A gathering of five community leaders for a photograph in a Brisbane church aims to further focus attention on the plight of offshore asylum seekers. By Andrew McMillen.

Photographing #LetThemStay

Posing for Scott Patterson (from left) Reverend Mary Smith, Clem Campbell, Frederika Steen, Imam Uzair Akbar and Dr Peter Catt.
Posing for Scott Patterson (from left) Reverend Mary Smith, Clem Campbell, Frederika Steen, Imam Uzair Akbar and Dr Peter Catt.

A reverend, an imam and a freelance photographer walk into Brisbane’s second-oldest Anglican church. Outside on Ann Street, in Brisbane’s city centre, the midday traffic bustles incessantly. Inside the immense stone structure of St John’s Cathedral, the pews are vacant and the building almost empty but for a handful of hushed voices in a far corner. Six people stand before an altar, bathed in warm light beneath a rainbow of stained-glass windows. Leaning against the wall are handmade cardboard signs, which read: Bring them here. Let them stay. Close the camps. There is no punchline. The set-up is for a photograph.

Though they deviate in their belief in higher powers, the handful of religious and community leaders who meet on this sunny Tuesday in late June all share the same views on how asylum seekers deserve to be treated. In the first week of February, St John’s Cathedral became one of 10 major Anglican churches across the country to open its doors to asylum seekers facing a return to Nauru. Dr Peter Catt, the Anglican Dean of Brisbane, became a national figurehead for invoking the historical idea of sanctuary, which is untested in modern Australia. “We had been talking the talk for a number of years,” he wrote in an article for The Melbourne Anglican, reflecting on his decision. “So now, faced with 267 people about to be removed to a place of harm, I felt it was time to put up or shut up.”

For three years, Catt has been chairman of the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce, which has advocated for the closure of the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres. Sanctuary is always an action of last resort, Catt noted in his article, and the Anglican Church was careful to point out that its offer did not carry any legal protection. Centuries ago, people used church buildings to take shelter from oppressive civic authorities. Today, those who seek sanctuary might face five years’ imprisonment; those who offer it could face 10 years’.

“Many of us are at the end of our tether as a result of what seems like the government’s intention to send children to Nauru,” Catt told the ABC in February. “So we’re reinventing, or rediscovering, or reintroducing, the ancient concept of sanctuary as a last-ditch effort to offer some sense of hope to those who must be feeling incredibly hopeless.”

That same week, the High Court determined that the offshore detention of asylum seekers by the Australian government was lawful. The outspoken Dean of Brisbane became a lightning rod for national discussion and political debate. Many photographs of Catt have been taken inside and outside St John’s Cathedral since his sanctuary offer. But nearly five months later, here in the serenity of his spiritual home, he is posing for a portrait that seeks to encapsulate an entire social movement.

Standing alongside Catt are two religious community leaders: Imam Uzair Akbar, of nearby Holland Park Mosque, and Reverend Mary Smith of Logan’s Anglican parish. Representing the United Nations Association of Australia is Queensland president Clem Campbell, while prominent human rights advocate Frederika Steen completes the quintet. The wrangler of this unlikely gathering is Scott Patterson, a former adviser to the state Labor Party who is now a freelance photographer and student of migration law.

“Here we have a group of fairly religious people,” begins Patterson, who is bespectacled with short-cropped hair. “I’m probably the least religious person in the room. You’ve come together for a common cause: to treat refugees like humans, and to stop killing them. You’re all leaders in your respective communities, and that’s the benefit of having you all together under the banner of God, telling the government and the people of Australia: let them stay.”

The resulting image will be entered into the annual Moran Contemporary Photographic Prize. “If I win – and you can all pray to your respective gods for this – it’s $50,000,” Patterson says. “I’ll keep less than half, to pay for silly things like food and rent.” Catt nods and says, “I think that’s fair enough.” Most of the remainder will be distributed among his subjects for this image, to “do good things”, as the freelancer puts it. He has a direct manner of speaking, and a slightly goofy laugh, but the self-awareness to recognise his own brusqueness. After Patterson apologises in advance if he comes across as rude while directing them for the shot, Catt shakes his head and holds his palms skyward. “We are putty in your hands,” says the dean.

Patterson has selected a title for this image that he hopes will spark conversation and controversy: Humbly Relying on the Blessing of Almighty God, which is taken from the first line of the preamble to the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act. “My view is that a photograph like this will start bringing attention to the moral, and perhaps even the legal aspects of ‘Let them stay’,” Patterson tells them. “Interestingly enough, the government ministers all swore an oath to the governor-general, and finished it off by saying, ‘So help me God.’ Here’s God offering help, but no one’s taking any notice.” Steen smiles. “Love it,” she says.

As they stand closely together before the altar, Steen points out another layered irony: Nauru’s constitution acknowledges “God the almighty”, too, and the contents and wording of that document were shaped by Australian constitutional lawyers. Patterson stops and looks up from behind the fixed lens of his small-but-powerful Leica Q. “That’s mind-boggling, actually,” he says. “It’s time for the people who are giving their blessings to let governments use these words to hook their legislation on to say, ‘Righto – give it back. You don’t have the blessing of the almighty God; get it out of the constitution.’ ”

It takes a few test shots for the photographer to arrive on the best configuration of bodies in the frame. “You’re going to be relaxed,” Patterson tells Akbar, who is wearing a traditional white robe and rounded taqiyah (skullcap). “People are going to expect an imam at the altar of an Anglican church to be looking over his shoulder.”

With superb comic timing, Akbar glances back at the cross behind him and flinches, drawing a hearty laugh. The imam asks Catt whether he’s allowed to lean against the woodwork, but the answer is no.

When the photographer decides that Akbar should be holding a book against his chest, Steen hurriedly produces one from her bag. For symbolic relevance, it’s hard to beat: she hands him Offshore: Behind the Wire on Manus and Nauru, a recently released title by Sydney lawyer and research associate Madeline Gleeson.

Under her arm, Reverend Mary Smith holds one of Steen’s homemade signs. Her arm bisects the two messages: Let them stay in blue, Close the camps in red. Patterson encourages the quintet to chat among themselves – “about washing up, cars, horses, whatever you like” – while he works quickly, adjusting the position of his stepladder to find the right angle. Steen tells Campbell and Smith about the bold yellow badge pinned to her pale pink jumper. It reads: Refugee rights are human rights. Worn every day, she says it’s a sure-fire conversation starter at the supermarket checkout, although it means that most of her clothing eventually becomes worn and holey near her left breast. “It’s a price I’m prepared to pay,” she says.

Patterson balances himself on the highest perch before peering through the frame. He checks his composition on the screen between each press of the shutter. “Clem, you’re perfect!” he says, to which Campbell replies, “But I haven’t been to confession for weeks and weeks!” Throughout the brief session, the only person looking at the camera is the subject of the portrait, Peter Catt, whose white collar is the same colour as his hair and wispy beard.

Within 10 minutes, Patterson is confident he has the shot. As he descends the stepladder, he thanks his subjects for their patience. “I can’t guarantee it’ll be a fantastic photo, but if it gets a little bit of momentum, that’s great,” he says. “It will complement the work you’re all doing.” Steen offers her copy of Offshore to the imam, encouraging him to share it with his community. Before the unlikely congregation leaves this sanctuary, Akbar smiles at the man with the camera. “If you win or you don’t, the intention was noble,” he says. “You’re a winner anyway.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 2, 2016 as "Hopes and prayers".

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