Votive Offering. India, 2001

Votive Offering. India, 2001 © STEPHANIE FLACK

They were holding signs in both Kashmiri and English, demonstrating for “Education for all,” their faces projecting the power of their intent, underscoring the message on their signs. “Knowledge is power.” “Education is success of life.”

It was 2006 and photographer Stephanie Flack was in Kashmir, attending a workshop conducted by Gary Knight, co-founder of the photo agency VII, and focusing on women’s issues. She came upon some students on a school excursion, both boys and girls. It was only the girls who were protesting in favor of education for all.

Much of Flack’s photography arises from such unexpected encounters. Born in Australia in the late 1950s, she has traveled the world with her camera, always ready to capture visually what has captured her emotionally. She refers to this yearning as her “wonderlust.” She has called Los Angeles home since the early 1990s and works in the film industry as a Supervising Sound Editor “where I use my ears to finance the passion of my eyes.” It is with her photography that she dives deep, documenting daily rituals, finding visual poetry in the prosaic, recording elegance in the mundane. At around the age of 10, Flack was given her first camera, a Diana, for Christmas. “We went on holidays and stayed in a beach shack that was only accessible by trekking down a long bush trail from the top of a mountain. With my first roll of film, I snapped photos of the shack and dog and cat… and people.” But reliant on her parents to buy the film and have it processed, and having to delay gratification while waiting to see what she had captured, her budding interest in photography did not really take hold.

Flack studied Asian Social Studies in high school, beginning her lifelong love of Asia. On her first overseas trip with the family, at age 17, she was in heaven seeing Jakarta, Bali and Singapore. But she did not have her own camera. Then “my Mum was given a Polaroid camera. Hello instant gratification!” And sometime after that she herself was gifted a camera, a Ricoh (“I think a 500G”).

She steered clear of classes in the arts, though, believing the more traditional academic courses would better prepare her for the world (“Oh, how wrong I was!”). When she went on to college, she says, “I entered university thinking I wanted to work in Asia, in maybe the diplomatic corps. I studied Southeast Asian history, economic history and political science. But I really didn’t have a clear vision of where I was going and I left university after my first year.”

Her mother encouraged her to enroll in secretarial school. After gaining those skills and then driving with her boyfriend across Australia for a year, she got a job in Perth with the Western Australian Government, alongside social workers at what was then called the Probation & Parole Department. Subsequently, she was employed by the Department of Mental Services (now the Department of Health), assisting psychiatrists and psychologists. At both jobs she was exposed to the lives of people who had fallen through the cracks of society. “This instilled in me the importance of a social welfare state — that we, as a society, have a responsibility to look after those less fortunate than ourselves — and taught me empathy and compassion. It expanded my horizons regarding the human condition.” These experiences no doubt informed her later photojournalism.

After returning to Sydney, she eventually moved on from secretarial work to a position as facilities manager at a video post-production house. From there she segued into the Australian film industry, working in both picture and sound post-production.

At 19 Flack was introduced to SLR cameras. “I was given an Olympus 2N camera and I loved it! As time went on, I added a stable of lenses and filters. The SLR allowed me to learn about photography and understand the control and choices I had in making a photo. I went from snapping moments to interpreting moments.”

With her Olympus, she worked on an ocean liner for a couple of months, sailing through the South Pacific, as the Ship’s Librarian and then as a stewardess. “It was an extraordinary time. But I truly fell into living and breathing photography when I backpacked across America and Canada in 1990. By then, I was firmly in the grip of only seeing through a glass lens. If I couldn’t capture and reveal the moment, it wasn’t worth experiencing.”

In 1992, Flack moved to Los Angeles to continue her career in the film industry. Working freelance afforded her time between projects to return to Australia annually at Christmastime and to continue her world travels whenever possible.

She went to India in late 1997. “On my first morning in Delhi, I ventured out wide-eyed amid people going about their quotidian rites; they were bathed in the early morning light, beautifully diffused by the heavy pollution. My senses were saturated by everything around me — the smells, the heat, the sounds and the magical vista. The blurry line between life and art entangled me. I was transfixed by the absolute beauty and majesty. I wanted to communicate these moments on a deeper, more emotional and meaningful level to share with others. The flame was lit. This changed the course of my life.”

Upon returning to Los Angeles, Flack enrolled in a studio lighting class with Bobbi Lane. “I loved sitting in her studio, discussing, examining and exploring composition and lighting. When that class finished, I continued on to her master class. The following year I would shoot every weekend in a studio downtown, dragging along willing and unwitting friends, friends of friends — anyone I could find. It was a great time of experimentation with shooting styles and different films and processes, with various sources of natural and studio lighting.” The year culminated in a group exhibition at a Santa Monica gallery. She showed photos from India as well as her portrait work.