“It felt like stepping back in time. Like 80s Australiana”: Isaac Kirby captures the scene at the largest open air market in the Southern Hemisphere
“I didn’t want the photos to have any exhaustive deeper meaning/context,” says the London-based Australian photographer. “I just wanted people to see a side of Australia that still exists.”
- Elfie Thomas
- 23 May 2022
“The total area covered around 15 miles of pathways. The space was covered in dust within minutes of people coming through. I met some who’d driven across Australia for two days to arrive,” says Isaac Kirby as he reminisces about arriving on the first day of the Ballarat Swap Meet. “It felt like stepping back in time. Like 80s Australiana.” Earlier this year the photographer set out to document the largest open air market in the Southern Hemisphere, held just outside the Australian city of Ballarat. Originally famed for its role in sparking the Victorian gold rush when gold was discovered there in 1851, Ballarat is now a goldmine for collectors who travel far and wide each year to sell and swap old cars and spare parts. Isaac’s sun-soaked series Hoarder’s Goldfield captures the dusty scene in all its quirkiness – the motley crew of old regulars (usually sporting impressive beards and a rather confused expression as to why they’re having their picture taken) as well as young teens and kids, galavanting about the rows of stalls on foot or on bicycles.
Isaac tells us that he was raised in Snake Valley, “one of the original goldfields in the 1850s”, just 30 minutes west of Ballarat. For the past five years though, he’s been based in London where he did an MA in documentary photography & photojournalism. He’d loved Sophie Green’s project Gypsy Gold from a few years ago, which documented the travellers who frequent the regional horse fairs across the UK. It got him wondering whether he could attempt a similar project in Australia. He began wracking his brains for ideas but “nothing came to mind,” he tells us. “I started searching online and realised the Ballarat Swap Meet was happening again post-pandemic and felt it was as close as I could get — though in a completely different style.”
Much of the charm of this series comes from the way Isaac captures the atmosphere of the swap meet through unposed portraits. “I didn't want the photos to have any exhaustive deeper meaning/context — I just wanted people to see a side of Australia that still exists,” says the photographer. So, rather than spending too long with each trader he photographed, he attempted to capture them as they appeared when he first met them. Once he’d got their consent, he’d quickly snap a shot before they got a chance to get self-conscious or alter their expression.
Many of his subjects gaze back at the photographer with quiet curiosity, seemingly stunned by the strange outsider, who appeared to be more interested in taking pictures of people than the glorious selection of car parts on display: “Everyone expected me to understand the lingo or know everything about what they were selling,” he adds. “There also seemed a genuine shock when I’d ask to take their photos.” One of his favourite images in the series depicts a trader (“who’s probably not used to having his photo taken”) brandishing a piece of machinery as he squints at the passers-by, looking for his next sale. Isaac notes humorously how his wife looks on “almost disapprovingly” at her husband from the shade of their caravan.
“Save for a handful of subjects throughout the entire project, the majority didn’t smile,” he adds. They kept their faces as they had been the whole time I’d spoken to them.” The dead-pan expressions of many of the old, bearded collectors communicates the solemnity with which they take the profession – particularly at such an important occasion as the swap meet. But a few of the traders broke into a smile as Isaac snapped their picture. A particular favourite of ours depicts two traders leaning on a trailer. While they sport matching white beards, blue vests and rounded bellies, their expressions couldn't be more different. One appears to greet a potential customer with a winning smile, while his friend looks directly at Isaac with a half-confused, half-disdainful glare.
Keen to hear what’s next for the photographer, he tells us that he’s got a little trip to the Balkans lined up for a new project in July as well as another small series in Australia if he can fit it in beforehand. “Other than that, I'm just looking forward to an English summer,” he finishes.
GalleryIsaac Kirby: Hoarder’s Goldfield (Copyright © Isaac Kirby, 2022)
Isaac Kirby: Hoarder’s Goldfield (Copyright © Isaac Kirby, 2022)
About the Author
Elfie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in November 2021 after finishing an art history degree at Sussex University. She is particularly interested in creative projects which shed light on histories that have been traditionally overlooked or misrepresented.