03 March 2021

The Mystique Surrounding South Australia’s Land of Opals

03 March 2021 - Written by Lucia De Stefani

Australian photographer Matthew Thorne embarks on a journey to capture the essence of his homeland and its inhabitants, narrating the magical realism of the location in its most unfiltered state.

© Matthew Thorne, from the series The Sand That Ate The Sea

Under a searing sun that flattens the vast landscape into a series of stark shadows and contours - the wide deserts, the mountains, the inlets, and the people who pass them daily - the land of Australia is animated by a mystical force. In this arresting contrast, the magical reverberates.

It’s a rich polarity that Australia offers, the numinous conjunction of forces and eras: its aboriginal history and culture clashing with the reality of the last frontier, in its recent colonial and postcolonial past.

For the stark nature of its scenery and the tenuous way in which all of these contrasts are held together, photographer Matthew Thorne traces the elements of magical realism that emerge in this vast and lonesome land.

© Matthew Thorne, from the series The Sand That Ate The Sea

To shoot a documentary film in the past years, he visited the opal mining town of Andamooka, in the South Australian outback. The small community, whose population has plummeted in recent decades, formed around the mine, with small dwellings and local businesses, before the opal rush subsided. Camera in hand, Thorne started exploring Andamooka and its surroundings. Soon he had collected a series of “un-constructed moments,” a genuine representation of his encounters and what he witnessed. “I realised that the photos had captured something more honest about the time I'd had there, about the people I had met there,” he says.

The result was The Sand That Ate The Sea, whose evocative title suggests the working of the sand covering a vast extent of water, covering and uncovering traces of the past.

© Matthew Thorne, from the series The Sand That Ate The Sea

In his work, Thorne investigates Australia’s essence as reflected in the land and the everyday lives of the people who inhabit those remote areas. “There’s a stillness in the land that then becomes part of the people and part of life,” he says. Borrowing elements of magical realism from South American literature and art, Thorne infuses his photographs with that same light, turning ordinary scenes into extraordinary images that transcend the mundane.

“The land was so magical and the things that were happening there were so beyond reality... But it was also a land full of such harsh human reality,” he says of his experience living in South America.

© Matthew Thorne, from the series The Sand That Ate The Sea

His inquisitive glance inquires into the candor that Andamooka and the opal mine community present, while abstaining from the intellectualised and overly documentary style that characterises white Australian photographers and western artists in particular.

He doesn’t shy away from the dichotomy embodied by this place and his own history: how colonist frontiersmen conquered indigenous culture and made it home. As he acknowledges both of their contributions to the country’s history, he gauges their complicated context differently, without disavowing or diminishing the complexity of their truths: truths that made the reality of living there a harsh and magical experience at once.

“You’re either here for the opal mine, here because you were born here, or here because you're running away from something,” he was once told. And that insight is especially relevant when it comes to the frontier and the borderland. “You feel this incredible mysticism of the land. But then you also have this really harsh human reality of the suffering, the pain, and the emotion. Magical realism is the attempt to unify these two things in some way. And I think Australia has a lot of that too.”

© Matthew Thorne, from the series The Sand That Ate The Sea


Matthew Thorne is an Australian film director and photographer whose work is focused around the relationship between time, community, land, and spirituality. Operating in a space between constructed narrative and observational storytelling, Matthew’s work captures real people and experiences through a composed, dreamlike lens. Much of Matthew’s work examines the mysticism of Australia and Australians. Follow him on PHmuseum and on Instagram.

Lucia De Stefani is a multimedia reporter focusing on photography, illustration, culture, and everything teens. She lives between New York and Italy. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.


This article is part of the series New Generation, a monthly column written by Lucia De Stefani, focusing on the most interesting emerging talents in our community.

Written by

Lucia De Stefani

Reading time

5 minutes

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