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On Process by Annette An-Jen Liu

Twelve black and white photographs hanging on a white wall
Annette An-Jen Liu

On Process

The non-figurative works presented by Ali Tahayori, Alex Walker and Daniel O’Toole, and Ioulia Panoutsopoulos in the National Photography Prize 2024 share surreal properties in their varying levels of abstraction. In Tahayori’s IMPOSSIBLE DESIRE, the autobiographical is abstracted in a series of hand-painted photographs, concealing the personal with layers of corporeal mark marking. Walker and O’Toole’s debut collaboration Anti-lens resists the sole two-dimensional image, embracing a sculptural manipulation of visual form. The four works from the series Collapsar by Panoutsopoulos exemplify the etymology of the “photograph” as “drawing with light,” presenting enigmatic images that defy any clear subject identification.

Together, these artists represent expansive image-making practices, with methodologies that are distilled to the treatment of light—as subject, concept, medium, and tool. But even without knowledge of this framework, their distinctive bodies of work naturally invites wondrous queries on process: how are these works made? What are they informed by? How do the artists’ processes shape their practice and vice versa?

Initiating our conversation with this final question about contextualizing process sparked a dynamic discussion among Tahayori, Walker, O’Toole, and Panoutsopoulos. They explored parallels and distinctions in their approaches, touching on themes of artistic intuition, ephemeral materiality, and collective engagement. The resulting piece is largely dialogical, capturing the richness of their exchanges and honoring a discussion marked by generous sharing and deep introspection

Direct quotes from the artists ground the following three sections, which are independent but not mutually exclusive. The open, inconclusive format seeks to reflect divergent aspects of the conversation and the very topic of “process”, ultimately culminating in reflections on the meaning-making process itself.

Process as practice, practice as process

Ioulia Panoutsopoulos
Packed Matter VII, 2022
National Photography Prize 2024
Murray Art Museum Albury
Image Jeremy Weihrauch

Creative process and practice, in whatever forms they take, are intrinsically linked and embodied in the work of artists. For Tahayori, “so much of [my] process is the practice… where each project requires a unique approach. [However], the starting point is always the idea”. Panoutsopoulos echoed how concept determines the kind of process that emerges, saying “often the work will dictate what the process might be. [For me], it always comes from research”.

The black and white images in IMPOSSIBLE DESIRE speak to Tahayori’s queer diasporic identity, one tinged with nostalgia, tension, and trauma. The personal and political that ground his practice are embodied in this series throughout the making, from the photographs he couldn’t take due to the risk of political persecution, to the choice of using bodily fluids—“it was important to have my DNA embedded on the surface of the photograph”—to the final presentation of including video to depict the hand-painting process. Tahayori explains, “The time-based media of video [shows] that sense of longing, frustration, and desire. You see it reach a peak… these things are all very dynamic and require movement”.

Panoutsopoulos’s Collapsar series is named after the astronomical term describing an old star collapsing under its own gravity to form celestial remnants like a black hole. The monochrome images were inspired by her research into how the first images of the black hole were made using intense radiation and complex algorithms. Panoutsopoulos details, “It became obvious that whatever I wanted to make needed to be backlit, so I ended up photographing computer screens… and removing [image] grain to make a point about digital AI”. Her process seemed to be similarly intricate and layered as the team of scientists who captured the elusive timespace, combining digital and analogue methods and experimenting with wax pencil drawings on screens. While she’s driven by material and quantum inquiry with conceptual concerns, Panoutsopoulos also emphasised the importance of play, “I'm trying to make something I haven’t seen before… I know when an image feels right, [so] I’m really just playing and trying to let go of always knowing what you’re doing”.

This surrender to intuition and the challenge of balancing playful exploration with critical conceptual development resonated with Walker and O’Toole, whose collaborative process for Anti-lens began with a tactile survey of materials. "We started with little lenses in the studio and decided to play with materials involving light—abstracting, fragmenting, or interacting with it to create interesting results,” Walker explained. “So contrary to Ioulia [Panoutsopoulos], we began with play, then thought about the photographic process before developing the conceptual theme”. O’Toole reiterated how the childlike, innocent curiosity offered flexibility to their work: “There was an interesting balance between being creatively agile with a fun approach [and] sustaining that through a formal editing, refinement process. We [remained] flexible up until the end”. Walker added, “Whether the results [of our experiments] became part of the installation or not… light was always central to our process".

Light material

The expansive practices of Tahayori, Walker and O’Toole, and Panoutsopoulos transcend traditional photographic discourse to engage beyond what the camera yields, and relate to other artistic mediums. Whether it be immersive installations (Tahayori’s fragmented mirror works), sculptural inclinations (Panoutsopoulos: “I often think I’m an unrealized sculptor”), or painting (O’Toole’s primary practice, Walker’s frequent source of inspiration), all four artists regard light as their principal material in their process, emphasising and broadening the foundational element of photography.

Ali Tahayori: "Light is integral to my practice. In [analogue] photography, you work with light sensitivity in darkness; through my mirror installations, you can feel the tactility of light on your skin [via the refractions]; and videos bring a luminous quality. There is no medium like photography that has such a critical relationship with light".
Ioulia Panoutsopoulos: “I see my practice as drawing with light. I have a strong sense of sculpture, [where] conceptually, my main tool and subject is light—a collapsing of both things that I’m drawn to. I never call myself a photographer… I just think photography is the right medium to capture and bring together different elements, like sculpture, photo, installation, drawing, etc. Since visualising is imperative to knowledge in Western scientific discourse, photography [becomes] an exciting medium to play with for its focus on mapping ephemeral elements like light, which is slippery, seductive, exciting, and frustrating.”
Alex Walker: “Having trained as a photographer, I see my photographs as painting with light… [rendering] visible the invisible. [Ultimately], the act of experiencing and viewing is the work itself, it’s about the perceptual elements [of] how one’s body moves through light and space”.
Daniel O’Toole: “Photography has always been a tool I used to enrich or inform my paintings, [but] light is the tool for all art and all experiences that we need. It’s universal… [Not only] as a vibration [through which] we are able to perceive colour—we can’t live without it”.

Twelve black and white photographs hanging on a white wall

Ali Tahayori
National Photography Prize 2024
Murray Art Museum Albury
Image Jeremy Weihrauch

Collaboration / contribution / meaning-making together

Various photographs and sculptures hanging on white walls in a large room

Alex Walker & Daniel O’Toole
Anti-lens, 2023
National Photography Prize 2024
Murray Art Museum Albury
Image Jeremy Weihrauch

The collaborative process between Walker and O’Toole in Anti-lens extended to their relationship with manufacturers, to “[make] art beyond our own skill set,” as O’Toole describes and further elaborates, “it’s about having a team around you to help with the vision and expand it”. This contribution of and by others is also embraced by Tahayori and Panoutsopoulos. The photographs of a public bathroom in IMPOSSIBLE DESIRE were taken by a friend, as Tahayori is unable to return to his native Iran. “I gave my agency to [my friend] to photograph the place where I had a sacred, beautiful experience 20 years ago,” Tahayori clarified, “the framing and viewpoint [of the photos] were his, and I was [confronted with] how much the place had changed”. Initially titled Impossible Return, the work also came to be about experiences of displacement.

While Panoutsopoulos worked solo for Collapsar, she welcomed the “release” of her artwork to the public for an additional, post-process contribution. “The gift of being an artist is letting go. Once a work is done, I have no ownership of it. It [becomes] part of the world. What is important then is when other sentient beings come and view your work, taking whatever they want [from it] … How audiences read your work is just as valid”.

This sentiment is shared by Walker and O’Toole respectively, identifying as artists “[catalysing] a myriad of interpretations [to] occur”, and “offering the work to be part of a conversation and bigger consciousness”—encouraging collective engagement that enriches the ultimate process of meaning-making.

From artist studios to exhibition walls and beyond, the creative process remains an active dialogue with ideas, materials, collaborators, and viewer contributions. It is therefore ever-evolving, shifting through spaces and interactions to foster expansive image-making practices and cultivate meaning.


Annette An-Jen Liu is a Taiwanese writer and curator currently based in New York City. Her writings have been featured in ArtAsiaPacific, Art Monthly Australasia, Art Basel Stories, MOLD Magazine, Magnum Photos, and Ocula Magazine, among others. She is a 2023 recipient of the Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writer Grant and manages projects at Cai Studio. In 2024, Liu was recognized as one of Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia in Media. She holds a MA from the University of Sydney and graduated with a double Bachelors with First Class Honours in Photography & New Media Art from the Australian National University.

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