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About the exhibition

The severe and long drought that ended in 2010 affected the prosperity, social fabric and political landscape of Australia. Australians found themselves simultaneously unified and divided as they searched for solutions to the lack of water.

From 2006 the Many Australian Photographers Group voluntarily recorded the impact of the drought on the land and the people of Australia. Beyond Reasonable Drought presents a selection from more than 2,000 images compiled through this extraordinary initiative during an extraordinary time.

Our nation was formed at the height of the devastating 1895–1902 drought, which became known as the Federation Drought. Dry periods of varying intensity have been experienced since then. So frequent and severe are these droughts that they have become entrenched in our national psyche.

The people of ‘the bush’ are thought of as stoic and hardy, shaped by harsh conditions over generations. Their perceived strength and tenacity are broadly accepted as being part of our national character.

Dorothy Mackellar’s much-loved poem ‘I love a sunburnt country’ celebrates this vision of the bush and goes on to warn of the continent’s terrifying capacity for ‘drought and flooding rains.’ As a nation, we prepare for an irregular cycle of good and bad times. But the contrast of record-breaking drought followed by unprecedented floods over large parts of the country, as was experienced in 2010–2011, went beyond our reasonable expectations.

The photographs in Beyond Reasonable Drought document the way Australians work and live during drought. They present the seemingly contradictory combination of beauty and desolation to be found in our often parched continent. And they pose questions to us about our attitude to water use, our national and personal priorities, and the durability of our national character.

Beyond Reasonable Drought is a Museum of Australian Democracy travelling exhibition in association with MAPgroup—Many Australian Photographers.

MAPgroup—Many Australian Photographers

MAPgroup is a non-profit association of approximately 40 photographers who share a passion and commitment to high quality, independent documentary image making. MAPgroup donates all imagery back to the towns and people involved—a gift that enriches their historical archive in a unique and substantial way.

For this project, MAPgroup sought inspiration from the work of the highly-acclaimed Farm Security Administration (FSA). During the 1930s, when the American mid-west faced crippling drought and economic collapse, the FSA (as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’) brought that situation to the attention of the wider world. The FSA photographers achieved that by creating serious, compassionate imagery which, 70 years later, is still incredibly powerful.

MAPgroup members have paid homage to the FSA with Beyond Reasonable Drought. Although not comparing their efforts to the extraordinary achievement of the FSA, they have produced a comprehensive, sensitive, ethically-sound and powerful body of work that is a permanent, diverse and valuable interpretation of the Australian drought that ended in 2010.

Beyond Reasonable Drought is a Museum of Australian Democracy travelling exhibition in association with the MAP Group.

Exhibition Patron—Lee Kernaghan

“The Beyond Reasonable Drought exhibition is an important reminder of the life and times of farmers, businesses and communities as they battled through the worst drought our country has endured in over 100 years. It was a period of enormous hardship with many hard working people losing their homes, businesses and farms as the drought dragged on with no relief in sight. Seeing a solitary white flag flapping in the wind on a drought ravaged property in Western Victoria brought home to me the devastation the drought was wreaking on the land and the human cost associated with season after season of little or no rain.

But Australians are a hard mob to crack and with those difficult times came an outpouring of help in the form of donations and fodder drives for people doing it tough on the land. With the help and generosity of many of my mates in the music industry, several concerts were staged around the country to raise awareness and lift the spirits of those families affected by the drought. At the first concert just outside of Horsham, Victoria over 25,000 people turned out to show their support. I met a young farmer and his family that day who had recently lost their farm after several seasons of being unable to get a crop into the ground. They did all they could do but the rain refused to come and it became impossible for them to hang on any longer. The farmer explained to me that he had suffered with depression and terrible guilt at losing the farm that had been in his family for generations. As I was bidding them farewell he explained to me that he would never give up because his wife and two little girls were depending on him. I shook the big fella’s hand and knew inside my heart, this was the Spirit of the bush.

The drought put many to the test. It also brought the country together with an outpouring of support and community spirit that enabled many families to keep going. The hard times have also brought innovation, new techniques to farm the land and ways to prepare for future drought.

I am very proud to be a patron for Beyond Reasonable Drought and pay tribute to our farming families and all those whose stories you will experience in words and images in this wonderful exhibition.”

Lee Kernaghan
December 2012