The finalists in the National Photography Prize 2020 range from confronting portraits to historical images imposed with Colonial postcards.
Funded entirely by community members through the MAMA Art Foundation, it's Australia's longest running photography prize and was first presented in 1983.
Philanthropic support allows a first prize of $30,000, and the John and Margaret Baker Fellowship worth $5,000 is given to an emerging artist.
MAMA director Bree Pickering opened the exhibition of 12 finalists on Friday and said the structure had changed recently to explore each artist's style further.
"Previously it had been an acquisition fund - having it as a prize means we still acquire the work, but the artist still gets $30,000," she said.
"We have really reduced it down to show a body of work.
"Prior to 2018 it was 50, maybe 100 finalists."
The new format attracted Phuong Ngo to enter the Albury award for the first time with Lost and Found, which forms part of an ongoing research study about French Colonisation in Vietnam.
He has layered historical images and titled them with quotes from figures of the time, like Marie Antoinette.
"They really deal with the history of French Colonialism in Vietnam and it was triggered by the images of Notre Dame burning in April last year," Mr Ngo said.
"It's looking at where value is placed on cultural artefacts.
"It leads to a lot of internalised thought about racism, elitism and the other things that come into play.
"The way in which executions were handed down in 20th Century Vietnam was quite barbaric because of Eugenics and the way in which populations were viewed as animals."
MAMA assistant curator Nanette Orly said not all 12 finalists delved into identity so deeply.
"There's been an obvious divide between people responding to identity and histories, and there's also been a focus on experimental photographic processes," she said.
Elise Harmsen's video projection merges scenes from a Roman Polanski film with images of homes her late mother once lived in.
"Most exciting for me, is the only way I've been able to achieve these processes is because of the digitisation of the film," she said.
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"Rather than being a moving image I'm watching, it's frame-by-frame."
The National Photography Prize is presented mostly biennially; this is its 15th presentation.
The winner will be announced on Friday 1 May at a special celebration, as part of the PHOTO 2020 festival, a new international festival of photography that will activate Melbourne and sites across Regional Victoria.