Beyond the Fire

Sean Davey

2019 - 2020

Australia is currently experiencing its worst bushfire season in living memory. Looking at satellite maps of the continent, it is easy to think that the entire south eastern coast is, or has been on fire in recent months.

Smoke pollutes the air, ranking a number of Australia's cities with the lowest air quality in the world. Many argue that this summer has marked the end of Australia's age of innocence; joyful summer days by the beach replaced with apocalyptic red skies and arid smoke. Gas masks instead of swimming costumes and the wide-spread anxiety that effects everyone, not least the people who have been acutely affected by the crisis.

As a country however, we do have a collectively short memory and even shorter attention span; our appetite for stories of survival and acute trauma are heightened while the flames are raging. But beyond the fire, we leave a lot of people behind and alone to process what had transpired and the rebuild what they have physically lost, and mentally endured.

Ongoing trauma associated with the effects of bushfires is a long-term issue, and one that requires dedicated and thoughtful attention from visual journalists and artists. It has played on my mind a great deal - while covering recent events - just how much we as photographers ask of our subjects to participate and to communicate traumatic experiences and to relive particular details. Hundreds of journalists are drawn to small towns and regional areas across the country, where we prod and poke looking for stories (important as they are), only to be gone again just as quickly looking for the next one.

I have been fortunate over the past month to have spent a great deal of my time covering the Australian bushfires in the small New South Wales town of Cobargo. Very much an outsider, I have had the privilege in getting to know people individually over many weeks, and it is only with time that one can start to get to the essence of what is required for individuals and communities to rebuild and get back to a semblance of normality with their daily lives. There is so much rebuilding to do, both physically and psychologically.

I believe that long-term visual journalism and art can play an important role in keeping the stories of people dealing with trauma and loss in the forefront of our nation's collective memory. And it comes through engagement and community participation, something that requires time, personal interest and dedication.

Admittedly I have blurred my professional and personal boundaries over the past few months. I have developed friendships with people who I have met and reported on, I have set up crowd-funding campaigns for two families that I have met, and who welcomed me to photograph them in times of acute trauma. I'm unsure whether I have gone beyond my professional ethics as a journalist, but if I have, then I am aware that this professional title is not mine to be defined by. This is very much a personal threshold as much as it is a professional one, where I am confronted by my own presence in these situations and have to determine my own responsibilities and ethics for how to navigate them. To say this has been an important event in my own life is an understatement.

Moving forward, as our attention naturally drifts from the 'story' to others, it is up to us as individuals - as it always is - to decide our next step in how we continue our relationship with those who have been affected. For me, it is about engagement and sustained interest in the lives of friends and people who have moved me with their resilience, determination and humility. It moves beyond journalism and even documentary into the realm of art, where stories are not relayed, but they are given back to the people who own them, and these very people are given the opportunity to express themselves though images, words and video.

The first step is to engage children through photography education and visual literacy, enabling them to look at their own surroundings and to experience it and communicate their perspectives of what has happened. This involves working with the school and wider community in helping students express themselves through photography - a medium they all love.

By working with children, and engaging with the community as a person first and foremost, then as an educator, then as an artist, I believe that photography will do more than tell a story, it will be an integral part of how a community sees itself rebuilding and becoming whole again.

Regardless of whether this application is successful, I will find ways in which to spend time in the Cobargo community, working with them and people in surrounding areas to assist the facilitation of documenting of their own stories beyond the fire.

{{ readMoreButton }}

  • A fire-front moves through Little Bombay Road, Braidwood, NSW (2019)

  • Children play at the Bega Showgrounds where they are camping after being evacuated from nearby camping sites, 31 December 2019.

  • Steve Shipton shoots an injured calf in his paddock after a bushfire in Coolagolite, NSW, January 1, 2020. Steve lost approximately half of his cows out of a herd of 200 in the fires in January 2020.

  • Coolagolite farmer Nick Gard (l) and Cobargo resident Matthew Strohfeldt (r) (with dog Red) at the Cobargo Community Bushfire Relief Centre, located at the Cobargo Showgrounds on Monday 13 January 2020. Matthew's family home was destroyed by bushfire on 31 December 2019, his family have been given temporary accommodation at the Cobargo Hotel/Motel and will be moving into rented accommodation organised by their insurance company in coming days. Nick also lost his property in the fire, as well as a large number of sheep and cattle.

  • A ram looks for food in a burnt out orange tree on the property of Chris Post in Verona, NSW, which was affected by bushfire on New Year's Eve 2019.

  • Coolagolite beef farmer Steve Shipton battles dust storms to bury dead cows that were killed in the recent bushfire that tore through his property on the South Coast of NSW on 31 December 2019.

  • Portrait of 25 yo Anthony Thomas with his dogs Dargan (on shoulders) and Delta, after he surveyed his uncle's property in Kiah, NSW that was destroyed in a bushfire in the early hours of 31 December 2019, photographed on 8 January 2020

  • A landscape view of Chris Post’s property (c) on Upper Brogo Road, Verona, on the South Coast of New South Wales, where vast amounts of land and properties were destroyed by bushfire on 30 and 31 December 2019.

  • Steve Shipton (centre on quad bike) is consoled by fellow farmers Bernie Smith (l) and Peter Mercieca in Coolagolite, NSW, Wednesday, January 1, 2020.

  • A goanna climbs a burnt out tree on a property in Verona, NSW after a bushfire approached on New Year's Eve 2019.10 January 2020.

  • Bermagui resident Michael Partridge keeps a look out from Dickson Point, with a packed car full of supplies, whilst talking to his father-in-law on the phone on Saturday evening 4 January 2020.

  • The scorched property of Brian Cole in Cobargo NSW on 6 January 2020, after a devastating bushfire passed through the area on 31 January 2019.

  • Carol Schaefer, 75, is staying with her extended family at their home in Yowrie, NSW with her sheep George. Carol's home was destroyed on the evening of 30 December 2019 and she refused to leave without her ten year old sheep George, her best friend. Helen and her husband Wayne Schaefer survived and fought the fire, saving their own home, while daughter Leah, 18, was in Cobargo when the fire came though in the early hours of 31 December 2019.

  • Lisa Poulsen’s Clydesdale Jake was burnt in bushfire in Verona, NSW on 31 December 2019. Owner Lisa Poulsen had to destroy two of her other horses the day prior, and is trying to nurse Jake back to health with another clydesdale Jordy, on Thursday 9 January 2020.

  • Lisa Poulsen, 49, is trying to nurse her horses back to health after devastating bushfires in Verona, NSW on New Year’s Eve 2019. Lisa only has two days worth of feed left for her animals and also doesn’t have diesel to travel to get anymore feed. Lisa had only recently stored over $10,000 worth of hay in her shed, which was destroyed by fire. The shed was uninsured. She also lost two horse carriages worth over $30,000, which was her business. The shed wasn’t able to be insured because it was on property that didn’t have a full time resident. Lisa has had to give horses way to save their lives, and she has destroyed two others.

  • Verona resident Chris Post at home on his property that was affected by bushfire on New Year's Eve 2019. Chris saved his home but lost a shed, his nursery and fruit grove, as well as a large family art collection. In addition to the fire, Chris had to put down one of his beloved dogs the night before the fire engulfed his property.

  • Cobargo locals gather at the Cobargo Hotel to celebrate their New Year's Eve after two weeks of bushfire recovery. NSW on Sunday 12 January 2020.

  • Charles Brody removes a dead kangaroo from near his home at Brogo NSW on 12 January 2020. Charles saved his home with his partner Danielle, but lost a number of sheds. Charles believes that a stronger focus must be place on strategic ecology management in order to prevent such catastrophic fires.

  • Jessie Collins, 36, at her dad's property in Verona, NSW. The fire was stopped in the bottom paddock after her brother ploughed the top paddock as a bushfire approached on New Year's Eve 2019.

  • Cobargo locals gather at the Cobargo Hotel to celebrate their New Year's Eve after two weeks of bushfire recovery, NSW on Sunday 12 January 2020.

PhMuseum Days 2023 Open Call

Apply now for 4 Exhibitions at PhMuseum Days 2023 plus a 40-image collective installation, free applicants pass, and more

Apply now