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15 July 2020

The Australian Outback: A Phenomenon Devastated by Climate Change

15 July 2020 - Written by Laurence Cornet

Drawing on memory and personal childhood impressions, Adam Ferguson seeks to negate the romantic connotations of the Australian Outback and focuses instead on how climate change is changing the dynamics of bush-towns and Indigenous communities.

© Adam Ferguson, from the series Big Sky

After a decade of covering conflict internationally, Australian photojournalist Adam Ferguson felt the need to document his own country. “It was a desire as a photographer to work on a story that is ingrained into my archetypal and spiritual being. I became a bit burnt out and disillusioned with covering a lot of wars and it was a bit of a self-prescribed therapy”, he says. With Avedon’s American West in mind, he explored the Australia of his childhood, far away from the coast.

Australia’s vast lands have made the country’s economic development possible, providing a fertile ground for agriculture and mining. They also made for a mythology of adventure and of the bush life that till today remains deeply rooted in the national identity. “The Outback has always been a very central part of Australian identity and it somehow dominate the political landscape. We have a great nostalgia for farmers and this culture is still something we hold very dear and try and protect”, Ferguson explains.

© Adam Ferguson, from the series Big Sky

Looking at Australia’s interior, Ferguson steps back from the myth and rather works as an archivist, documenting a place before it changes forever – climate change along with mechanization and centralization are slowly squeezing these smaller ways of life out of regional communities, ultimately changing the social fabric of the countryside, and he collects the remnants of this culture before it disappears. “I'm trying to make a document which negates the mainstream history of the outback and provide something a bit more complex and nuanced and presents a place that is ultimately in decline”, he says. Mixing his memories with the present, he creates a visual poem of the Australian bush.

In one photograph, chairs hanging from a tree look like museums pieces, exposed to the gaze of future generation but not of any use anymore. Ferguson uses landscapes as metaphors for the situation – the mass grave of sheep that works as reminder of the impact of climate change on this already arid region; the pile of mattresses as a reference to mining industry and its subsequent environmental destruction and inherent waste; the approaching storm as a changing time. Central to the work though are environmental portraits, each incarnating aspects of this culture. They pose among their daily frame, as if aware of the change to come, standing at a turning point. Children prevail – those whose ability to have confidence in that way of life has shrunk with the series of severe droughts of the last decade. “I'm drawn to the younger people, because they're at this intersection of their life. Do they stay in the country and continue this way of life? Or do they leave this?”, Ferguson explains. “Ultimately, this tension is the archetype of the decline of the bush.”

© Adam Ferguson, from the series Big Sky
© Adam Ferguson, from the series Big Sky

© Adam Ferguson, from the series Big Sky

© Adam Ferguson, from the series Big Sky
© Adam Ferguson, from the series Big Sky

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Adam Ferguson is an Australian photographer whose work focuses on conflict and civilians caught amidst geopolitical forces.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Paris focusing on cultural and environmental issues. She is also the editorial director of Dysturb.

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This article is part of our feature series Photo Kernel, which aims to give space to the best contemporary practitioners in our community. The word Kernel means the core, centre, or essence of an object, but it also refers to image processing.

Written by

Laurence Cornet

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