Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

  • A Mania For Having Photographs Taken

    A Mania For Having Photographs Taken

    While winter’s slow creep gets little love in Tasmania, there is one benefit to the end of summer: selfie season is over.

    I refer to “#selfieseason”, an inane tourism campaign which put, in prominent locations, stickers spruiking the possibility for tourists to photograph themselves in front of something beautiful.

    I won’t harp on about it for too long, but my gut feeling is that pandering to consumeristic fads is not exactly playing to our strengths as an island. Many people come here to get away from that sort of superficiality.

    Much has been said in public arenas about what might be the meaning of the cultural obsession with autoportraits. To really understand them in a Tasmanian context, though, we might want to venture into this building in New Norfolk – previously a ‘hospital for the insane’.

    Here, in 1900, a man in his 40s named Thomas Hinton was admitted to the asylum. He had sent fifteen photographic self-portraits to a young woman, Miss Headlam, and consequently was diagnosed with “a mania for having his photograph taken in all sorts of dress and without dress”.

    The tableaux for which Thomas Hinton was locked up seem to be part of a national competition to design a new flag, in the lead-up to Australia’s Federation. On one photograph, dated August 9, 1900, Hinton wrote to Miss Headlam. “I got four taken today. I am sure you will like ’em.”

    She evidently did not; Hinton was sent to New Norfolk two weeks later.

    Hinton suffered from episodes of mental illness, ending up in mental hospitals on multiple occasions, in different parts of Australia. His record from 1900 tell us that he had been working as an engineer or engine driver in the midlands of Tasmania. Returning to the asylum in Willow Court may have been traumatic: conditions were poor, with mental illnesses poorly understood, and mistreatment of inmates far from unheard of.

    The Royal Derwent Hospital was closed in 2000; life in the hospital was often described as a nightmare, right up until its closure.

    Thomas Hinton’s photographs are far more imaginative than anything I saw during ‘selfie season’. My favourite sees Hinton standing in profile before an artistic hanging with animal motifs,
    probably his own flag design: he wears nothing more than a homemade loincloth, fashioned from patterned material and tied around his waist, his arms folded over his bare chest.

    The collection of Hinton’s photographs were acquired by the National Museum of Australia in 2013. They had been advertised at that time for $9,900.

    Art curator Anthea Gunn has written a fascinating analysis of Thomas Hinton’s self-portraits on The Conversation website. The images, she says, “give a response refracted by mental illness to matters of national importance.” In response I am forced to wonder what meaning will be gleaned from the millions of selfies taken in Tasmanian locales, when they are looked back upon in a dozen decades’ time.