Outskirts online journal

Amy Jackett

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About the author

Amy Jackett is a lecturer in Visual Arts at Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory. Her research interests include landscape art, photography, portraiture, as well as expressions of place and belonging in Australian art.

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Publication details

Volume 31, November 2014


Writing Lost Lives in Light: Anne Ferran’s Portrayals of Female Convicts

There are many sites in Australia where the past has been suppressed, especially when it comes to sites associated with the lives of women who did not fit the foundational vision of mateship promoted in Australia. One such place, which forms the focus of this article, is the former Female Factory site at Ross in Tasmania (then known as Van Diemen’s Land). Unlike other female convict sites in Australia, such as the Parramatta Female Factory, which remain relatively intact, virtually nothing remains of the Female Factory at Ross, which operated from 1847 to 1854.The only building left standing at the Ross site is a Victorian cottage which originally housed the staff of the Female Factory. The Factory buildings at Ross were torn apart in the late nineteenth century in an effort to conceal the past and assuage the embarrassing fact that most Tasmanians were descended from convicts, a feeling that became known as ‘the convict stain’. At the turn of the twentieth century there was very little indication that a Female Factory ever existed at Ross. The deliberate erasure of the past at Ross is problematic for those who wish to remember the convict women of the Factory and imagine how they lived their lives within the Factory walls. In this article I analyse an artistic response to acknowledging and commemorating the women of the Ross Female Factory by Australian photographer Anne Ferran.

Anne Ferran is an artist who thrives on historical gaps and silences. She is frequently drawn to women who have been deemed unimportant and largely excluded from historical record. In this way, her work follows in the vein initiated by 1970s Australian feminism, particularly by Anne Summers’s Damned Whores and God’s Police: the Colonisation of Women in Australia (1975) and Miriam Dixson’s The Real Matilda: Women and Identity in Australia (1976), which decisively wrote women into Australian history. Summers and Dixson challenged the masculine bias of Australian national identity and brought attention to the way women were portrayed in a negative light, if portrayed at all, in accounts of Australian history.

To examine Ferran’s techniques I have chosen to focus on three related series of works in this article. The first is a photographic body of work, entitled ‘Lost to Worlds’ (2001), which portrays the ground of the former Female Factory site at Ross. The second is a reworking of the former series using a different medium, known as ‘Lost to Worlds’ (2008). The third, entitled ‘In the ground on the air’ (2006-2008), is a mixed media installation which concerns the children of female convicts from the Ross and Cascades Female Factories. Focusing on her insistence on photography, emptiness and innovative use of aluminium and other materials, I argue that these three works eloquently promote remembrance of the female convicts by forcing the viewer into an active role of engagement. 

French historian Pierre Nora’s distinction between memory and history provides a useful framework to analyse Ferran’s portrayals of female convicts. Nora proposes that history is always a partial reconstruction whereas memory is “a bond tying us to the eternal present” (Nora 1989, p. 8). History is a representation, and usually a fairly static one, while memory is in a constant state of flux. Memory requires active engagement. Retrieving memory, or what British film scholar Annette Kuhn terms ‘memory work’, is a process that involves “an inquiring attitude towards the past” (Kuhn 2010, p. 303). Memory can be latent, awaiting renewed interest. Nora suggests that lieux de mémorie (sites of memory) require “a will to remember” (Nora 1989, p. 19). I argue that Ferran’s photographs trigger such a will. Her work does not attempt to represent the past, but rather aims to stir an emotional connection to it.  

Landscape plays a pivotal role in conveying the identity of the subjects in Ferran’s photographs. Geographer Karen Till argues that places can facilitate atonement. She explains, “Through place making, people mark social spaces as haunted sites where they can return, make contact with their loss, contain unwanted presences, or confront past injustices” (2005, p. 8).The former Female Factory site at Ross is positioned in Ferran’s photographs as the place to begin learning of those who once walked the same soil but whose presence has since been erased. It is a channel to the female convicts and a means to reflect on the ways in which they have been historically neglected.

There are many different ways of engaging with historic sites. In her essay ‘Under the House’, Australian writer Evelyn Juers explains that visitors to historic sites are:

… caught between detachment and intrigue. If we choose to remain distant, we add a speck of indifference – a small donation – to the amnesia-dust and grave-dirt encrusting those gestures from the past. We look and shrug and leave. If instead we choose to simply stay a moment, we also unwittingly select one of the fragile connecting threads …

Ferran’s photographs encourage viewers to look at the land at Ross, take a thread and imaginatively trace it back to the past. Using photographic theories by John Berger, along with discourses on memorialising by James Young, this paper explores how Ferran’s works affect viewers. However, before analysing Ferran’s aesthetic strategies, I first want to provide a brief contextual backdrop of the operation of Female Factories in Tasmania.

Female Factories in Tasmania

When Ferran began researching the lives of convict women in Tasmania in the 1990s, Female Factories were seldom discussed. This largely reflected the broader marginalisation of women in Australia. Feminist scholar Miriam Dixson attributes the lower position of women in Australian historiography to negative attitudes towards convict women, “our founding mothers” (Dixson 1999, p. 115). Convict women were perceived in a far more negative light than convict men. The gender inequality was embedded in the language. Convict women were described in terms of “a special kind of ugliness, despair, demoralisation far beyond that of convict men” (Dixson 1999, p. 124). The combination of being female and low class made convict women doubly abhorrent.

The role of women in nineteenth-century Tasmania has largely been “neglected – in fact almost omitted from most general histories of the period” (Daniels 1998, pp. 24-5). In contrast to the much celebrated Tasmanian male convict site at Port Arthur, the Female Factories received little attention. Female convicts in Tasmania were rarely spoken of, even in their day, as Female Factories were designed to keep convict women out of sight and therefore out of mind. In Tasmania, Surveyor General John Oxley wrote in 1810: “A well regulated factory is the only means of rendering the women convicts in some degree useful to the public, without being quite a burden to it” (quoted in Frost 2004, p. 4).

Female Factories were based on the model of the British Workhouse System (Casella 2001, p. 104). The term ‘factory’ was abbreviated from ‘manufactory’ as female convicts had to partake in “feminine industries, including sewing, textile production and laundry work” (Casella 2001, p. 104), which were intended to prevent idleness and facilitate reform. As well as working, the women were taught to be good Christians who understood not to sin. Governor Arthur believed this was crucial to their reform (Frost 2004, p. 16).

There were five Female Factories in Tasmania operating from the 1820s to 1850s: the Hobart Town Female Factory, the George Town Female Factory, the Cascades Female Factory at South Hobart, the Launceston Female Factory and the Ross Female Factory. The Hobart Town Female Factory was the first to be opened in 1821. It had a short life as it was found to be too easy to escape from. A larger and more secure Female Factory was built in South Hobart in 1828 under the cool, omnipresent shadow of Mount Wellington (Female Convicts Research Centre). The “sun-starved site”, as historian Lucy Frost calls it (2004, p. 5), was a miserable place that often flooded making its windowless, unplastered walls dank and unhygienic. The George Town Female Factory operated for twelve years and was then replaced by the Launceston Female Factory. The Ross Female Factory was partly designed to ease the overcrowding of the other factories.  Upon closing, most of the Female Factories were repurposed or left to ruin. It was not until the 1970s that the taboo lifted regarding discussions of Tasmania’s convict past (Rayner 2004, p. 5) and an awareness of female convicts was brought forth.

Ferran was drawn to the Cascades and Ross Female Factories, particularly Ross where she found the vacant, undulating land mesmerising. In contrast to earlier residencies she had been granted at Hyde Park Barracks (1994-95) and Rouse House Hill (1998) where she made photograms of the clothing of the prior residents, at Ross and South Hobart there was very little for Ferran to work from; there was no clothing to tangibly feel and press to paper as she had done in earlier artwork. Thus Ferran found a different way to represent the female convicts, conscious her artworks would be as much about the present as the past, “about evidence, remembrance, disintegration, photography” (Ferran 2001). Instead of resurrecting the female convicts at Ross and South Hobart through some figurative form, her artworks raise an awareness of their existence and neglect. She does not single out any one individual but promotes the anonymous women collectively.

Rather than attempting to fill the historical gap regarding these women, Ferran draws attention to it because the absence of physical remains and the gaps in official records reveal:

a lot about our culture’s values and priorities so instead [of trying to close the gap] I try to make an image that will indicate where the gap is without filling it in or covering it over (Ferran 2011).

Photography is a medium that traditionally requires the object of the photograph to be present. Ferran uses this connotation to explore the gap between the past and present. Acknowledging photography’s limitations, she declares: “My ‘real’ subjects are all ones that can’t be photographed directly, in the usual way” (quoted in Batchen 2009). Ferran’s subjects are absent. Her ‘real’ subjects – the female convicts and their babies – vanished over a century ago. They cannot be studied in depth nor visualised through previous portraits; they “can’t be grasped visually” (Ferran in Batchen 2009). Instead, Ferran’s photographs use absence and place to draw attention to the lives of female convicts.  Since photography is, in the words of Eduardo Cadava, “nothing else than a writing of light, a script of light” (1997, p. xvii), Ferran’s artworks thus write lost lives in light.

Photography, Emptiness and Absence: ‘Lost to Worlds’ (2001 and 2008)

In his celebrated book, Camera Lucida, French philosopher Roland Barthes declared: “Every photograph is a certificate of presence” (1981, p. 87). Conversely, Ferran’s photographs of the ground at Ross in her 2001 ‘Lost to Worlds’ series are certificates of absence. Emptiness is used to suggest that something is missing. The missing component is Ferran’s ‘real’ subject matter, not the ground but the long vanished female convicts.

Photography is often associated with memory as it converts experience into an image which then becomes a souvenir to remember people, places and events (Sontag 2002, p.9). Photography thus relieves us of the need to remember as we can refer back to the photograph which triggers the memory of the depicted subject at the particular time and place the photograph was taken. People often look at but also into photographs with an inquisitive desire to learn more about the subject matter. Annette Kuhn proposes that people are drawn to photographs of other people, that “there is a shared fascination with – and a quest to understand – others’ memory accounts” (Kuhn 2000, p.286) and that analysing photographs can be a productive way to uncover those accounts. The methodology Kuhn uses for this kind of memory work involves identifying the human subject of the photograph, the context in which the photograph was taken, its reception then and now, as well as using other investigative means such as oral history. Without featuring the ‘real’ human subject matter however, Ferran’s photographs require a different kind of memory work.

By creating empty portraits, Ferran puts the onus on viewers to remember. This strategy echoes the work of other postmodern artists who have deliberately used absence to evoke lost lives, such as European artists who have reproduced absence to remember vanished victims of the Holocaust (see Young 1992). Presenting absence to insist on remembrance is a sensitive way of recovering lives that were lost to practices we now consider reprehensible. It counters didactic history paintings that portray a particular version of figures, traditionally celebrating the victors. According to professor of literary and Judaic studies James Young, accentuating absence forces viewers to internalise memory (1992, p. 294). As they now have an active duty in remembering, viewers are less likely to forget what the artwork has made them feel and imagine. Thus, absence can be a powerful tool of resuscitating otherwise neglected past lives.

The absence in Ferran’s photographs differs from the time-related absence observed in most photography by theorists such as John Berger. In 1972 Berger proposed that photography finds its meaning between “poles of absence and presence” (Berger, p. 180). Photography, in Berger’s eyes, is all about time where the photographer’s job is to select a moment. That isolated moment also evokes absence in not showing the moments leading up to or immediately following the frozen photographic moment, such as “a grief to a tragedy” (Berger 1972, p. 181). Berger concludes that an “effective” photograph is one that reveals as much about what is absent as what is present (1972, p. 181). This is true for photographs where the captured moment is privileged. However, Ferran’s photographs are not about one frozen moment in time. The captured moment is not important; it reveals nothing of the women. The absence in Ferran’s photographs does not stem from events that instantly precede or follow what the photograph depicts; it stems from the physical absence of material at the site and the intangible, but equally significant, lack of information available about the women detained at the site.

Ferran’s photographs raise an awareness of the women through highlighting their absence. They thus function in a similar manner to some of Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s work. Bravo created empty “implied” portraits to portray the way marginalised people are, in a sense, invisible in mainstream society – much like the female convicts. For instance, Bravo’s work The Washerwomen Implied (1932) voices the existence of laundry workers and their exclusion from society by emphasising their absence from the photographed scene. Bravo was interested in exploring straightforward perceptions of photography and its assumed links to reality. His Absent Portrait (1945), which depicts an empty dress sitting on a chair, “reminds the viewer that despite the figurative precision of photographic portraits, they always indicate the physical absence of the person pictured” (Gabara 2008, pp. 225-6). Absent Portrait conveys a fundamental feature of all photography – that, in Sontag’s words, photographs are “both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence” (2002 [1977], p. 16). Even when the photographic subject is present, their presence is an illusion.

Ferran similarly challenges assumptions about photography: “I try to play off the facticity (the claim to factuality) of the photographs I make against the subject matter of my work, always something that has disappeared from view or from record” (Ferran in Batchen 2009). Her empty portraits convey photography’s limitations in being able to record historical subjects because of the difference in time – “a distance that cannot be photographed” (Ferran in Batchen 2009). Photography can never capture the historical evidence that may exist at the Female Factory sites since the camera’s eye can only fix the surface layer that blankets remnants of the past buried in the ground (Ferran explains this is Batchen 2009). Ferran’s use of emptiness thus signals photography’s limitations.

My idea was that the fact of there being so little to see would somehow be underlined or augmented (made more telling) by the knowledge that photography is a machine for showing you things — by its failure in other words (Ferran in Batchen 2009).

Another artist who has challenged photography’s ability to record is Michael Somoroff. In his Absence of Subject (2011), Somoroff digitally manipulated August Sander’s photographic collection People of the 20th Century to remove the subject and leave only the empty background. As in Bravo’s Absent Portrait, there is a similar sense that something is missing in Somoroff’s work. Even without the title and without knowledge of the appropriation of Sander’s photographs, Somoroff’s compositions seem unbalanced suggesting what is depicted is not the true subject matter. It is this sense that there is something more to be found than what is shown in the singular photographic moment that also empowers Ferran’s photographs of the ground.

This sense that something is missing is what distinguishes Ferran’s photographs of the ground from other pictorially similar works, such as Marion Marrison’s ‘Bonnet Hill Bush Series’ (1974-85) and Lynn Silverman’s ‘Horizons’ series (1979). Like Ferran, Marrison and Silverman pointed their cameras down, directly photographing the ground. With descriptive titles, their photographs of the ground document particular environments. However, unlike Ferran’s photographs, the ground they document feels complete. Silverman’s ‘Horizons’ series appears to map someone walking as feet are often glimpsed in the foreground; most of Marrison’s Bonnet Hill photographs focus on fallen trees and leaves.

In Ferran’s photographs the ground links the viewer to the missing subjects. It reflects Cliff Spargo’s idea of “the natural world function[ing] as an otherwise absent witness” (Ehrenreich & Spargo 2009, p. 226). As a silent witness, the land is the one constant that can bridge the past and the present at Ross. It is the place to begin learning of the past. Ferran says of her photographs of the ground at Ross: “It’s like peering into the place where the photos would be if anyone at the time had thought the subject(s) [were] worth recording” (Ferran in Batchen 2009).

In her article ‘Empty’ (2002), Ferran examined how other contemporary photographers have dealt with historical subjects by creating works that are also empty. For instance, in French artist Sophie Ristelhueber’s Fait, or in English, Fact, series, the landscape is empty. Ristenlhueber’s aerial and ground-level photographs depict debris and land markings in Kuwait after the Gulf War. Without any perpetrators, victims or survivors, her photographs “withhold” (Ferran 2002, p. 6) the human horrors of the war. For Ferran “there is something communicative in this withholding from view” (Ferran 2002, p. 6). She theorises that these photographers use emptiness as a way of dealing with the historical distance they experience. Depicting empty, void spaces highlights the missed encounter: “The photographers have come too late upon their subjects and they know it; the absence of any life in the images is their way of saying so for all to see” (2002, p. 8). This echoes Ferran’s conviction about her own work. Her photographs of the ground confidently state and share the missed encounter.

Some of the depicted ground seems pregnant with stories bulging just under the surface, yet the overwhelming mass of subject matter appears empty. I used to live in South Hobart, a short walk from the Cascades Female Factory site. When I was younger I was told that hundreds of bodies were buried in the hillside behind the Factory. From then on, the land always appeared lumpy and unsettled as if it could never be smoothed and purged of its past. For me, Ferran’s photographs of the ground are so affective because they capture this sense of unease – that something so terrible happened the land is forever scarred and haunted by the past.

Most of the photographs are single images, however The Ground at Ross 10 is a diptych which presents paired images of slightly different views of the same spot. The coupling of the images and use of black and white brings to mind nineteenth century stereoscopic documentary images, although The Ground at Ross 10 does not blend to create a three dimensional image. Even if did, there would be little to be gained by the added depth. Nor does it work in a documentary sense since the ‘real’ subjects are not recorded. The viewer’s eyes are drawn to the lightest part along the top of the photographs, yet this leads the viewer out of the picture. Instead, the focal point is actually on the darkened recessed dimples which contain the least amount of information. This suggests that absence is more important than anything that is present in the photograph.

There is a melancholic mood to these photographs. The dark brooding greys are sombre, while the soft quality of the light accentuates the texture of the grass which appears coarse. This abrasive feel evokes the harsh materials and hard life female convicts led. In images such as The Ground at Ross 10, the angle and lighting also lends a heavy feel to the image. Still in the same square format as the negatives that produced them, these photographs are rather understated. Ferran does not apotheosise the women of the Factories. Instead of memorialising their lives, she conveys the sense of neglect they were afforded. She imparts that these are the women history forgot.

Serendipitously, an accidental light leak caused some images to have “a bloom of light across them” (Ferran in Holmes & Batchen 2008, p. 51). The unplanned nature of the light leak surprised and delighted Ferran. She had a couple of incidents with the film while photographing the ground at Ross. Normally, these photographs would be discarded because technically they are flawed and not considered ‘good’ photography. This attitude of not being considered worthy was similar to the one afforded to the women of the Female Factories – their lives were not considered important enough to warrant being photographed nor enter mainstream history. In this way, keeping these ‘damaged’ photographs reflects her broader project. Ferran calls the accidents “a gift that the medium was trying to make to me” (2011). The photographs that were contaminated by light obscured the subject matter making the images “more atmospheric” (Ferran 2011). They also highlight photography’s limitations: that photography is not a transparent window to the world.

The emptiness of the photographs became even more apparent when thirty of the images of the original series were transferred onto aluminium in 2008. The second ‘Lost to World’ series on aluminium has a different feel. In the accompanying catalogue to The Ground, The Air, a major survey show of Ferran’s work exhibited at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and subsequently at the Wollongong City Gallery, photography historian Geoffrey Batchen likens these works to “metallic headstones” as the aluminium “turns these pictures into a kind of permanent memorial” (Holmes & Batchen 2008, p. 10). However, I see the aluminium as having a different function. For me, the aluminium creates a sense of fragility as the silver of the aluminium evokes the daguerreotype process. Like daguerreotypes, I could imagine the depictions of the ground gently floating from the surface of the plates. The tonality of the aluminium works is also so soft the viewer is required to move around them to catch the image in different lights. The daguerreotype process was used in Tasmania at the time the Female Factories were operating. Thus, as well as creating ethereal quality, the aluminium links the works to the mid-nineteenth century. I propose that they are not permanent memorials but subtle evocations.

In The Ground, the Air exhibition, the ‘Lost to Worlds’ (2008) aluminium works were placed alongside each other in even squares like a filmstrip. From a distance, this appeared to suggest there might be a narrative sequence. However, upon closer inspection, the images appeared disjointed. The serial form of these images echoes the move away from the single image that occurred in the 1970s, except Ferran’s images are much larger than most 1970s serial images. For Lynn Silverman, as for many artists of the 1970s, the serial form was about “not taking the camera for granted as a “natural” recorder of “reality” (1980 n.p.). I believe the serial form functions in a similar way in Ferran’s ground photographs. Ferran is also eager to convey “photography’s insufficiencies” (Ferran quoted in Batchen 2009). Together, her photographs at the ground at Ross offer disjointed, partial views of the landscape. One moment from one angle is not enough. These works convey that a sense of place cannot develop from, or be captured in, one isolated moment. The aluminium surface contributes to this notion. There is no one place to stand and take in the entire set of images as the reflecting light off the aluminium renders some details obscure from different angles. The light on the aluminium surface creates what Ferran describes as “fluctuating variability” (Ferran 2011). The images are not static as in the 2001 series where the matt photographs presented the ground in more of a traditional documentary format. On the aluminium surface, finely etched lines of overgrown grass appear like scratches. Because the metal is empty in these lines, they brightly reflect the light. Walking past the lit aluminium plates, the sharp grass lines are striking. The light reflecting off the empty lines of grass changes as viewers move around the exhibition space. Viewers can glimpse themselves momentarily in the empty, reflective aluminium lines. Their presence thus fleetingly fills the landscape. This sparks an awareness of viewing the photographs. In being conscious of their position, the viewer is reminded of their role in completing the work – remembering the female convicts.

Remembering the Infants: ‘In the ground on the air’ (2006 – 2008)

The most scandalous and disturbing facts about the Female Factories in Tasmania relate to the high rates of infant mortality. Ferran felt she needed to take a different approach to recover memory of the babies. Details of the short lives of the babies can be found in birth, death and burial records. Ferran sifted through these records to find the names of the babies and their cause of death – records which had barely been accessed at the time Ferran read through them. To convey this information she created work which combined the names of the babies from the Cascades and Ross Factories, even though far more infants perished at the Cascades Factory.

In commemorating the short lives of the babies of convict women Ferran created ‘In the ground on the air’ comprising three parts. The first part included eleven baby-sized blankets. Nine of the blankets recorded the causes of death using the two first letters of the cause: BR for bronchitis, CA for catarrh, CO for convulsions, DI for diarrhoea, DY for dysenteria, HO for hooping [sic] cough, MA for marasmus, PN for pneumonia, SY for syphilis. The letters were cut into the blanket, exposing a contrasting colour underneath. As well as naming the causes, Ferran also wove the statistics of infant mortality for each cause in a dual coloured vertical bar graph. The bottom block of colour represents the number of babies that died – information that could not be conveyed easily in a photograph.

There is no sense of a human form; the blankets are flat and empty. As with the ground at Ross, the resounding emptiness draws attention to the absence of the infants from historical memory. The way the blankets hang on the wall resembles washing hanging on a line – a sight the Female Factory laundry houses often provided. Hung closely together in one room, as they were exhibited in the Port Arthur Project exhibition (2006), they evoke the close confines and overcrowding of the dormitories.

Two extra blankets, one light and one dark, represented “the air and the ground, respectively” (2006). These elements are represented because the history of the female convict sites has disappeared “into the ground or vanished into the air” (Ferran in Batchen 2009). Hence the series title, ‘In the ground on the air’. There is another level of significance to the ground and air dichotomy: the air symbolises the “intangibilities of memory, story, rumour, gossip” while the ground symbolises the factual evidence (Ferran in Batchen 2009). Ferran elaborates that the ground is too dull without the air so she aims to balance the two elements. She is motivated by a desire to restore emotion to the bare bones of history (Ferran 2011). Using tangible materials that relate to the Factory, Ferran brings the statistics to life.

Visually sharing the statistics on blankets is arguably more stimulating and more immediate than numbers on a page. Precision of the data is not important. What is important is conveying the significant portion of babies dying from different, possibly preventable, conditions. The blankets also relate to the Factories and the time period. They remind viewers of the sewing that went on in the ‘manufactories’. The coarse blankets reflect the lack of care afforded to the babies. They are “too lightweight and too harsh in texture to offer comfort” (Ferran 2006). The rough texture of the blankets also echoes the coarse-looking texture of the grass described earlier. The blankets have an earthy palette. For example, the bottom block colour in Untitled (convulsions) has an umber tinge, while the two tones of Untitled (dysenteria) and Untitled (catarrh) are steel grey and charcoal. As well as appearing earthy, the limited colours are similar to those of black and white and sepia photographs; they have an historic feel.

Women who fell pregnant in the Factories were punished, as were women who, after being assigned a service position, had a bastard child with their master (Tardif 1990, p. 30). The babies of convict women could not escape judgment. As Dixson explains, they were “deemed to have ‘inherited’ their mothers’ stigma” (1999, p. 132). At the Cascades Female Factory, nurseries for the babies and their mothers moved around several different locations. As early as 1829, the high numbers of infant deaths were reported with alarm in local newspapers (Rayner 2004, p. 146). The staggering number of deaths became scandal again in 1838 (Frost 2004). The nursery was moved to a house in Liverpool Street to calm those distressed by the number of deaths. However, this solution did not last long. The nursery was soon moved again to a house in Dynnyrne and then back to a new nursery yard at the Factory. The new nursery was still crowded and the conditions were ripe for diseases to spread. In 1855 the high death rate was attributed to “mismanagement and neglect” (Daniels 1998, p. 119). A dry account of prostitution and infants starving from insufficient breast milk is put forth in Bryce Courtenay’s well-known novel The Potato Factory (1995, pp. 390-91).

The second and third parts of ‘In the ground on the air’ feature two videos. Each video combines names of the babies who died in the Factories with the photographs of the ground at Ross described earlier. The first video was for the babies who died in their first year of life; the second for the babies who died in their second year. Ferran discovered that nearly 1500 babies had died at the Cascades and Ross Female Factory sites. She rues “It didn’t seem right trying to memorialise lives that had ended before they began” (Ferran 2006). The videos are subtle and respectful. The names gently surface then float across, from right to left, before fading back into the ground. The length of time that the baby’s name hovers over the ground represents the length of its lifespan. Each group of names represents a decade; there are three groups for the three decades of the operation of the Cascades Factory and the Ross Factory which operated within that time. Ferran likens the slow progression of the names to “the passage of clouds in the sky” (2006). The temporal nature of the video work is a powerful and evocative way to articulate and convey the brevity of life. It is a poetic and understated way to incite remembrance and compassion.

When displayed at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, the video background morphed between pairs of the different photographs of the ground at Ross. In the darkened viewing space, the videos were absorbing. The two videos were usually displayed facing each other in the same room. Standing between the two large projections created an immersive experience. In a similar manner to fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century diptychs from the Netherlands which used two images to create an intimate dialogue that was “conducive to prayer and contemplation” (Hand, Metzger & Spronk 2006), this work induced quiet, mediative reflection.

There was no sound track to this subtle video work. The silent passing of the names seems indicative of the way these babies silently passed into the records and became the subject of a kind of historical amnesia. To rescue the memory, viewers were encouraged to read each name aloud or whisper each name under their breath. The full names probably were not spoken since they were chosen and announced by their mothers in the Factories. This invitation to participate makes the viewer an active part of the process of remembering.

Young proposes that fleeting commemorative artworks can be more effective and leave a greater lasting impression as they force viewers to remember rather than providing them with something fixed they can return to at any moment (1992, p. 268). In ‘In the ground on the air’, the gentle passing of names is arguably more poignant than a permanent list of names on a memorial statue. The transient nature of Ferran’s video works echoes the brevity of life. It has a haunting nature that ensures a more powerful permanency than any physical memorial monument. As there is no longer anything external they can refer to, viewers have to form and keep their own memories of female convicts and their babies.


In Gail Jones’s novel, Sixty Lights, set in the early days of photography, the protagonist, Lucy Strange, likens photography to a kiss because “it is devotional. Physical. A kind of honouring attention” (Jones 2005, p. 200). Ferran dedicated over a decade to learning about, connecting with and portraying the female convicts in Tasmania. Her photographs are thus also akin to a kiss as they reflect devotion and honouring attention, the kind that was never shown to the women during their time at the Female Factory. The three artworks I have analysed in this paper are rich examples which compel viewers to remember the female convicts and their babies through accentuations of emptiness and the deliberate use of photography to only record what it can – the present. Ferran challenges photography’s ability to capture and reveal through a single isolated moment. The limitations of photography reflect the limitations of being able to know historical figures. Her work conveys “a ruined past can never be made whole again. It can only be glimpsed, gestured towards, evoked, conjured, lost again” (Ferran 2001). Ferran’s empty portraits of the female convicts at Ross are somewhat elusive and never fully revealing. The resounding emptiness and soft, sombre tonality is elegiac. Ferran’s aesthetic strategies, I hope to have shown, urge viewers to imagine and internalise their own connections with the past to ensure that the female convicts are no longer forgotten. Actively engaged and conscious of their duty to remember, viewers participate in and contribute to what Nora terms “the will to remember” (Nora 1989, p. 19).



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