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How this haunting portrait of a Queensland burns survivor won worldwide acclaim

Culture

A photograph of an Australian burns survivor is among 200 Portraits of Humanity that will be exhibited in space and transmitted through the universe in binary code.

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It took Brian Cassey several years to pluck up the courage to ask Carol Mayer if he could take her portrait.

The award-winning photographer first met Mayer in 2011 for a newspaper story detailing how she survived a house fire that left her with burns to 85 per cent of her body.

The article was published and one of Cassey’s photographs won numerous awards including the Walkley portrait prize, but he was not quite satisfied.

“It was nagging me,” he said.

“I had this idea of a photograph of Carol and I didn’t have the courage to approach her.”

Five years later, he finally called Mayer to arrange a meeting and presented his idea.

“She sat there very still for a fairly long time and I thought, ‘Oh God,’ and then she said, ‘Yeah, OK.’”

The photos were taken at Mayer’s home in Cairns, and although she was not completely undressed, she was a bit nervous about exposing so much of her body.

But she said she trusted Cassey.

“With a couple of images, I thought, ‘Gee, you can really see my scars,’” Mayer said.

“But then I thought, ‘No, it is what it is, really. It’s there in black and white. That’s how it is, that’s how I am’ and I accepted it straight away.”

“I’m really happy with it. I don’t have one regret to be honest and I’d do it all again.”

Brian Cassey’s 2011 portrait of Carol Mayer won numerous Australian and international photography awards.(Supplied: Brian Cassey)

Another photo from the series was a finalist in the National Photographic Portrait Prize, run by the National Portrait Gallery.

Cassey described the portraits as both “slightly confronting … sort of hauntingly beautiful as well.

“You’re always trying to find something in a photograph that is meaningful and different and perhaps can make a little difference.”

Mayer hoped the photos empowered other burns survivors, especially women.

“I just thought, ‘What a fantastic idea, to just put it out for other burns survivors to see’,” she said.

“That was the main reason why we did this, so when he has won awards I’ve just been absolutely stoked.”

Cassey’s 2016 photo of  Mayer, The Skin I’m In, has made it into the Portrait of Humanity 2020 shortlist.

Run by the publisher of the British Journal of Photography, 1854 Media, the list comprises 200 photographs from around the world that celebrate people’s shared humanity.

The photos will be exhibited in space via a screen launched into the stratosphere.

The images will also be encoded in binary and beamed into outer space as “a message of peace and unity from humankind to infinity,” according to the organisers.

“These messages could continue on an infinite journey — or until another civilisation receives and decodes them,” they said.

Cassey’s photo of a man from India’s Ramnami sect — whose entire body was tattooed with the name of his god — was also selected.

He said he was pleased two of his photographs would be exhibited in space and transmitted into the beyond.

“[Carol] was literally over the moon,” he laughed.

“It sounds like a bit of a stunt but it’s quite an exciting little stunt, you never know where they’ll end up … there’s a bit of romance about it.”

The work of five other Australian photographers and a portrait taken in Australia, also made the shortlist.

1854 Media said the space exhibition was originally planned for September or October but could be delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

– ABC / Sharnie Kim

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