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Essay from Robert McFarlane (2009)

Documentary photographers in Australia have been influenced by visual traditions that, until recently, were rarely practised in full in this country. Apart from the Institute of Aboriginal and Islander Studies’ 1988 book, After 200 Years, few Australian photographic projects have explored social or environmental issues in depth by using a collective of skilled documentary photographers – such as America’s Farm Security Administration did in the 1930s.

Brought together by the US Government to document deteriorating drought conditions in America’s rural “dust bowl" and inform possible policy changes, this remarkable group of photographers did just that -- while also invigorating the tradition of addressing social and environmental problems through documentary photography.

Previously, Lewis W. Hine had defined documentary photography as “pictures showing what should be (either) appreciated or changed”. Hine’s poignant observations of child workers in US factories made during the first decade of the 20th Century were sufficiently shocking to force child labour laws to be enacted in the US not long after. More than two decades later the Farm Security Administration would similarly address rural poverty, launching the careers of photographers now considered among the greatest of social observers –Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein and Walker Evans.

The recent formation of MAP (the Many Australian Photographers Group) in Australia similarly has as its goal documenting the effects caused by Australia’s current environmental extreme – drought. In gathering together talented photographers who volunteer their talents, for no profit, MAP seeks to define the environmental and human dimension of the drought. By default, MAP’s photographers also reflect how the visual grammar of documentary photography has changed, influenced by painting and fine art photography’s current dynamism.

In gathering together talented photographers who volunteer their talents, for no profit, MAP seeks to define the environmental and human dimension of the drought.”

Two of MAP’s aerial colour photographs seem especially informed by the elegant traditions of abstract art. In An eye on the drought, 2007, by Noel Butcher, a depleted dam sits in the landscape like a luminous elephant’s eye, looking upward from between the neat, geometric rows of crops that neatly frame the last of the dam’s pale blue water.

In Chris Atkins’ muted colour aerial photograph of vanishing pools of water dissolving into a bone-coloured landscape, this photographer suggests the drought’s effect as elegantly as a Colin Lanceley landscape painting.

Ultimately however, it is the human dimension of this environmental disaster that proves most affecting. Andrew Chapman’s simple black-and-white observation shows a countryman sitting quietly in a landscape desiccated by drought, with the stoic man’s only accompaniment a shattered, dead tree devoid of all but one branch. Behind this figure, to the right of the tree, an austere, iron-fenced grave with a tilting headstone echoes the man’s apparent resignation.

MAP’s coverage of these trials within the Australian landscape may well continue as a work-in-progress. With the drought’s uncertain duration, MAP’s photojournalists will almost inevitably have more to photograph. The precedent of creating an organisation such as MAP should not end when the drought ends, however. Despite being a modern Western democracy with a vigourous electronic and print media, contemporary Australia needs all the visual debate that only informed photojournalism and film documentary can provide.

Robert McFarlane,
Photographer and arts writer