Melbourne photographic artist Polixeni Papapetrou has an abiding interest in childhood. Not necessarily her own, or her children’s, although when asked about her greatest achievement, ‘my children’ is the answer that flies back. No, what she means is she’s interested in childhood as whole, and the way it’s represented in contemporary culture.

“Children live in a place that is different to the adult world,” she explains. “It is a world of imagination, one with endless possibilities.” The theme is apparent in a current exhibition of her work, The Shadow Stage. It’s a kind of a retrospective, with pieces drawn from various collections she’s shown over about a ten-year period. They explore childhood and imagination; children dressing up, masked as animals, or at play. “I’ve always been interested in ‘the other’, identity and how we perceive one another,” she says.

“My earlier work was about Elvis impersonators, or transvestites. Then I became interested in the subject of childhood. Adults perceive children as ‘other’.” She started researching, looking at the way childhood has been represented by other artists throughout history, in particular Charles Dodgson, better know as Lewis Carroll, creator of Alice in Wonderland. “He was very interested in the subject of childhood, and the place of ‘the girl’ in Victorian culture.”

As well as writing perhaps the greatest children’s story ever, he was also an accomplished photographer of children although, as Papapetrou explains, the cultural perception of photography was quite different to the Victorians. “I’ve been heavily influenced by Victorian photography, but for them it was all about the notion of performance and stage. The whole tableau tradition is very interesting,” she says.

Papapetrou’s photographs are strange, somewhat haunting. There is a disjunction between the subject and the scene that’s unsettling. The Dreamkeepers series, children in animal masks, is particularly striking. “Children remind us we’re adults, the same way animals remind us that we’re human. I thought it would be interesting to put the two things together.”

Other works show children outdoors, lost or at play, exploring their relationship with the physical environment. Their vulnerability evokes a sense of apprehension. “My photographs just come out of my head. I’m searching for meaning, a clue to our existence. These are existential questions; questions we don’t have answers to.” So, asking again, but confining it to her professional life, what is her greatest achievement? “Oh, I don’t really approach it like that. I mean it’s great to have exhibitions in nice galleries overseas, but really, as an artist, what’s most important to me is finding the freedom to express myself.”

The Shadow Stage is at the Walker Street Gallery, Melbourne, VIC, until 29 Oct.