19 June 2019

Exposing Australia’s Asylum Seeker Policies through a Collection of Objects

19 June 2019 - Written by Laurence Cornet

Sinead Kennedy’s To Set Fire to the Sea explores the Australian Government's policy of mandatory and indefinite detention for asylum seekers, with each image in the series communicating the dehumanising personal experiences of detainees.

© Sinead Kennedy, from the series To Set Fire to the Sea. Paari spent the first years of his life inside Villawood detention centre. For his third birthday he wanted a key.

In late May, Prime Minister Scott Morrison's victory in a federal election promised to cement Australia’s tough immigration laws, among which includes the notorious practice of mandatory, indefinite, offshore detention for those who arrive by boat to the country to seek asylum. The immediate consequences for detainees in Manus Island’s detention centre were dire, with many of them reporting instances of self-harm and attempted suicide on social media. “That’s a Limbo, this kind of status where they can't plan for the future, or feel secure, which I think is really horrible”, says Australian photographer Sinead Kennedy. Between 2016 and 2018, she visited detention centres once a week, gaining the trust of detainees and collecting fragments of their experiences.

“It was a process of getting closer and closer”, she recalls. Rather than a direct documentation, Kennedy was first interested in the bureaucracy and how the system functioned. “I was looking for a detention centre in Melbourne, walking around the streets after looking it up on Google Maps. I couldn’t find the sign anywhere, until I walked around the block and noticed a white wall where the sign used to be - it had been scratched off and painted over. That was the starting point, in terms of how I went about it, as a visual strategy that spoke to how it's intentionally hidden from view and erased from social consciousness”, she explains.

© Sinead Kennedy, from the series To Set Fire to the Sea. Guards in some detention centres are required to carry a Hoffman knife. These are used to cut down detainees found hanging.

To do so, Kennedy created a series of objects and texts presented as windows into the daily lives of detainees – like a plate with two toasted pieces of bread, accompanied with the text, “Ismail used to have beautiful hair. He says his appearance has completely changed in his four years in detention. Stress has diminished his appetite and he now takes medication to sustain his energy. Today Ismail eats just two slices of toast a day.”

Kennedy’s apparatus is a conscious compensation for the limited ability of photography to depict the complicated psychological impact of immigration policies on detainees. “When I started visiting regularly and building friendships with these guys, it became clear that these fragments of their daily life were really telling about this bureaucratic violence”, she comments. And with this, her series proves that alternative languages can address social issues in a profound manner. Because beyond the cold lightning of her still life images, a warm humanity shines from the testimonies she shares.

© Sinead Kennedy, from the series To Set Fire to the Sea. Moorthy was in detention for over five years. He would joke about his nickname being ‘More Tea’ as he would always make everyone tea during visits. It's estimated that he made 21,840 cups of tea in his time in detention.


Sinead Kennedy is a visual artist based in Melbourne, Australia. She explores expanded documentary as a mode of visual storytelling, while her recent work is concerned with the politics of migration and asylum in an Australian context. Follow her on PHmuseum and Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Paris focusing on cultural and environmental issues. She is also the editorial director of Dysturb.


This article is part of our feature series, Photo Kernel, which aims to give space to the best contemporary practitioners in our community. The word Kernel means the core, centre, or essence of an object, but it also refers to image processing.

Written by

Laurence Cornet

Reading time

4 minutes

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