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'Girls to the front' in theatre, photography, and music.

Updated: Jun 21

By Kate Mulqueen

Gig bliss, in black and white. This photo of three teenage girls, shot at the Big Day Out in 1995, was captured by Sophie Howarth, Artist, and official photographer at the Big Day Out from the 1990s until 2012. 

The moment is sheer ecstasy. Unknown music thrumming through three young women, energy peaking as their eyes clock Sophie – and the shutter clicks. 

It's one of a couple of images by Howarth that playwright Rebecca Meston was drawn to while developing her play Hits, due to premiere at the Adelaide Festival Centre in July. Set in the 90s, the main character of Hits is a 15-year-old girl, whose first ever gig is at the Big Day Out.

"There's just something about their faces, their expressions. The fact that they're at the front, ‘girls to the front’ – all the feelings that capture what my show is about.” Meston says.

In a term popularised by Bikini Kill frontwoman, Kathleen Hanna, ‘Girls to the front was a call to guys to make way for girls to come to the front of the stage at Hanna's gigs. To make space so they could see. This idea resonated with Meston, together with the idea that girls and women – who have always been within the music industry – should be recognised for their contribution.

“There’s a theme running through my show that women are everywhere, but nowhere, in the music industry. They're on stage, they're in the audience, they're taking the photos. There are women in marketing, making merch, selling merch – but often in the industry, whether it's the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or the big producers who call the shots in exec meetings, they also seem to be nowhere. And while I talk about the joy, the pleasure of moshing and gigs – the other is a strong theme.”

Serendipitously, in 2020, Howarth exhibited 126 of her photographs, spanning 20 years of festivals and gigs, in a piece called Homage to Chicks.

Working from her archive, Howarth could show us the women in the music industry; fill a historical gap and pay tribute to those women who – as Meston says – have made the merch, gigged the gigs, and hung over the barricade cheering, just like Hanna’s ‘girls at the front’. 

I ask Meston about the iconic image of Kathleen Hanna in the ‘man dress’ – standing, legs apart, against a blue portaloo, in a dress with a photo of a man printed across it. I’d heard from Howarth this image had been on Meston’s mood board while writing Hits. “Yeah, that is true" laughs Meston. “That was up there from the start. And yeah, I don’t know how I clocked it, but later I’m like: oh my god, Sophie took that photo.

“She clearly has such extraordinary instincts as to when to click, to capture that moment,” says Meston. 

Howarth comments that when people see her work, they often want to tell her their story. "...what happened at the Big Day Out and how it was for them. 

"The Big Day Out was a rite of passage for many people. And I never get tired of hearing about it. Because in that moment, people are very present: telling me something that informed their whole life. 

“You know, the Big Day Out doesn't exist anymore. And yet, the impression it left is so big and powerful, that when people touch that again, they recall the younger person they were."

It’s like that photograph of the three girls, I can’t help but wonder where these three girls at the front are now. Hopefully still ‘at the front.’  


See more of Sophie's photographs and buy a copy of her book Peace, Love and Brown Rice: a photographic history of the Big Day Out here.

Hits will play at the Space Theatre 3-6 July, 2024. 5 shows only.



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