 12:12pm

Photography Louise Whelan. Nadine on stage with her siblings awaiting a dance performance by the ‘Congolese Boys’ from Wollongong.

Louise Whelan is deeply fascinated with Australia's ever-expanding multiculturalism. She spends her days befriending and documenting the people she meets through her work--whether they're asylum seekers and refugees, displaced skaters, the local Mandaean population or Muslim fashion designers. 

Beginning her career taking aerial photography from helicopters for property developers, Louise happened to meet the Australian entrepreneur and flying-enthusiast Dick Smith. He immediately recognized her talent and offered to speak at the opening of one of her first exhibitions. Ten years on and Louise is a key contributor to some of the most esteemed archives in the country, visually exploring the 'third space' where different cultures collide to form new worlds and cultures.

Nadine's sweet 16th. Father and daughter - Isaac Kisimba and Nadine Muyambo, brothers Isaac Jnr, Phillip Benny and Nadine's mother Justine Ndayl.

Her most recent work has focussed on Nadine, the 16-year-old daughter of a family who fled the Congo 11 years ago to live in New South Wales. She's a stunning girl - a motivated, aspiring model who Louise is working with to help her realize her dreams. She began by shooting Nadine's super sweet 16th birthday party before becoming close with Nadine's family and continuing to shoot them. The rare and honest insight into the worlds of Louise's subjects acts as a broad kind of education that can only serve to help Australian communities coexist happily. We spoke to Louise to find out more.

Nadine poses for photos in front of the 22 person pink Hummer with her Congolese friends dressed in pink, her father and siblings.

Do you have a photographic philosophy?
I like to think I shoot with a social conscience. The multi-cultural aspect is really important to me in trying to create a new visual memory of what Australia looks like. I was introduced to the curators at the State and National Libraries and, as well as having photographs in their permanent collections, they've trained me to be an oral historian. I've recorded about 30 oral histories of asylum seekers and refugees so far, which will be archived in the same place as historical journals like Captain Cook's records.

It's so crucial that this is being documented from such an open and fair perspective.
Not in an objectified way either, which is really important. I'm constantly discovering such interesting things. I'm seeing Africans identifying now as African Australians. A lot of the time they also base their lives on African American culture, because that's what we see on TV and in the media. So what I'm witnessing is this evolution of a brand new cultural identity which is like a combination of all these things.

Nadine Muyambo in front of her house in Doonside before the party.

Can you tell us about Nadine, her family and shooting her 16th birthday party?
Nadine is the eldest of six kids so she's always had a lot of responsibility. Her mother, Justine, and father, Isaac, are wonderful people and wanted to give her an incredible party to acknowledge their daughter's hard work. The 'Sweet 16' celebration isn't part of the culture in Africa so they also saw the party as a good way of showing her kids the importance of learning how to do things outside their original culture.

Nadine in 70s vintage jumpsuit at Clarendon Guest House, Blue Mountains NSW.

You can tell it was such a special occasion for them.
It was something like you've never seen. The whole community was invited and it was all about dancing and a new way of celebrating. They are a very proud family, not to mention one of the most well-dressed I've ever met. Fashion is really important to them. The dad goes to China and adds to his collection of about 80 suits.

Naidne at lunch at the Chinese restaurant Katoomba in the Blue Mountains in NSW wearing a Congolese dress designed by her mother, Justine Ndayl.

And Nadine's keen to be a model? All your photos of Nadine are so great, she has such a strong presence. How's her modeling going?
Well she's at school studying really hard. Her dad was a teacher so she understands discipline. In regards to modeling, I helped Nadine and her family sign with an agency - they're getting fairly regular work and roles on ads so they're getting good money for it, which is great.

Nadine poses for modelling portfolio photos in her school graduation dress.

You must get to meet such a diverse range of people through your work. What's your feeling about how Australia is adapting to, and will continue to adapt to, its shifting make up?
I'm meeting these people every day and I have to say I'm really positive about Australia's response to people moving here from other countries. Australia is a very successful multicultural country. Most people wouldn't think this because of the media's negative focus on asylum seekers and border protection. My work is important because it shows we are, in so many ways, doing it right. Some of the schools I visit represent over 90 different ethnicities - if you just spend some time in these effectively functioning environments, you know we're doing it well. 


Text Briony Wright
Photography Louise Whelan
Make-up Marija Brkljač

asylum seekers
Third Culture
louise whelan