Photographing close to the Simpson Desert in 1984, while retracing Charles Sturt’s expedition of 1844 – 45. In such a flat landscape, even a few metres of extra height can greatly deepen a composition.
My books on Australian explorers, photographed on three journeys across Australia, remain memorable experiences. They combined my photographs with the explorers’ field journals or published accounts. Using edited excerpts, re-plotting their routes, and photographing the terrain they encountered, the projects kept my 4WDs travelling – and my boots on the ground.
I had taken a year’s leave from teaching to complete United We Stand. In 1983, on my return to work for the New South Wales Education Department, I was posted to Pooncarie’s remote ‘one teacher school’ – on the Darling River, in the far west of New South Wales. There I found ten vibrant children. It was a memorable final year teaching, before I resigned to become a freelance photographer and writer.
A central aspect in forging a creative career is envisaging one’s trajectory. How to give expression to one’s interests? How to breathe life into one’s genre? What compelling reasons exist for the effort? At Pooncarie, I was to find answers that led to five rewarding years – and to three books. By happy coincidence, the Darling River was very closely connected with Australia’s mid-nineteenth century explorers whose expeditions had probed inland towards ‘the centre’.
Unless they perished, the men who explored the inland were largely forgotten in their own time. My books aimed to capture the drama of their expeditions and to record their ‘fearful joy’ amidst the unknown.
After days teaching in Pooncarie’s tiny schoolhouse, I spent the evenings reading and planning for the first of my exploration books. It would be on Charles Sturt’s expedition of 1844-45. Nearby, in flooded billabongs, stood massive River Red gums – some so old they would have been there when Sturt rode up the Darling. During the coming years, I researched and photographed three explorers’ epic journeys: Sturt’s, Edward Eyre’s and John McDouall Stuart’s. The books taught me much about the craft of book origination, and also about the challenges of publishing. Much later, benefitting from these lessons, I established two publishing bodies in Hong Kong.
My Australian exploration trilogy set my future direction, for books with inter-related photos and texts. A guiding notion came from Susan Sontag, the photographic essayist: ‘Narratives can make us understand’, she wrote. ‘Photographs do something more: they haunt us.’