Oculi is a collective of award-winning photographers offering a visual narrative of contemporary life in Australia and beyond. The collective has set the tone for reportage and documentary photography in their region for more than 20 years.
David Campbell: So welcome to this VII Insider event on photography from down under a look at photography in Australia with Matthew Abbott and Alana Holmberg from the Oculi Collective. I want to begin today with an acknowledgement of country, I want to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people who are traditional custodians of the land on which I am today and pay my respects to their elders, past, present, and emerging. Matt, we’ll begin just with a general question to you. Can you tell us a little bit about the Oculi collective a little bit about its history? And its purpose? And do you think or do you think of it as offering an Australian perspective?
Matthew Abbott: Yeah, well, absolutely. You know, it’s, it’s been going for a long time now, I think it’s one of the longest running photography collectives in the world. It’s our 21st year. And so, you know, I think, right off the bat, you know, I think one of the strengths of the group is that we are a collective, we’re not set up as an agency or as a sort of for profit organization. And so, there is a very strong sort of sense of camaraderie, and relationships and kind of community that sort of, you know, provides that sort of structure. And I think that’s the sort of success as to why we’ve been able to, you know, stay together and do so well over the last sort of 20 odd years. But yeah, the Oculi actually first began, as in a very informally as a way to, for a group of photojournalist to get together and make a website was back in the times when, you know, making a website was incredibly expensive, and way before Instagram, and all these things we take for granted now. But, you know, it’s incredible opportunity to be able to show I like our work. I mean, I was involved at that time, and a relatively new member, but you know, for the original members, it was amazing opportunity to show their work to the world. Something that we take for granted, but, you know, incredibly important, you know, we there probably dial up internet speeds, but still was it, it was a great a great way to to get to get Australian work out there. And, you know, we are a long way away from, you know, the sort of the main hubs, you know, you got North America, Europe, you know, these these traditional, obviously, like Hong Kong and other areas but yeah, there are these main hubs where media sort of international media sort of base themselves. And to a point to an extent, we’re still very much removed from that, in some ways so we can talk with that later. But, yeah, I think it was a way to sort of a sense of belonging, a way to sort of share Australian work and and it’s also, I think, primarily, which Alana can, I’m sure we will touch on. But it’s a way to not just show the daily work we do as as some of us are for journalists, some of us are artists, which quite broad practice of people, but it’s yeah, it’s a way for us to share work that we wouldn’t necessarily get published, you know, in the mainstream media, you know, longer form work, personal storytelling and, yeah, there’s a lot I can talk about it, but yeah, perhaps I’ll pass on to Alana for some more background.
Alana Holmberg: Yeah, we were actually in a pretty exciting phase of the collective at the moment, because we bought on a huge number of new members in 2020, to celebrate our 20th anniversary. And we really took time to find younger and emerging photographers, as people with a diverse practice to better reflect, I think, documentary work in Australia. I think prior to that time, Oculi had been pretty heavy photojournalistic, because of the reasons Matt talked about how the group formed in the beginning, but over time, you know, we realized and wanted to show a more, I guess, a more diverse range of work that touched on photojournalism or had its roots in documentary, but some of us more in the art world or photo book-making or even multimedia. So it’s been a pretty exciting time, we’ve never taken on more than kind of a couple of members at a time. Matt and I, and another were the most recent new members before this group. So it was always kind of a small group being added over time. But we thought, why don’t we change things up and bring in a huge number, we basically doubled our size overnight. And our thinking being what we thought was a bit of an experiment, we weren’t sure if it would work or not, but actually has worked brilliantly because it has meant that there’s a lot more balance in the group. And it has really injected a lot of excitement and innovation, and I think new ideas, which has given us a really fresh breath of air coming into our third decade of existence. Yeah, it’s exciting times for the group to, you know, I think with any collective, it’s there’s tough parts of being part of a group.
Alana: Photographerswe often work on our own, we have strong opinions, we have strong opinions about our work. And so it can, it can lead to some challenging kind of conversations or positions on different topics. And Oculi certainly had their fair share of times that we’re struggling, but it’s really, I think we’re all feeling just so positive and excited to have this next chapter to get booked through those hard times and kind of find ourselves where we are today. We’re putting on a huge group show in a couple of months, which will be our first time presenting work as a collective in quite a number of years. So yeah, it’s a great time to be kind of introducing our work through this platform as well.
David: So I mean, part of sort of Australian cultural history and tradition is the notion of the tyranny of distance that, you know, the country is a long way away from the rest of the world, or the rest of the world is a long way away from it, depending on your perspective. Do you still feel that? And if so, how does that manifest itself?
Matthew: Yeah, absolutely. I think, you know, the, especially, you know, well as a photojournalist, if you do have ambitions to work with, you know, international media, there’s just very limited opportunities to meet people in person. You know, for example, I’ve been working with, with one editor at the New York Times for over five years, and I call him a great friend, but we’ve never met. It’s just remarkable, we probably would have met had it not been for COVID. But so, you know, that comes with a lot of challenges, you know, just having relationships online, it’s always more more challenging. It’s hard to get across your thoughts and plans and, your passion for what you do, you know, trying to get people’s attention in people already digitally overwhelmed, and kind of, you know, it’s not great. Connecting on emails, so yeah, so that comes with a huge challenge. Of course any, some of these big world stories, if that’s what you know, that’s the kind of work you’re that you’re interested in doing. requires a huge commitment, you know, to be able to travel multiple hours, expensive airfares, and so on, to be able to, to visit areas. I can speak for myself, but I sort of several years ago, I decided to, to just actually, that I wanted to sort of chasing stories around the world that I didn’t necessarily have a personal relationship to or, you know, I thought it would be better to sort of, yeah, basically make Australia my sort of specialty, you know, and it’s where I’m from, it’s what I know best. And I thought I could contribute better to stories here, you know, and, and because the more you work in this space, the more you realize the complexity of some of these stories, and and how, you know, I just feel like I can better contribute to a conversation in my own country. So yeah, for me, it’s about you know, advocating for Australian stories. I still, most of my work is international media but yeah, I’m just trying to push and sometimes, you know, stories come up that I know a great but that might necessarily not be on the radar of people in New York, or Amsterdam or wherever. So, so that’s where, you know, Oculi can come into play, but also just, you know, we obviously, we really utilize these new media such as Instagram and so on to be able to reach a larger audience.
David: Alana, do you feel I mean, you’ve talked about new people coming into the collective and quite diverse practices, and different styles of photography and so on. But do you feel that there is something distinctively Australian in the collective? Is there a kind of an Australian aesthetic? Or is that taking it too far?
Alana: I think there might be taking it too far but maybe you could have said that about Oculi prior to this group joining. But no, I think I think what you’re seeing, particularly the new members is they’re really interested in telling stories in different ways, using different visual languages. And I think that has benefited us in terms of the type of work that might come in, and also helped each other in terms of the conversations we’re having about how best might I tell the story. Is there a device that I could use or a method of photographing that might tap into some of the elements of the story? Is there a more conceptual approach that I might take beyond reportage or portraiture? You know, I think, if any thing our diversity reflects kind of what’s going on here, and I think it’s a good thing, yeah.
David: Yeah. Yeah. Well, why don’t we start and see some of the work. So Alana, you’re going to share a story with us and talk us through that. And as you do that, I mean, your, is it correct to say that you’re your, you work freelance, portrait photography is kind of a major part of your practice? Just tell us a little bit about your background and your approach.
Alan: Yeah, sure. Yes, I am a practicing photojournalist. Yes. That’s kind of where a bulk of my income comes in. And I do a little reportage, mostly portraiture, more recently, some sports, which is not something I thought I’d add to my portfolio, but I’m kind of enjoying looking at that with my gaze, I suppose. And then I have an art practice, which I’m trying to kind of build alongside the freelance work, where I’m trying to exhibit or present work in different ways. And this project I’m showing today it has ended up as an exhibition, a photo book and also performance. So quite interested in using documentary work and sharing it in in different ways. Yeah, that kind of wraps it up.
Alana: Okay, so you can share it see my screen, okay. Yes. Great. Okay, so I’m sharing a project of mine, the most recent one that I finished. That was a lockdown project, actually. So it’s called Porch Diaries. And it consists of 240 portraits made from my place, the front porch, over primarily over 2020. But as lockdowns kind of continued down in Melbourne, I’m sure lots of you have heard how enduring our lock downs were down here. I simply sat on the porch for long periods of time and made portraits of who walked past my door.
David: And just for international people, the porch would be sometimes called the veranda in other places, or Americans would call the stoop, sitting on the stoop.
Alana: Yeah exactly. I live in one of those old kind of terrace brick houses which are raised up to bricks. So you get quite a nice perspective on the street, from this little spot. And I also happen to have a porch that is west facing, which means I, you know, I get the afternoon sun and Melbourne can be pretty dreary and cold in the winter. So it’s also a place where we kind of naturally gravitate and hang out. So I’d already been sitting out on the porch for plenty years prior, just as a way to get out of this dark little house and connect with people around me. So this project was an extension of that, I guess, habit. And you know, as we’re all locked down, it was also a way for me to connect with those around me. So I’ll just, I’ll just flip through, I’m gonna read a little bit of text that is in the book. Sure. But essentially, the images are in chronological order. And to pay kind of close attention to some of the details, you can see that the seasons change. Children grow up and the children are born, and you can kind of see the pandemic playing out through little clues. Like for example, the image on the left right now the post is not wearing a mask, but later in the series, he doesn’t see. I didn’t feel like I was photographing the pandemic, but obviously that’s the context in which the images are made. And so I like that there’s some of these little clues through the images that give you a little sense of what’s going on.
David: Socially distanced socializing.
Alana: Yeah, look, it’s a really light project. And I suppose when I have moments of uncertainty about it, I question it’s worth in that way, like I’d say like, the images are quite straight and quite simple. But it always come back to this idea of making a record of the time. And I think with this work, in particular, the value of accumulation of small moments to speak to something more broadly, I think if you look at these individual images, I don’t know, I don’t think they’re any kind of award winning amazing photographs. But when you see 200 of them together, we start to see a visual representation of the community living around me that I would never see side by side. And in that way, it’s it kind of serves as a reminder of what’s available to us when you know, normal social circles we can’t spend time with when we’re feeling the limitations of virtual relationships and communicating online, there is a whole group of people outside our front door that are available to connect with, and perhaps in the world that we live in, we more often just come home and close our door and go about our life inside our homes and don’t necessarily take the time to connect with our neighbors. I grew up in a really small town. So that was a very much a part of my childhood. But I hadn’t felt that way in Melbourne, I least Brunswick has my address, and you know, I know a few shops around here, but otherwise, my life kind of exists somewhere else. Whereas this project in particular, really rooted me to my immediate physical surroundings and made me a part of the community in a way that I hadn’t realized that I’ve missed or needed in my life. I thought I’d just read a little short excerpt from it’s kind of a diary entry, which in the book, there’s some texts throughout the images that just speak to my experience, because I think as much as that being a record of the streets also record of my time, being a human and being a photographer in the pandemic. Some days, I feel like a creep. My spot up here on the porch is partially obscured behind the lemon tree kept vertical by the state in a row was spindly roses. Twice this morning, my presence went undetected. A meter or so above the path, I sit on a worn out couch with a worn out laptop, my eyes flicking from screen to the street and down to the street again. Who else will pass by today? Mara, my dog, takes the position to my right propped up on my thigh. We watch. And we wait.
David: I think it’s interesting. I mean, the photos that you’ve shown so far, this one a little a little different. But clearly, most of the people, if not all, the people are aware of your presence, and a lot of them are making eye contact with you, and so on. Which is that kind of a deliberate thing from your perspective to make that eye contact and photograph that eye contact?
Alana: Yes, yes. I asked it most people that to be photographed. I think I didn’t feel like there’s a few that are observing, but most of them have been commissioned have been sought, and then a portrait made because it was yeah, I wanted the I want it to be a formal sitting, I suppose I wanted them to be seen, rather than I mean, I watched remove the rear window from the Alfred Hitchcock film. That was I watched that at the very beginning. And and you know, in that first passage, actually, like there was an element of like, am I being a little bit of a creepy neighbor? Am I coming out here too much are people feeling? Or? So I definitely prefer my preference was to make sure people knew what they were signing up where it might, yeah.
David: And what was the what was the response of most people when you approached them to be photographed? Was there a majority happy to do it? Some not. But what was their response?
Alana: I would say vast majority, happy. Yeah, particularly once I got a few images done, and I had them on my phone and I could show people. And you know, I had a little page on my website where I would add images slowly. And I think over time, people in the neighborhood generally knew I was doing it, it had been going on for six months, really. So some people would come by to participate, particularly. At some point, I was convinced people were crossing the road to avoid me as they go. They thought not today. So but yeah, generally very positive. Very open to the idea. I think also, I got a lot of positive feedback after they were photographed and saw the whole series because I think in that moment, they felt like they belong to something important, like a record of time or history that we would look back on at some point, I think, you know, as the pandemic progresses, we realize we’re in some huge global moment that yes, we’re going to be significant in all of our lives. And so, to be photographed in this way, I think, I think for the most part, people felt quite happy to be part of that. The other thing that people kept saying is like, you know, I walked by the street all the time. I see lots of people in this images, but I would never think to have a record of this for myself. Yeah, we photograph our loved ones and our friends and our holidays but you know this, for me, it’s quite unusual to have a visual record of a place where you live for a period of time. So yeah, those kinds of comments were coming back at me when when people saw the work, an interesting thing that happened when I shared it. So I actually performed this work, it was a bit of a new experiment, I presented the book dummy with a live cam stream, I was scrolling through the pages and kind of live editing, adding images, adding notes, and there was a neighbor of mine who will see in an image coming up, she was hosting letterbox concerts to that lockdown. So she performed cello music at front of her house, and people would come and watch, because she, he accompanied the work. So we did a collaboration kind of both of us responding to lock down and neighborhoods in different ways. And the resounding feedback, at that time, this was probably a year in, so it’s mid-2021, we felt like it was over but didn’t realize it wasn’t quite yet. And a lot of people got very emotional when I presented this work, which surprised me because I think the images for the most part, they’re quite joyful. They’re light, they’re about the pandemic, but they’re not heavy. You know, they celebrate actually something that was positive about spending a lot of time at home. And that was the connections and the community healing and the care that people had for each other but in this dark room with the music, and presenting the work and reading some of my own diary entries. People said that they felt like this release of emotion that maybe they didn’t realize they needed almost like acknowledging what they had shared together and coming out the other side. So I think for me, that was very rewarding to make something that felt meaningful to people and was a record of the time that we shared together.
David: Yeah and these were particularly long and strict lockdowns where people could only be outside for a certain amount of time and cover a short distance so they had to stay in the neighborhood.
Alana: That’s right. Yeah. For people in other places, we couldn’t leave any more than four reasons there was a curfew, we couldn’t travel more than five kilometers, and we couldn’t be outside with one other person that wasn’t from your house. So yeah, that was the kind of context. But the thing that’s interesting, my street probably looks very interesting when you put all these things together, but it’s quite quiet. I think this is also the power of accumulating small moments, you start to see how much life is available around you and appreciate those things like the guide cutting is my neighbor cutting his winter wood in a shopping trolley, I mean, silly and fun. And I kind of have, I’ve learned a lot making this work. I think prior to this project, some of my work had been quite heavy is looking at social issues, political issues, women’s rights. This is the first time that I’d really had fun making work. And that might sound kind of superficial. But it really taught me a lot about the type of images and stories that I’d like to make in the future and that you can reach people about topics like connection and community and belonging in ways that are light. Yeah, so that’s kind of been a key archetype for me.
David: There’s a question from Ted in the audience. He says the frames are consistent for the most part, similar perspective and lighting. Was that a conscious decision for the project?
Alana: Yes. Yes, absolutely. I had studied a couple of time based series in researching it. There are some inconsistencies that occasionally bother me like, for example, here, I’ve obviously stepped down a step. In others, I’ve moved further along the porch. But yes, for the most part, same, I made decisions to shoot with the same lens, same focal length. Same, ISO, mostly. And the reason I did that was because I felt that when everything in the frame was consistent. What we focus more on is the subjects and the moment captured. And so the setting just kind of fades into the background, and we focus on the thing that I really wanted to highlight.
David: And I think this work is going to be viewed differently as time goes on. I mean, for you, it’s very familiar, it’s your street, even for myself looking at now, I recognize that sort of street. But it’s still different, but in five years, in 10 years, and even longer people are going to look at this as a real vernacular document that gives insight that’s not available elsewhere.
Alana: Yeah, I’m glad you mentioned that, I I feel that as well. One of my kind of favorite artists who I look up to a lot is Laurie Anderson. And she has this line in one of her music pieces that this is the time and this is a record of the time. And so I just had that kind of bubbling away in the back of my head, I used to get quite frustrated by some of the cars in the background, there was my neighbor. He’s a tradie. And he has this huge van with really bold red and green branding. It’s very good now that I’ve mentioned it. And, you know, eventually I asked, would you mind just parking your van a bit further demonstrate, it’s like literally in every single image driving me crazy. But over time, I thought, well, you know, these cars, actually, in 20 years, they’re going to be quite interesting to look at what are we going to be driving? What are people going to be wearing? Yeah, I agree, I think it’s only going to get more interesting and more valuable as time time. But even from a personal perspective, you know, I have an ex-boyfriend is in a lot of the images has already passed, passed by a lot of the neighbors have moved out. I mean, I think that’s quite interesting to having two years of lockdown, people are looking for change. You know, we’ve read a lot about people moving out of the city, but I think a lot of the neighbors photographed, aside from the people over the road, have moved out, have looked for change. So even that capsule of time that was visualized in this series has moved on as well.
David: And some delightful Melbourne weather occasionally.
Alana: Yeah, four seasons in one day. I mean, some I mean from this is just a technical photography thing. But my porch faces West, as we spoke about earlier, David, and that may photographing quite tricky after a certain time in the day, because everyone’s backlit. And so, ya know, there’s some challenges like that to work with. Sometimes I wish I had maybe used Flash in the beginning.
Alana: But then with all these inconsistencies, I go back to this idea, well, it’s a record of the time I’m doing my best to bring them into some sort of aesthetic family, there’s going to be changes because I’ve photographed in different seasons at different times of the day in different years. And so I’ve learned to embrace them, I suppose.
David: And you mentioned, it’s a book, and you’ve performed parts of it. Did you start out with the purpose of making a book? And how else are you thinking about sharing it and distributing it?
Alana: Um, as I mean, in the beginning, I didn’t think it was really much I started on my birthday. And I said, Oh, this is kind of odd, in lockdown, and my birthday was in March. So I was one of the first birthdays to be locked down. Little did we know everyone would be. So it was mainly record for me but then as I started getting more images, I felt kind of I actually haven’t made any books prior in my practice. So I’ve always more been drawn to multimedia performing kind of things. So but this felt like it needed to be a book and the reason I felt like that was because I was I kept going back to who was the audience to this series. And I really wanted to unhook myself from making work for other photographers or making a photo book for the photo book world. For me, what was most important in making something physical was a almost, a gift back to my community, a physical record of a time that people imagine people might have them on the shelf, and they might pull it down and show their family that they were part of something. So I designed the book very much with that in mind, it’s self published. And I use local creatives here in Melbourne, it was quite important for me to reinvest back into creatives here rather than elsewhere. And actually, the book is almost nearly sold out. Lots of people in the neighborhood have bought a copy. And I did a small run. But it was important to me just to keep it manageable from a self funding point of view. And, you know, I also stopped the people in cafes and shops and bars within a five minute walk with my house because I wanted to keep the concept of community strong through all aspects of how the work was shown whether exhibited locally at a local gallery. I performed it in a local live music venue behind my house. And yeah, the book has basically remained in the suburb as well. I’ve sent it overseas to lots of places, but in terms of being able to buy it, it’s a local thing.
David: So maybe a final question for you before we move on to Matt, Monica asked, did you have to ask people for permission to photograph and then perhaps you could just explain a bit more about that that process of consent?
Alana: Yes. I asked people, most people permission aside from a couple where you can see they’re not looking at me If I didn’t do any formal consent other than to say I was planning to use the images in a book in an exhibition, and I encourage people to contact me to be on the mailing lists. So I have a pretty lengthy list of participants, not everyone. And yes, I’m sometimes I wonder if they come across their image in the exhibition and hadn’t quite realized that it reached that point. What they might think, for the most part, yeah, consent based.
David: Super great project, and great images.
Alana: Thank you so much. Yeah, it was, I feel really proud to have kind of managed to pull something together in such a challenging time. But in a way, this project helped me get through it, I have to say, like, sitting out on that porch and having really light, social interaction with people, a little bit of a laugh, something creative actually kept me was a thread of positivity through that time so I’m pretty grateful.
David: Yeah, thank you. Yeah, if you just want to end your screenshare, and then Matt can begin his and then we’ll come back for collective questions at the end.
Alana: Just try to work out how to..
David: There will be a stop share at the top of the screen. There you go. So Matt, tell us a little bit about what you’re going to share and kind of also a little bit about, you know, who the work was done for and how the work came about?
Matt: Yeah, of course. Yeah. So I’m mainly going to share what I share two different projects today. One is, I guess, the culmination of a lot of work covering the 2019-2020 bushfires in Australia, which I guess was a, quite a large international story. I’ve recently published a book from from the work, so I won’t go through it on the camera here. But I’ll share my screen now. And I can show you well, and the audience a bit about, you know, what went into the work and a bit of background as well. So I’ll just start sharing. Okay, can you see that?
David: Yes, that’s good.
Matt: So I’m just gonna rip through a bit of an edit from the period of time, you know, these fires were quite sort of unprecedented event for us to have, you know, just the services, the sheer scale of what we experienced, and, you know, these, there was this fire but in the , it was only it mainly on the east coast of Australia. But they began in the north, and they slowly made their way further south. And so I mostly photographed these images. You know, in my own time, sort of, not for any particular clients. As you know, in the, in the beginning, it was seen as a mostly localized story, and, and wasn’t really sort of being seen as a major sort of world news story. But that changed on our New Year’s Eve, so about two months into this disaster, it became a sort of all of a sudden, it became a quite a, quite a large international story. And it was, you know, it’s quite, it’s quite good that I had a really strong collection of images that had been taking for, you know, for weeks in advance, you know, just showing what was happening. So, yeah, these are sort of in sort of, no real sort of orders more of a chronological order, I guess.
David: So you began just by wanting to document this for yourself, actually.
Matt: Yeah, I did a little bit of work for clients, but but it just became apparent early on, like, just this scale, and of what we’re witnessing was just something that had to be documented and was worthy of attention. And sometimes the, the sort of the, that realization, but also making editors are in a world realized that that’s a very challenging thing. So there can be quite a distance, I guess, in that, but I think, you know, a lot of work that I’ve done in the past has been my own personal projects, and issues that I care deeply about. So you know, part of being you know, a great what a good photojournalist is being able to recognize stories that are of significance and you know, and be able to have your sort of your own voice and focus on on issues that, that you believe that are very important, you know? So I don’t necessarily sort of wait for assignments to fall in my lap, you know, the majority of the work that I do, I would say 90% is stories that I pitch, you know, stories that I’m sort of suggesting that we cover and, you know, sometimes I write the stories, but most of the time, yeah, so I’m just working on the images. And but yeah, there really got to be strong sort of visual stories, you know. So it’s about coming up with ways to, sort of, yeah, be able to show things and basically be being creative. Coming up with creative ways of telling stories. Yeah.
David: And as this fire season on fire disaster went on, and of course, when it was picked up internationally, it it was seen as part of the climate crisis. And you know, one of the extreme events as part of the climate crisis, did you feel that you were photographing part of the climate crisis when you were doing this? Or did you feel that you were just documenting daily events? And then then later, the larger narrative came out?
Matt: Yeah, I think in the beginning, perhaps that hadn’t really, I mean, some of the viewers in Oculi for them, it was very present. And, but just bring it back to, you know, the Oculi discussion. I’m incredibly grateful for several the members, Nick Moir, Dean Sewell, Jeremy Piper, they’ve been photographing fires for for 20 years, and they’re incredibly experienced. So in the beginning, that they would, they were incredibly generous, and that took me along with them, just to teach me how to, you know, stay safe in these sort of pretty intense situations. And, and, but also, especially Nick Moir, from the very beginning, it was clear to him that this was a this was a climate event. It’s something that he had been, he personally had been predicting for several years. Of course, yeah, there was there were climate scientists and other people that were, were predicting this as well, you know, we’d been through this 10 year drought, we had not seen that level of like, extreme sort of lack of moisture, and heat and wind, we’ve never seen these kind of conditions before. And so, so yeah, so that was very much part of that conversation from the beginning. But suddenly, you know, from a, from a narrative storytelling point of view. Yeah. You know, it was incredible to like to be able to be part of that and see the change in the shift in any Australian media, but also, yeah, also internationally as well. And I think one of the big challenges, you know, when when, like, being a journalist working on climate change stories is that, you know, we’re posing this question like, how do we, how do we visualize climate change? How do we show it? Everything can be put down to, Oh, well, that’s just a really bad fire, or we’ve had fires, you know. So I think it’s, it’s just, you know, being able to see, like, so like what Alana has mentioned before, with her work, like seeing all these images in one place, and seeing the scale of what, of what we went through, you know, sort of this undeniable document of that this, is that something that we’ve never seen before. And, you know, and I think it’s, in many ways, it was like a bit of a moment around that. I mean, not just as fires but internationally, there’s been a lot going on in the last few years, from a climate perspective. And I think it’s really opened up a possibility for more resources and more engagement with reporting because, you know, in the past, that link was never redrawn. And so there wasn’t that sort of that, I guess that pressure, or that sort of immediacy, or to the work, I guess. But now that we’ve, you know, that these issues have been discussed openly, people are much more willing to sort of look at the world with a different perspective so that’s been great.
David: Yeah and also, it’s enabled this story and this issue and this event to be linked with other global events. So in California, there were fire crises, in southern Europe the same, Greece, etc. I mean, then you start seeing a global pattern, and so you don’t see it just as one localized thing in Australia. It’s actually part of this global phenomenon.
Matt: Yes, sort of contextualize as the issue. And, and it means that I think that people will in other countries that have some kind of buy in to the issue. Before it was all linked, you can say, oh, that’s just a poor Australia, you know, that’s on the other side of the world. But I think people are realizing, well, hang on. This is what’s happening over there but you know, this has direct implications to, to our lives as well and around the world as sort of global citizens.
David: And did that manifest itself in the sense that as you went on documenting this, and the story got bigger and bigger, did you then get more interest in approaches from editors outside the country for work?
Matt: Yeah, so there was this real moment, you know, on New Year’s Eve, where it was one of the worst fires that we experienced, you know, over that sort of three or four month period. And, but at least one day, there was, it was the busiest time of the year for these communities. And there were in several of these communities down the south coast, they were completely cut off from the semis. And they were, you know, forced to be living, like, amongst this sort of, like, apocalyptic scene without access to fresh water, power, communication, and you know, for the first time, at least in Australia, there was just 1000s of people that were like, directly affected by this event. And so that, you know, obviously, COVID is sort of really sort of, overshadowed a lot of what we went through, because it happened nearly immediately after, but, I think that was a real wake up call for a lot of people, you know, because they, for the first time, they could say, well, hang on, like, my cousin or my sister or whatever, is missing and, or is not able to tell me that she’s safe. And and so yeah, it really was this sort of hellish summer that, you know, Australians, that’s part of our sort of like, that easygoing, we’re not we’re not have these really crazy summers, but this thing was like, it was a real shock to the system. And it wasn’t even people that were like losing homes. You know, in Sydney, city of 6 million people, we were covered, I covered in smoke for two months, you know, people we lost, I think they’ve estimated over 500 people died, just from smoke, you know, from the smoke of those fires. And so doesn’t not even not, not to mention that the the impact of the biodiversity, I think the last estimate of animals killed was somewhere in the roam of like 3 billion. It’s just like, you can’t even get your head around that kind of number. Yeah. And, but I’m just moving forwards, probably a good time to mention that, like, after the scenes disaster firsthand, I, you know, it was very shocking for me, and I wanted to, I wanted to have, I wanted to commit to telling the story of people that have been through this firsthand, and not just move on to the next story. So although not as sensational, and in many ways, much more sort of, like you really have to put yourself out there and, and, and be very patient and so on with with some of these committees that were going through this difficult time. But um, yeah, I committed to following up and I spent, you know, I’ve spent well, last two years really, I’ve been visiting these places that were that were affected, and, you know, telling stories about the impact on the animal population, but also, you know, very human stories about people that are, you know, several well over a year later, still living in caravans and tents and waiting for waiting for help.
David: Wow. Question, I was going to ask this to, good question from Ted and the audience. How do you actually work safely in that environment of extremely intense fire? And did it have any physical effect on you in terms of breeding and breeding capacity?
Matt: Yeah, certainly. Um, so yeah, I learned a lot from you know, there’s other photographers who’ve been doing before me. But, you know, we were like safety clothing, very fit cotton, that’s a fire retardant. You know, but there is certainly, of course, there is a real level of risk and, but, you know, you kind of when you do a few of these fires, you kind of get an idea of how they move, and how and how, of course, it’s always unpredictable. But, you know, I was always just trying to, to be there, but also not put myself in risk or put others at risk by by, you know, by myself being in this situation, but of course, it’s a catch 22 of you got to be close, you’ve got to be there to be able to sort of experience the, the full intensity of things. So yeah, like, you know, there’s always risk involved, but, but it’s just about understanding, you know, to the best of your ability, how things gonna work from from the weather point of view. And, again, that’s why it’s so amazing to be able to talk to people like Nick Moir. Yeah, he could, you know, share his view about how things would play out and make things a lot safer for him.
David: And were you were you traveling by yourself in this environment? Or were you sort of embedded with a fire crew or other people in the area?
Matt: We were either traveling together with other photographers. So, again, there’s that camaraderie of like looking after each other. You know, it was a situation where, like, we only ever saw photographers in these fights. You know, you never saw journalists, or very rarely people with cameras even like filming situation. Yeah, we really did feel like we were on the front line. And, able to see things that others weren’t seeing other journalists weren’t seeing, you know, and but yeah, but there were several days that I was just completely alone. And in those situations, of course, you have to be incredibly sort of present and thinking about dangers, because there’s things like falling power lines, and trees and all kinds of dangers that like, you know, you’ve really got to be across. Even just driving in those situations is really fraught. So this is one of my favorite images. Yeah. You know, it’s a very quiet photo, obviously. But this is the was a community center, near one of the worst affected communities. And it just has, yeah, just a simple thing of just telling the neighbors that like, they’re safe. Yeah. They’re able to help. Yeah, and, you know, with with numbers and so on, but yeah, I really think that this can can say a lot as well.
David: I love the instruction at the top NB no rumors, that would be a very good piece of advice to media generally.
Matt: Yes. And this is more sort of, more of that recovery phase.
Alana: Matt, how have you found the reception going back? You know, months later, where they people that you’d photograph prior or they knew people? And were they I mean, I just, I remember hearing a little bit about some of the more badly affected communities being a little reluctant. For more, more photography, I wondered if you encountered anything like that, as you returned?
Matt: Um, yeah, I think like, you know, whenever I was going back, I was just really connecting with people without a camera, from, you know, it’s a long process, right? Like, there’s, there’s nothing really to photograph, like, by just rocking up there, you know, six months or a year, after, you know, a lot of these a lot of the, the impacts of the fire had had been, you know, yeah, you know, the grasses come back up, it’s all green, you know, people were rebuilding and so the images that I wanted to show were, were these sort of, like, underlying scars, you know, there’s underlying feelings that people were experiencing. And the only way to do that is through, like, intimate connection with the people themselves, you know, like, in this scenario, like, I’m inside the temporary sort of caravan of, you know, of a young family. And so, so yeah, so I’ve been invited in and been through that whole experience, which, like, that, that in itself is quite a tiring thing. For a journalist to continue to go through, you know, and, you know, I found it. Yeah, really emotional and exhausting, you know, as well, because you’re just constantly being exposed to like, really traumatic stories. But, but, yeah, just the only way to get those kinds of images, you know, and there’s a gentleman, one of my favorite images, who, you know, I visited him several times over a week. And, then at one point, I saw this incredible shower, he’d made this shower on the edge of his where his house once stood, you know? And I said that, you know, at this point was getting really cold. It was basically wintertime. And I said, Oh, well, you know, like, when do you have you shower? Like, what time? Oh, you know, having in the evenings before go to bed? And I said, Well, would you mind if I come back? Let me know, when you would have your shower. Like, I would never want to ask somebody to do something for me specifically. But I said, you know, when do you have a shower? Would you mind if I be there for that moment? And, you know, it’s quite a vulnerable image for for him to be allowed to photograph but yeah, it’s that kind of like commitment. I think that we’re lucky that is required to make those kind of poignant emotional images at this stage of a disaster. And in many ways, it was, yeah, or definitely was much more challenging than just being in the middle of a incredibly visual and, you know, disaster itself, you know, that that was the kind of easy part, you know, it just been easy. Yeah. So so yeah. So this is the kind of work that I guess, I look back on. And I’m quite, I guess, like, proud of just being able to, you know, because I put in that time and follow through on some of these sort of, kind of more challenging, difficult stories.
David: And then, I mean, in that image, not only has he given you consent, but you photographed it with his hands over his face. So his identity is protected, if that was an issue and so on but that’s also kind of a very emotional pose for him to take at that moment, too.
Matt: Yeah. Yeah. You know, his name is Grant, and he, I don’t think he wouldn’t mind had been identified. But he, yeah, you know, it’s funny, he often don’t talk about like, I should ask him, like, why he allowed me to be there for this moment but we I don’t really go into those kind of details, you know, but yeah, you know, yeah, it’s definitely an image that will stay with me for a long time. And then just moving forward with sort of time I wanted to share so after these fires, you know, I had a lot of interest, like, internationally, it was a it was a big story. One second.. So are you still there?
David: Yes, yeah we’re here.
Matt: There was a lot of interest internationally about about these fires. And about, like, and also internally in the country, as well, as it was a conversation started about, you know, how, like, what do we do? How do we, where do we go from here, you know, what we experienced, it is predicted to happen again, and again. And again, you know, like, just going back to some of these areas, you can see the regrowth and how dense These forests are, sort of rebuilding, it’s kind of quite terrifying, to be honest. And so I was speaking with National Geographic about this, and about ways that we could talk about fire in Australia. And a big thing that kept coming up was, was about how forests were managed by, by Aboriginal people, by First Nations, people of this country you know, for 10s of 1000s of years, you know, and I had previously been living in an area in the north of the country called Arnhem Land, I spent several years living there over sort of about 15 years ago. And that’s sort of where I first started working as a photojournalist. And, you know, in this region, there’s this incredible program, that is where Aboriginal people will have been actually using fire to prevent destructive wildfires. I know that unlike kind of an oxymoron, but it is, yeah, its incredible ways of how they’ve been managing the land. And by burning in a very controlled and strategic way. They’re able to remove the undergrowth. And it prevents the fire from reaching the tops of these trees. And that’s, that’s the destructor fires, they move a lot faster, they emit far more carbon into the atmosphere, and have these huge ramifications for loss of biodiversity, but also just you know, emitting far more pollution into the atmosphere, which is, of course, continuing our climate change. But yeah, but also in the story is this amazing sort of upside, which is that by practicing this traditional technique, they’re able to make an income from selling the worth doing as as, as carbon credits, and they’re able to put this money back into the community and to, you know, continue a lifestyle that they’ve, you know, that they are very obviously, isn’t very critically important to their, to the culture and to the people there. So, so yeah, this is about a year and a half in the making. It’s been published, I think next month in National Geographic, and yeah, I’ve got my little video here, right bit of a presentation. You can see some of the work, so I’ll just play that out.
Audio from Video: Hi there, Matt over here from Australia. Today, I’m sharing with you a story I’ve been wanting to shoot for over a decade. It’s a story about why Aboriginal people have been burning their lands for 10s of 1000s of years. And how these traditional techniques combined with modern technology can offer both a solution for combating climate change, while at the same time offer a future for the traditional land owners. An elder burns grass to protect the community from wildfires. These people do not see fire as bad or destructive, but as a way to rejuvenate the land and bring their country back to life. smoke from a deliberately lit fire covers a valley in Arnhem Land at the beginning of the dry season. Aboriginal people embrace fire as the ultimate tool to shape and manage the landscape. A helicopter drops fireballs that create small fires on the ground. These cool burns move slowly, burning only the undergrowth and removing the buildup of fuel that feeds bigger blazers. Rangers go from starting fires to putting them out later in the season with leaf blowers, fires that occur in these hotter dry months or more destructive, emitting higher emissions, which jeopardizes their carbon credits. Stacey Lee seen here on the left with the bark of the trees on fire, producing a natural light source to help hunt for Fall snakes. During a five day Bush walk, a family follows a fire lit by other members of the clan to help guide their journey and clear the land. Conrad talks with an archaeologist shortly before the early burning season commences. Rock art sites have cleared each year of debris that might burn and destroy the ancient paintings when the fires move through.
Audio from Video: A nearby archaeological dig has recovered traces of ochre and human remains data to the first people to ever come to Australia 65,000 years ago. Elder Mary (Last name) passes on her knowledge during a school field trip to a rock art site. Mary with her husband established one of the first homelands of movement to return to country and escaped emissions. Children’s very specially designed matches from the back of their car lighting small fires. Now water can children are encouraged to burn by others as part of their education. due to climate change, resulting in more intense fire activity. patches of ambient forests that carry spiritual significance are protected by fire breaks a clear path surrounding the unique vegetation. A family gathers around the campfire teaching their children how to hold and use a spear. A group of elders hunt for turtles with homemade crowbars. They spent all day finding just two turtles, which are a popular delicacy. Soon the grass will be burned to make the hunt easier. A fire Hawk flies above a fire lit by hunters earlier in the day by coupling indigenous knowledge with Western farm management technology to preserve their forests to cleaner paid carbon credit units, which they can sell. Early one morning children spear fish and a waterfall covered in smoke from a recent fire. Proceeds from the carbon abatement program are invested in the community, supporting families who choose to live a more traditional life on country.
David: Great story I mean, I like love the connection between traditional practice and modern practice but also the fact that they’re you’re focusing not just on the problem, but effectively on solutions that are taking place on the ground. And I think that’s such an important perspective. Thanks very much, though. Yeah, yeah. We have time for some more questions. If people in the audience want to drop them into the Q&A box. I’ve got a couple more questions because that you did that for National Geographic, and Alana, you talked about, you know, the range of your practice, even doing some sport and some reportage and portraiture and so on. I mean, is that the life of a freelance photographer in Australia? It’s the life of a probably the life of a freelance photographer anywhere to do that sort of range. Is that something that’s economically necessary? Something that you’d like to do?
Alana: I mean, for me, yeah, I mean, I do multiple things for income. For me, editorial isn’t enough to survive on so I guess I started doing sports because I was asked to and I thought, well, we’ll try and surprise myself in actually enjoying it, actually, and trying to see it in a different way to what we might normally see and try not to get stuck in the sports photography tropes. Find my own way with it. I mean, I got asked to do tennis, which I really love as well, which help. But yeah, I mean, maybe I’m not sure what Matt’s setup is but for me personally, I have other work that is flexible, that allows me to pick off editorial as it comes in. I’m not so much pitching my own stories like Matt describes because I suppose I prefer to put my energy into my art practice. So that’s kind of where my time goes, and then the editorial works around that, but they do definitely have a relationship. For example, the porch diaries, a reason I’ve kind of felt like it had substance was because the Washington Post published it quite early on. And that was to a relationship that I’d had through some previous commissions with that editor. So I mean, it’s not that they happen in isolation, they certainly all help each other.
David: Yeah, and Matt for you the same, same thing. I mean, you are, as you said, pitching some stories, but it’s a range of different sources, is it? Is it the case also for you that editorial is probably the smallest component? Or is it larger for you?
Matt: Yeah, so for the last, I guess, like four or five years, editorial is the definitely the major component for me, I occasionally get asked to do commercial gigs, here and there, or, and it sort of fits into sort of my like, what I like to do, I’ll definitely will accept that kind of work. But yeah, that’s been my focus, I really, really started to enjoy the researching the pitching side of things, and, sort of, I’ve always seen photography for me as less about the actual taking of the photograph, and much more about the experience and the sense of like, understanding and and that kind of a process for me is what I love. And so I’m able to, like I find out yeah, I’m, you know, I’m thinking about like, art projects all the time. And it’s not necessarily oh, I need to work for the best newspapers in the world, or whatever. It’s like, you know, I’m happy just to go and do my own thing. And I’ve got a few ideas about that at the moment. So yeah, I’m constantly changing, like what I want to do, I think, Yeah, as long as I keep, like, excited and interested in in things, you know, always keep having ideas. And yeah, so that’s what I’m, that’s what keeps me going. It’s just the exploring things I’m actually really sort of curious and interested in.
David: I mean, Australia has always been quite a small media market itself, it’s had a lot of media concentration in certain companies, editorial is therefore managed by very few people. But we’ve also seen the Guardian set up an Australian operation, the New York Times. Other organizations, is that making a positive change for you guys? Is that helping bring work to the country?
Matt: Yeah, I think there’s definitely more of a focus on Australian stories, since the New York Times and now the Washington Post have set up offices here. Although, and they’re great, for sure but I think like, that’s just only it’s just two newspapers, right? And there’s still not that same kind of like, not the same kind of scale, or that or sort of number of people, like for example, The Guardian, they don’t really sort of commission our stories. Right. Very rarely, you know, whereas I think, if ever, whereas, if, you know, in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, I think they’d be doing a lot more Commission’s, and then anybody that doesn’t have an office here, a Bureau, yeah, you know, very rarely sort of hear from and it’s a big comes up like to fires. And that was actually a really interesting moment because, you know, all of a sudden, like, it’s a huge world story. And without, and some people are getting a lot of work, but it was really great for people to get to work during that time. But without a, like, sustainable industry here where people can survive. And a lot of people here are doing it quite tough, you know, in our group, but um, but everywhere, you know, and there isn’t to be honest with there’s not a lot, a lot of work to go around. And so I guess yeah, my concern is that, you know, without a sustainable, sort of, like industry, that can’t be relied, to be able to have people, you know, ready to go when there’s a major news story happening. Yeah. Yeah. So yeah. What do you think about that, Alana?
Alana: Yeah, I think that’s really true. I mean, I teach I have been teaching visual storytelling class at a university here for the last few years. And yeah, in the back of my mind, I do think about that, that these kind of young photojournalist coming out wanting to kind of do this work and just kind of knowing that it’s, it’s slim pickings, actually, and can conceal like, definitely not enough to go around. I’ve never felt able to string an income together on that kind of work. So kind of, I don’t mind the diversify or that actually because I think full-time editorial can also bring its own stresses. Yeah, but it’s, it is a small pool, I felt I’ve really benefited I think personally from some of those bigger publications coming to Australia. And you know, before doing work with them, I wasn’t sure editorial was the path I wanted to take. But having had some work come my way and working with editors of that caliber has really increased my interest in that work. So it would be wonderful if, yeah, there’s more stories around for other photographers to take on as well. It does seem like they’re trying to do the best to find some more diverse voices. But there’s also often a bit of an education piece that comes with working with editors from overseas just how far the distances, or like how far it would travel time is required for that type of job, or even where Melbourne and Sydney is sometimes. A bit of upscaling in that department as well.
David: Yeah, that heading to Arnhem Land is not going to be done in an afternoon, it’s going to be a four hour flight and a long drive. Well, this pretty much brings us to the end of our time, I really want to thank both of you for sharing your projects with us and talking about the situation often the audience here kind of a perspective that they don’t get very often. Sharon, who’s an Australian living in the US, Matt is very keen to get a copy of the fire book. Where’s where’s the book available? And how can you do that?
Matt: Yeah, so it’s not a, it’s not just a book for photographers. It’s sort of widely available through Thames and Hudson. So I believe there’s a there’s a link or if you Google “A Fire Inside, Thames and Hudson” you could you could order the book, I think, overseas, it is quite a lot. Problem with always with books, but yeah, it is possible.
David: Yeah. And Alana is your your book is almost sold out. Is it still available?
Alana: Yes, it’s still available. There’s 15 copies left on my website, you can get the copy, and I’ll post it for you personally.
David: Excellent. Well, thank you both again. It’s been great to talk and yeah, we’re looking forward to more work coming out and discussing it more in the future.
Alana: Thanks so much, David. Thanks, everyone.
Matt: Yeah, thanks, Dave. It’s been great.
David: Fantastic. See you guys soon. Bye.