Portraits of Protest project

Exhibition to capture emotion of KP120 protests


Two Brisbane-based journalists are working on plans for an immersive photographic exhibition about the Kangaroo Point protests, and the detained refugees known as the KP120.

Portraits of Protest project
Photos taken of individual protestors make up the bulk of the Portraits of Protest project, which looks at the emotional realities of the KP120 protests. Photo: Courtesy Ari Balle-Bowness


The project, dubbed “Portraits of Protest”, is a multimedia photographic exhibition, which aims to humanise the stories told about the asylum seekers and the public protests that support them.

Since the start of the year there have been protests against the ongoing detention of the KP120, a group of 120 refugees who have been detained at the Kangaroo Point Central Apartments in Brisbane.

The detainees were sent to Brisbane for medical treatment for varying medical conditions that could not be managed at the offshore detention in facilities in Papua New Guinea and Nauru where they were housed.

Locals have been protesting for the release of the refugees since they discovered the group was being held in a repurposed apartment block in a suburban area of inner-city Brisbane.

The protestors are also fighting for the government to stop transfers of the detainees to high security facilities, such as Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation (BITA), as well as for the refugees to be given free movement within the facility.

The protests piqued the interest of journalist and Griffith University lecturer Dr Kasun Ubayasiri, and former Griffith student Ari Balle-Bowness, inspiring them to start the Portraits of Protest project to document not only the events of the protest but also the emotional human realities of the situation.

Dr Ubayasiri, whose research and journalism focuses on refugee human rights issues and immigration, said the project began as a just a couple of photos, but expanded in scope as the protests continued.

“Over the past three months, it’s become a project on its own because it’s been going on for more than 100 days now, and it has kind of evolved into different dimensions,” Dr Ubayasiri said.

“And so, it warranted a project in its own right,” he said.

KP120 protests
The Portraits of Protest project documents not only the Kangaroo Point protests, but the people involved in them. Photo: Courtesy Ari Balles-Bowness


Mr Balle-Bowness said there was a moral and journalistic imperative to keep developing the project beyond a simple documentation of events.

“Originally, we only were going to do 20 photos, so we set up this little stand right on the corner of Lockerbie Street first time, and we did 20 people,” he said.

“And then I said to him, ‘well, there’s 120 guys inside there, why don’t we try and mirror it with photographing, individually 120 protesters as well, and seeing where it goes from there’,” he said.

Dr Ubayasiri has been reporting on protests in Brisbane for more than 10 years and said the fact the refugees were within eyeshot from the street changed how the protests were covered.

“That brought a unique dimension to it,” he said.

“Over the three months, what I’ve been focusing on is trying to capture the emotions and the connection between the two groups, not just necessarily the individually emotion, but emotion with respect to the other,” Dr Ubayasiri said.

Mr Balle-Bowness said his process while shooting the protests was to ignore the easy shots and really get to the heart of the situation by focusing on the human element.

“I’m looking for the signature moments that are sort of unveiling in front of me, and I heavily rely on looking at emotion and individual moments instead of trying to capture the entire atmosphere or big crowds,” he said.

“I really try and home in and find the little moments of the expression on people’s faces, gestures, people’s hands and that sort of thing.”

Mr Balle-Bowness said people could often feel disconnected from the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers due to the distance between Australia and detention centres such as Nauru and Christmas Island.

He said the project helped breach that distance.

“We also will be doing a similar sort of project with the guys inside there,” Mr Balle-Bowness said.

“We are working with the guys at the moment to organise a very similar setup to what we had with the protesters only, [and] we’re going to have to use some really long lenses,” he said.

KP120 photo exhibition
The photos exhibited will be accompanied by audio captured at the protests, as well as by first person accounts from both refugees and protestors. Photo Courtesy Ari Balle-Bowness


While taking the images has gone smoothly, Dr Ubayasiri said getting the project to exhibition stage would be a much harder process.

He said the goal was to create an exhibition with soundscapes and audio recordings of the protests, akin to an environmental theatre installation.

“Ari and I decided that we would like to have some energy about it and the way to give that energy is to have sound in different corners as you move around,” Dr Ubayasiri said.

“You’re not looking at these pictures in a kind of a clinical environment, which is what essentially happens when you are in a gallery,” he said.

Dr Ubayasiri said that setup would be difficult to accomplish with current COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing in place, so the in-person exhibition would have to wait.

“That might have to wait while we do parts of it here and there in different ways, projected onto walls, it could be an interactive online exhibition as well,” he said.

Gabba Ward Councillor Jonathan Sri said the project could put a face and a name to the Kangaroo Point protesters, who were often de humanised in the mainstream media.

“Projects which specifically explore the individual identities of people who are taking part in activism can often be quite powerful at shifting and challenging that narrative,” Cr Sri said.

KP120 protest spokesperson Laura Harland said she hoped the project was able to show why the protesters continued to protest at Kangaroo Point.

“I think this project has a great opportunity to put into perspective the human connection between the people inside those walls and the community outside,” Ms Harland said.

Protester Harrison Phillips said the Portraits of Protest project put the protests into perspective.

“The project adds a sense of historical weight to the campaign, making it feel like unfolding history,” Mr Phillips said.

The Portraits of Protest exhibition project is being funded through socially conscious crowdfunding website Chuffed, with a fundraising goal of $4500.

Any spare money at the end of the project will be put into other projects covering issues of refugee human rights and integration.

If you are interested in supporting the project, visit their Chuffed page.

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