Breaking the Single Story

Dec, 14th 2021

Cora - Mask, by Buzz Gardiner
Buzz Gardiner is an Australian-Solomon Islander photographer whose work challenges perception, presenting a dynamic and authentic gaze of his Melanesian roots and community. Using natural landscapes as backdrops to his stunning subjects - currently, those who are navigating maintaining connection to their Solo culture while living in Australia - Buzz captures the richness of “black stone” that represents both the land and people from the islands. Holding a connection to different cultures at once comes naturally to Buzz as well as his drive and ambition to decolonize the art scene for both foreign audiences and his community, one series at a time.
Who gets to control perception? This is such a big question, one that scholars and philosophers have been exploring for centuries and one that can lead your mind down an introspective rabbit hole with no end in sight. In today’s age, we grapple with this on a daily basis as we decide what to share online and how we’re presenting “our authentic selves.” If you’re not one to participate on the socials, I am very jealous of you, but nonetheless, you must face perception when you start a new job, go on a first date or meet your attractive neighbors who moved in next door (act normal! you tell yourself) On a macro level, perception shapes roles in society and unfortunately, more often than not, can lead to negative stories that somehow get misrepresented as truth. 

Buzz Gardiner is an intriguing photographer because he is purposefully taking on perception in his work in a beautiful way that is two-fold. On one hand, he is breaking down the narrative told about his community and circulated in photographs taken from foreigners and those on the outside. Whereas simultaneously, he is encouraging those within his community to shift their gaze away from years of falsified commercially successful imagery towards a more truthful understanding of who they are. 

I came across one of Buzz’s striking portraits from his Karua series while aimlessly scrolling on my Explore feed. This led to his website where I instantly wanted to meet him after reading how his“... personal photography work explores the balance between assimilation and holding onto cultural identity.” I needed to know who this person is! Upon connecting over Zoom (11pm LA time, his tomorrow), I ascended into full-blown, “there is indeed a God//we are in a simulation//parallel planes exist'' type of territory. I was connecting with an artist who is grappling with similar ideas surrounding identity while using his own unique approach of rewriting his community’s story. Not only did we bond over our artistic interests but we discovered we have a mutual friend despite living on opposite sides of the world! We were both so blown away and it was a fun reminder that life can lead you to the right people when you’re dialed into your values. And my newfound friend comes from a pretty special place… paradise.

Buzz was born and raised in the South Pacific archipelago nation of Vanuatu to a black Solomon Islander mother and white Australian father. Not gonna lie, I had to google Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands before chatting with Buzz because my small American mind had never been exposed to either place before. Vanuatu is a country in Melanesia, sitting west of Fiji while the Solomon Islands, where a lot of his family currently live, is northwest, and closer to Papua New Guinea. Geography lesson aside… the islands sound fucking incredible. Beautiful beachside resorts, a growing culinary scene and a rich, island culture attract tourists looking for a remote getaway.

“We often hit the happiest country in the world, like [in] the rankings. Everyone is happy there. Everyone is smiling. Everybody just wants to know you. Happy to hang out. Show you around. It’s a really good place.” 

For Buzz, the islands are not only paradise. They are home. His parents met in Solo (locals’ term for the Solomon Islands) while his father was working a construction job building wharves and jetties on one of many islands. Moving from Geelong, Victoria, a city southwest of Melbourne, his father went on to marry his mother, whose family is from Gizo, the capital of the Western Province. The couple followed another work opportunity to Vanuatu, which is where they raised Buzz and his two sisters. 

Despite loving where he grew up and appreciating the island pace of life, Buzz followed the path of many by moving to Australia to pursue schooling at the age of 16. He moved to the Gold Coast, which is an hour south of Brisbane, experiencing quite a stark juxtaposition against his hometown. Since moving to Australia, Buzz has added a new layer to his identity, learning how to navigate spaces oftentimes as the only black person in the room, ultimately finding connection, community and creative inspiration amongst those who also moved from Solo and Vanuatu. 
When I initially asked Buzz to introduce himself, he hesitated, offering with a hint of admission that he doesn’t necessarily identify completely with any one place. If people say they are from Vanuatu, he says he’s from Vanuatu. If someone says they are from Solo, he’s from Solo. There is so much energy felt in that moment of hesitation, one that is sprinkled with both a sense of longing and belonging. “When you’re in the islands, you rarely think about the islands and keeping a connection to the islands and being a Solomon Islander. You're there and it’s just, you're there. You don’t have to think about [your roots]. I think being here, I guess it’s a bit about homesickness and you think about it more and you try to think of ways to connect to it more. I think you have to make an effort to stay connected to it rather than just being.” Despite living in Australia for 16 years, half his life, this connection to the islands is what currently drives Buzz’s work. His main focus for his photography is breaking up the single story that has been told and shown about people from his community.

Buzz first discovered photography as a young adult, tinkering away on an old DSLR camera his father gave him. He enjoys taking things apart and putting them back together so a few Google searches and Youtube videos later, Buzz started to teach himself how to take photographs. He would go down to the beach and shoot, quickly becoming obsessed with the whole process. 

At first, he had no intention of sharing his photographs. When his sisters would urge him to post online, he shrugged off the suggestion, viewing photography as something he did for himself. However, as he studied the art form and discovered different photographers' work, his role as an artist - and therefore his mission - shifted in a way that is beautifully necessary. 

“I think what I’m targeting is perception. Perception of Melanesia and people from the Solomons. I think the Solomons has a single story of vulnerability and all this tribal photography, like the way we’ve been presented. My goal is to break the single story. I think I work in perception, which is a weird thing… There's no metric for perception. I struggle with that. Initially, I was shooting for me, and through that for the Solomons, which I still am, but I think my target audience has to be people outside, foreigners: Australians, Americans, people in the U.K. I think it’s hard to convince that audience that this is important.”

Starting in 2018, finding artists and photographers he liked, Buzz noticed many people he grew to admire referenced images from Jimmy Nelson, a prolific English photographer who is known for shooting portraits of tribal and indigenous peoples. If you’ve ever looked through National Geographic, chances are you’ve seen Jimmy’s work. One of his famous books Before They Pass Away struck Buzz in such a strong way:

“He traveled around the world and photographed these ‘tribes’, huh ‘tribes’ [insert my side-eye to go along with Buzz’ chuckle #iykyk] and it was like, ‘I’m [Jimmy] doing this good thing cuz they are going to disappear soon so I want to speak for these people.’ And it was so abrasive to me. I still look at those photos and there’s so much disconnect between the subject and the camera. But white people eat that shit up, they love it. ‘Oh, he’s done really good work here. This is important. He’s really photographed them nicely.’ But no, he hasn’t. There’s stuff from Vanuatu and I really don’t like it. It’s strong white gaze.” 

The purest example of white gaze. “White gaze” as described by the great Toni Morrison is, “The little white man that sits on your shoulder and checks out everything you do or say. You sort of knock him off and you’re free.” It’s a foreigner coming into spaces that are not his own and showing the world “who these people are” compared to his Western context of being. Here is “the other'', front and center! The danger of work like Jimmy Nelson’s is that it creates a single story about people and communities. There is a flatness that happens, stripping the subjects of their dignity and wholeness as complex human beings and individuals that exist outside of a monolithic presentation. Buzz turned me towards author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted Talk on the single story where she describes the dangers in such a powerful way. I’m not going to attempt to paraphrase because she is um, a brilliant writer so here are some highlights/I highly encourage you to watch the full video:

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story… I've always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar…. That when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise. 

For Buzz, as he studied and observed the effects of Jimmy Nelson and even the Australian media on his community, he saw how it shaped identity and perception from the inside. “People in the islands don’t have cameras, right, so archival footage and archival photos and just nice photos, in general, are always going to be that white gaze.” I mention how images like this can become tropey to which Buzz elaborates with such an illuminating point. “That tropey image that you were mentioning, I think that has become, people in the islands like that. So I think because that’s all they’ve seen, they want to be the ones to then put that same image across. So a lot of photographers I’ve seen have been trying to replicate that. I mean if you see someone at that level like Jimmy Nelson, who is a world-famous photographer, then why wouldn’t you think that’s the way this should be presented? So this white gaze continues on through us, through the community… That’s a big part of decolonization. Just trying to get rid of that mentality.” 
Karua - Carlos
This point gave me chills because it reminds me so much of the portrayals and stories communities of color within the United States are sharing or recreating. So many stories have been centered around racism and struggle. I am grateful more of those stories are being told by people of color rather than the white gaze but I have such a complicated relationship with the idea that POC are so very quickly and largely labeled as “underrepresented”,  “disenfranchised”, historically seen as “less than”; whereas white people are “privileged”, “entitled” and holding all the power. No, we cannot ignore or forget our painful history or deny these truths yet I strive for more dynamic stories that go beyond slavery, racism and proving my own humanity. I know I am so much more than the negative narratives attached to my skin color and gender and that’s what draws me so much to Buzz’s work. He is adding a contemporary gaze to his photographs that contain so much more complexity and fullness than what monopolizes the current landscape of portraiture of his home. 

The richness of Buzz’s photographs doesn’t happen by chance. He takes his craft very seriously and has an extensive planning process for his work mixed with getting out there to shoot and experiment. Viewing photography as having two equal parts, the artistic side and technical side, Buzz believes the best photographs happen when you treat both two sides equally. Instagram is home to a lot of “pretty” amazingly sharp photos with incredible lighting and editing yet they aren’t saying anything. The photos lack soul. “I put meaning into the artistic section also. Thinking about why you're taking the photo and what you’re saying. And I think that not many people do that. I think it takes a long time and a lot of work and I’m definitely not there, not even close. But I’m still working towards that.” 
Part of his planning process involves reading academic works and having a vast understanding of anthropology. While sifting through studies and research is not always a pleasant experience, Buzz gains a lot of ideas from doing that since there isn’t a pool of good artwork to really glean from in the islands. “I’ve approached a lot of professors and people who have written research papers on [representation] and I’ve read those and I think that informs my work a lot. It’s all about decolonization and you're not going to find that in any form of art, on this side of the world at least.” He also pulls inspiration from other areas, looking to artists from Africa, especially Nigeria and also the Caribbean who are further along in breaking down & restructuring the perception of their communities. Maintaining careful control of his Instagram feed is also important to him, making sure he is following artists who respect the craft of photography. 

Buzz has spent a lot of time on the technical side but has recently found himself spending more time on the art side, the meaning behind his pictures. A perfect example of this is from his Karua series shot on the Gold Coast in Australia. Gaining inspiration from Vanuatu poet Grace Mera Molisa, Buzz’s portraits embody the essence of “black stone”. “So black stone is like the land in the islands, so the volcanic base. But also the people, like the black skin, strong, tough,” Buzz explains. “For [Karua] project, I shoot down there for a reason, because of the black stone. The people I’m shooting now are the Solomon Island diaspora in Brisbane and all the black stone we shoot on originates from the same place and is like a diaspora of black stone. So it has that double meaning for me. I’m shooting people from the Solomon Islands but Australia has to play a part as well.” 

The volcanic rock brings a sense of elegant gravitas to his photos acting as a major player in the overall composition. His subjects are young, striking figures, whose expressions carry a softer tone than what is typically captured in images depicting people from the islands. Light neutral, contemporary clothing allows the richness of their melanated skin to be captured beautifully in the natural light. The occasional traditional artifact or jewelry may make an appearance, adding a subtle nod to the island's cultural roots without bringing any hint of pastiche. Every element is in perfect balance, holding space for showcasing both Melanesian pride and modern Australian living. Something Buzz, and his subjects, all navigate in their everyday lives. His photos carry a soul and a depth that can only be presented when the person behind the camera truly sees people as whole, multifaceted individuals, creating a safe space in which they can simply be. No need to turn on a performance, present a premeditated idea or explain themselves but rather, naturally remain present and open, soak up their surroundings and offer a new kind of perception. 
Karua - Mali
I cannot fully express how impactful my conversation with Buzz has been. Partially for the random nature in which we connected but mostly because he is a wonderful example of the resilience that artists exhibit, especially during the worst of times. Once Buzz locked into his mission and focus as an artist, he moved back to Vanuatu and had intentions of working on a series full time for one year. Then, Covid hit. After much debate on whether to stay or return to Australia, he took the last flight back before the borders closed, leading him to working on his current series, the very photos that popped up on my explore page and led to our conversation that has made such a potent impact on my mind. His ability to remain connected to the bigger picture enveloping his body of work despite limitations is so inspirational. I believe we need conversations like this with artists from different regions, especially in the earlier phases in our career where we grapple with our mission vs the desire to gain a certain level of “success”, whatever that word may mean. I’m excited to follow Buzz’s career and see what new images he produces that continue to humanize the people of Melanesia. Photos from a man who truly understands what paradise is. 

If you could have dinner with anyone: I’d start with you Mikki! This [conversation] would have been good over a meal. 
*I immediately start tracking flights to the Gold Coast 

If you could travel anywhere for a year (sans Covid): For my work, I’d go back to the islands. That would be amazing. I need to be in the islands to do the work I want to do. But from a selfish standpoint, I’d love to go to New York. 

A cause we can support: YECSI (Young Entrepreneurs Council Solomon Islands) There's not many job opportunities in the Solomon Islands. Entrepreneurship is really important and YESCI, they help a lot of young people. Help them think about what they can do and if they've got an idea, they help foster that idea. 

Follow Buzz: @b_z_b_y
Visit his website:
If you or someone you know curates art shows, hit him up! He truly is a gift to the art world and his work needs to be shared around the globe.