When Madeleine Rojahn and Josh Quigley finished their creative degrees, they weren’t quite ready to go into the restrictive schedule of full-time employment. The high school friends, both returned to their small hometown on the Australian island of Tasmania and working hospitality jobs, decided to work on a coffee table book about their community.
The Bloody Unknown, designed and photographed by Quigley and edited by Rojahn, tells the story of Tasmania through the voices of immigrants and refugees who have settled there, via their stories, recipes, and art.
Responding to the multicultural moment
Australia is a country that’s built on immigration. Though it hasn’t sparked the international headlines that Trump’s border wall and Boris’s Brexit have, it’s a topic that’s close to home. “We often follow the UK and the U.S. throughout history,” Rojahn says, “But in reality, we’re very multicultural, and we feel that identity in our hearts.”
Her aim in developing The Bloody Unknown was also to express that smaller locales like Tasmania, not just major cosmopolitan centers, can contain a huge diversity of backgrounds and experiences. She hoped that by highlighting a selection of the individual voices that make up even a small community, she could help readers visualize just how dynamic collective multicultural identities are.
“I’m invested in this community-building, connection-making sort of work,” she says, “because if a society is more connected, it can make better decisions going forward. Diversity and inclusion is not just about ethnic background or religion, it’s about different perspectives.”
Inexperience can be an advantage
Acknowledging that they didn’t have much professional experience to inform how they might tackle such a weighty subject, Rojahn and Quigley turned to experts, from the leaders of NGOs to the leaders of various cultural communities in Tasmania.
“We wanted to get their perspective on the best approach, how people would feel the most comfortable, how we could make it as collaborative as possible and have everyone feel like they were involved,” Rojahn says, “because my thing with being a journalist that I’m grappling with is that we’re so often taking the story away from people.”
Experts and leaders don’t know everything, though. Rojahn and Quigley also used their inexperience to their advantage by experimenting with which methods could best serve their community-minded mission.
“I wanted the people who the stories are about to be the ones benefiting from the stories,” Rojahn says, “because often the media decides their story for them.”
Thinking through this lens, she found some of the methods from her journalism education were too prescriptive and risked steamrolling the stories her subjects really wanted to tell. “When we started out with this book, I sort of had in mind that I would be writing people’s stories,” she says. “I still wanted to serve them, and I was going to edit it alongside them, but it was going to be my voice. It’s so funny thinking about that now, because I’m really opposed to it,” she says.
Instead, what she ended up doing was letting participants decide how they might work with her—whatever felt right. Some wrote their own stories, some told their stories to her and made the call on how she edited them, others contributed materials like recipes or art.
Immigration, as told by immigrants
The subjects’ control of their stories took precedence over everything else. “I still used my journalistic background to, say, point out a detail readers might be really interested in,” Rojahn says, “But in the end it was really their choice. It was important for them to have power over their own stories.”
And in several cases, subjects chose to not even speak about their refugee journey at all, Rojahn says. That itself became a big part of The Bloody Unknown’s story. “No one’s just a refugee,” she says, “that’s just one stage of their life. It’s obviously a very character-defining part of their life, but everyone has many stories to tell. And that’s something that we really highlight. The ‘bloody unknown’ is something that exists in everyone.”
“It’s a constantly developing process, and you have to be open to that. Literally, right up until the end, you have to be patient with it.”
An open process
Looking back on the project, Rojahn thinks the open—and at times maybe even unorganized—process made the project successful and meaningful.
“It’s a constantly developing process, and you have to be open to that. Literally right up until the end, you have to be patient with it,” she says. “We were interviewing people almost the whole time we were working on it, and still going back and workshopping those stories and taking more photos.”
Making the process ongoing and open-ended brought important ideas they hadn’t thought of initially into orbit. For example, as they worked, Quigley thought to include Aboriginal art and voices, as an acknowledgement that they are the traditional owners of the land and have welcomed many cultures and individuals.
They found ways to bring the work out into the physical world, too. Rojahn and Quigley are giving all proceeds from book sales to an NGO called A Fairer World, and later this month they will celebrate the book launch with a community market featuring pop-up food, art, and craftstalls. “It will allow people to share knowledge and connect, in a way transferring the values of the book into a community action,” Rojahn says.
She plans to keep following the thread started here into other projects. “I just hope that I can do this kind of work for the rest of my life,” she says. “Josh and I connected on this desire to serve the participants, to be for society. And from that common goal, everything just worked well.”
This blog post was created in partnership with Kickstarter.