Mention “family portraits” to anyone in December and you’re likely to conjure images of makeshift photography studios in shopping centres: stiff collars and reindeer jumpers, forced smiles, saccharine poses.
But Sydney-based artist EO Gill is redefining what family portraits can — and should — look like.
Gill’s portraits are dazzling and defiant, set against hyper-real, dream-like landscapes — everything from oceans with dark-red sand to mountains with pink-blue, ethereal hues.
Gold capes, Superman onesies, candy-pink wigs and yellow face paint: nothing is off-limits.
“I want to fracture and dismantle the hetero-nuclear family as the dominant model in which society feels pressure to strive for and become,” Gill says.
“I want alternative family models to feel welcome, wanted, respected and validated within the wider community.”
To this end, Gill photographed “culturally and gender diverse families”, including single parents, same-sex parents and a lesbian couple with their child and sperm-donor father.
Reimagining ‘the family portrait’
Gill says their broader work as a video artist interrogates “gender, class-politics, queer subjecthood and ways of seeing”— and they approached this project with a similarly critical lens.
They worked with makeup artist Anastasia Zaravinos on the series, originally commissioned as part of Fambo — an inaugural festival for queer families hosted at Sydney’s 107 Projects earlier this year.
The mission was clear: empowering and celebrating LGBTIQA+ families.
“The participants played a big part in the process, choosing their makeup and costumes,” Gill says.
For Lucia and Catherine, having their family portrait taken — with their unborn daughter — was significant on a number of levels.
“We were interested in re-contextualising the ‘pregnancy shoot’, queering it, claiming space, having pride,” Lucia says.
“Making families has been an experience denied to queer people, and despite that fact we have defiantly done so for a long time.
“In a time of lots of cameras, there is a gap in the ‘formal portrait’, unless you make the time and space for it.”
In their photos, Gill deliberately subverted the tropes of traditional family portraiture.
“I [asked] each family to hold traditional portrait poses in order to further articulate the reference to family portraiture and to also further highlight the ways in which the images and subjects deviate from this traditional mode,” Gill says.
This style is inspired by American artist Cindy Sherman, who photographs herself in front of green screens or painted backdrops, “referencing particular moments and figures in time through gesture and costume”.
In doing so, Gill says, this style explores the “ambiguity, the slipperiness of identity itself”.
The photo backdrops were deliberately chosen to signify an “in-between or utopian space”.
That idea resonates with Lucia, who describes the backdrop to her family portrait as “very powerful” and “dramatic”.
“It transcends the mundane, the domestic… it elevates it to this elemental reverent place,” she says.
‘I just wanted to show people what my family looks like’
For single mother Erica, being photographed with her son Kasper was an empowering experience; she wanted to portray the at-times lonely reality of single parenting.
“I just wanted to show people what my family looks like,” she says.
“The majority of the time it can be just Kasper and I and a lot of the time it can be quite lonely, isolating.”
As a child, Erica struggled with traditional family portraits.
“I remember my mum made us go to David Jones and get photos, and have our hairs parted,” she recalls.
“It was like we were all forced to be happy in this hetero step-family… like the Brady Bunch.
“And that’s what I liked about EO and Anastasia’s artwork… I had my whole face purple. If you didn’t know me, you wouldn’t recognise me; it’s like we became part of the landscape.
“It also celebrates different kinds of families, and I think that’s what queer means: difference, and not mainstream.”
Gill hopes to photograph more queer families.
“Of course the four families I chose only represent a very small portion of the queer community,” Gill says, “which is gender-diverse, culturally diverse and which has a diverse range of family structures including those who choose not or can not have children, couples, throuples, singles, non-monogamous relationships and so on.”
“I would love the opportunity to reflect and represent my community more fully by making this an ongoing project.”
For now, the existing family portraits will hang in living rooms and on fridges — Gill made sure everyone had copies.
“It was important to me that this experience was something that they could hold on to, cherish and be proud of,” they say.
Catherine sees her photograph as an important document “for ancestors and future generations”.
“I can’t wait until Esme is old enough to see that portrait,” she says.
“Seeing yourself reflected in this way is really empowering in a lot of ways, and having this document is really special and important for marking time.”
Meanwhile, Erica is considering using her portrait for her Christmas card.
“In the queer world, a lot of my queer friends have to hide themselves… especially at Christmas time,” she says.
“When we hang out with our families we do have to wear a mask.
“Some of my relatives might get the shock of their lives and it’s good to celebrate different families.”