Juliet Taylor spent six months combing the sand on Australia's iconic beach, capturing people enjoying a sun-soaked nap
“There is something about the sun and sand that trances people out,” says Juliet Taylor of how she manages to photograph people unawares, mid-slumber on Bondi beach. “When I was 13 I spent a month in the Philippines on a family holiday, where a guy said to me ‘people in the sea are ignorant’, in very broken English,” she explains. “Maybe this is what he meant.” Upon hearing this, one realises the truth of the statement: once on the beach, what would normally be private is suddenly public, indulging in a nap on the sand being a case in point. Taylor’s series Terra Incognita (the phrase means ‘unknown land’ in Latin, and titles the series ironically because of Bondi’s immense popularity) is a study of such sleeps, and each black-and-white shot is serene enough to inspire vivid daydreams of hours spent by the sea.
Taylor describes the process of taking the photographs, which were made over the course of six months, as “totally spontaneous”, and was drawn to the shapes and “human sculptures” that formed on the sand. “I would scale the back end of the beach and when I saw something interesting, I would slowly move in close to shoot,” she explains. “It was sort of like hunting.” There is a voyeurism in the images, one that plays on the vulnerability that beaches seem to expose in people. Yet Taylor’s shots are most calming where they might have made for uncomfortable viewing – since “nobody knew that they were being photographed” – because there is something inherently familiar about the scenario.
It’s hard not to wonder what might happen if (when?) she had been caught. “When I was shooting the close-up portraits, I had to creep in quite close,” Taylor admits. “Sometimes the subjects would wake from the sound of the shutter button, and I quickly turned the lens to the sky as if I was shooting a bird or something. This happened a few times. Nobody questioned me.” Perhaps this is because there is a detachment and a distance to these photographs; Taylor is the first to admit that “it felt important not to make a connection” with the beach-dwellers, stating instead that the process felt more akin to “a live installation – endless activity, constantly changing”. It’s this distance on Taylor’s part that allows the viewer to identify themselves in her images, and until the time comes once again to unwind on a beach, Terra Incognita provides the perfect dose of escapism.