'I went home and said it's Friday night, I'll call all of my girlfriends and we will go out. I called everybody, no one answered the phone so I thought, 'oh well I'll go home and get Thai take away, like I had so many nights before'. When I picked up my dinner I discovered I had won, they gave me a Christmas present, 'winner of the year' because I had eaten more Thai take away than anyone else in Darlinghurst... I was absolutely mortified.'
The Carla Coulson we know, a household name in the photography world, is adventurous, spirited and brave. She captures the soul of a place through her visual portrayal of the people and their environment. Truly talented, truly admired. So for me it is a shock to discover that Carla’s path has not always been a happy one, tortured by loneliness and self-doubt.
Growing up, Carla moved around a great deal. Her father was a bank manager with a country posting which meant a move every four years. As a child this was not a problem, however it had devastating repercussions as a teenager. In fact it had a huge impact on the next 20 years of her life.
Carla: “Well, when you are 16 you really depend on all your peers, so when you have that taken away you sort of lose your footing. I had moved that many times so as a teenager I wasn’t really interested in making a new group of friends. I just got lost. I was so hurt by the last move that I didn’t make any effort with people anymore. It wasn’t a nice period of my life, it was difficult.”
And it took Carla a long time to recover. She describes that period in her life as her dark period, with a great deal of personal pain and self-doubt.
“How has this period of your life shaped you as a photographer today?” I ask.
Carla: “I think it gives me a lot of empathy for others. Every time I moved I was always the odd girl out until somebody decided to befriend me and that’s an awful feeling. I always feel for somebody if they walk into a room on their own or they are standing by themselves, a little awkward. When I would move schools I would be in the wrong uniform for the first month until Mum got things sorted out. I felt like a fish out of water... just trying to find my tribe. So for me as a photographer the most important thing is trying to capture photographs with emotion and I think being able to read emotions easily is something that helps me understand the situation quickly. I can see things in others that I feel like I have felt before.”
When Carla finished school in the late 80s, she found herself working for the Sydney Swans, AFL football team, as a receptionist. She quickly worked her way into the marketing department. For five years she did some crazy things in this role. Back then the Sydney Swans were like rock stars. Every Sunday there was a fantastic luncheon that everyone wanted to be a part of. Carla had to organise this, get out of her comfort zone, ring celebrities and convince them to come, tell others they couldn’t come, puppetering the whole event.
Carla: “In retrospect this job really helped me... most photographers are very shy about their work and refusals are hard. To be criticised or knocked back is devastating, you’ve got to have tough skin and I don’t and 99% of photographers don’t either. Some photographers loath to market their work or to make appointments because they are frightened of rejection. But I actually think my tortured years as a teenager and my time at the Swans in having to do terribly scary things, such as calling celebrities and all, really helped me for life as a photographer. When the time came to call a magazine, I never felt it was such a big deal. I had been through much worse things.”
In her 20s, Carla found herself running her own business. Her marketing manager at the Swans, Leigh, discovered a need in the market for good quality promotional clothing. He approached Carla about going into business with him, about giving it a try.
Carla: “I thought, why not? What have I got to lose. It worked out well in the beginning but as the years past and I got to 35 I became very unhappy. I was single and as time slipped away I got worse and worse. I just tried to deal with my unhappiness by pushing it away. Then one day I just had this silly argument with my business partner. I remember, it was a beautiful night in Sydney. I went home and said ‘it’s Friday night, I’ll call all of my girlfriends and we will go out.’ I called everybody, no one answered the phone so I thought, ‘oh well I’ll go home and get Thai take away, like I had so many nights before’. When I picked up my dinner I discovered I had won, they gave me a Christmas present, ‘winner of the year’ because I had eaten more Thai take away than anyone else in Darlinghurst... I was absolutely mortified. This was what my life had become, I had no one I could go out with on a Friday night and I had had an argument about something I didn’t even care about. I was tragically upset so I called Leigh and said, ‘I just have to see you right now,’ I could hardly get it out on the phone and I just told him the truth for the first time probably ever. I told him that I was really unhappy and I didn’t want to go along with this life. I felt as though I was stuck in the wrong life and it was my job that was at the core of it.”
Carla requested a year off work, and Leigh agreed. She decided to do all kinds of things. She went to outback Australia for a month and lived on a farm. She wanted to learn Italian, so next she travelled to Italy and it was Italy that changed her life.
On arrival in Florence Carla found board with an extraordinary big Italian Mamma, someone with so much passion for life. She was so encouraging. Carla stayed and stayed, and grew and grew. After a year, when it was time to return home she knew there was no way she wanted to go back to her old life. She spent weeks walking around Florence thinking about what on earth she wanted to do.
Carla: “I thought, well the only thing I really like is taking photos. That’s how I arrived at it, which seems so stupid and naive now. It was a process of giving myself time to explore different things.”
Carla knew she had to go back to Sydney and tell her business partner. She always thought she would go back to work. She went and signed up at a photography school in Florence and gave herself three months to sort out everything back in Australia. On returning to Sydney she told Leigh. It took them a while, but it all got sorted out in the end, and within three months she was back in Italy and had started at the photography school.
Carla: “When I first got back to Italy after the business thing, I had two weeks before I started photography school. I was totally devastated and walked around Florence thinking I had done the worst thing in my whole life. I had lost my family, friends, money. Never in my life had I not had a job so I was totally insecure, but when I walked into the photography dark room in the first week of photography school, oh my god it was just like something magical had happened. I was obsessed. Every moment I had I would be out during the day shooting. I would go out at night, I always had a camera, I just couldn’t get enough of it. The only way I can really describe it is like that thing when you fall in love with somebody and you just can’t live and breath without them.”
“13 years on, do you still feel the same way?”, I ask.
Carla: “Absolutely, I don’t think I have as much energy as I did then. It was in that first flush of love where I would have taken a photograph of that tree there, everything was interesting.”
Carla tells me that photography gave her a new life. She found a path to the people she was always meant to be with. She found her husband and she found her friends. She almost feels as though she has led two separate lives. The life before photography and the life after photography, and the life before just doesn’t feel real to her, like it never really happened.
“So tell me about your husband?”
Carla: “We had a mutual friend in Florence and one night we all went to a bar. At the time I had a housemate by the name of Popi, she had all of these gorgeous American girlfriends, so often we would go out with the boys... they loved meeting the girls from America. Francesco was there that night and I thought he was divine from the first moment I met him, but he was my friend’s friend and he was a lot younger than I am, so I never thought anything would happen. We just became really great friends. It’s funny, when I first met him I thought he was a bit arrogant but I was really attracted to him. He was doing photography within his architecture, (he’s an architect) so he would often want to borrow books from me. We would have all of these excuses for catching up. For a year we saw each other a great deal but nothing ever happened and then one day he rang me and said ‘do you want to come to a photography exhibition’ and so we went out and then basically within a couple of weeks we were together and we have never really been apart.”
Carla gushes about her husband. She tells me he is a real grown up, other boyfriends had never been responsible. She had always dated the fun one, the nightmare party boy. Francesco is kind, very affectionate and really patient.
Carla: “He is an intellectual, so clever and so sure of himself. I had never met anyone who was that comfortable in their own skin. I think it’s really charming to meet somebody like that. He has been wonderful with me, with my photography. He’s been so patient and helpful and there is never a time where he is like ‘hurry up and take that photo so we can move on’, always so supportive, so really gorgeous.”
“So what’s the secret to success as a photographer?” I ask.
Carla: “Basically it’s all just a million small steps and every little step gets you a little more work. The first step for me was getting a story published which was on Naples. My teacher at photography school gave us some really good advice: ‘if you go to a magazine with a portfolio they are never going to give you a job because they can tell straight away that you haven’t worked as a photographer, so put together a story and go to them with something ready to publish.’ So I went to Naples three times and my teacher would go through my images and say ‘junk’ and throw all of my photos in the bin, or say it’s really fabulous but you are missing this, and send me back again. I then wrote the words. I had never written a piece in my life, but was told the style of the time was all about personal encounters. I went and did a writing course and produced some kind of a story. So I arrived back in Australia with a story. I rang the magazines and they let me in, all of them, which was extraordinary. Vogue, Vogue Entertainment and Travel, Marie Claire, Gourmet Traveller. In the end Marie Claire bought the story. They edited the hell out of it, but I was on my way.”
“I remember driving home in Sydney, Marie Claire rang me to tell me they were going to publish the story and I just started to cry, really cry, so much so that I thought I might crash the car. It was one of those moments in time when you realise that the stars are aligned. Photography saved me, it changed my life and for that I am eternally grateful.”
Carla has recently released her latest book ‘Naples, a Way of Love’, a collaboration with writer Lisa Clifford, published by Penguin Books. ‘Naples, A Way of Love’ is an intimate journey through Naples: a city of blood, a city of miracles, a city of contradictions and secrets, luck and superstition, danger and incredible kindness.