Waiting for a Moment that Might Never Come

When people ask what type of photographer I am I answer very strongly that I'm a documentary photographer.  In years past it was a mix of landscape, aerial, portraiture and mining genres.  But now, every aspect of what I do is about history and documenting this amazing world in which we live.

It is not done with a political purpose.  It is done because I feel that it is an important thing to do, though I realise that at the end of the day ultimately nothing is important.

Every time I return to my native Pilbara in Western Australia’s far north, that point gets drilled in to me.  When I sit photographing fossils that are 3.49 billion years old.  If the first appearance of life on earth could be equated to the start of a one hour movie, humans first appeared in the last half second of that movie.  These things give one a very good sense of perspective.

So when you have that perspective to work with, one can only do what feels important.  And that must come from deep inside one’s persona.

You can never be 100 percent sure that you are doing the right thing, but at the end of the day your gut feel and belief systems are all that you have to work with.

So over the last sixteen years I have worked hard to document aspects of the Pilbara and our world that are rapidly changing.  People and their stories.  The effect of the Chinese industrial transformation on the mining industry in Australia and Africa.  Changing towns.

My landscape photographs are very different to how they once were.  In years past I chased beauty in the landscape.  I watched for the light.  Then followed the light.  But, as I learned along the way, anyone can do that these days.  If the light is on song, any person can take a good photograph, whether they are a photographer or not.

So how to do things differently…….?  How to do things differently but still work in a way that feels important?

Today, I search for landscapes that are changing rapidly also.  In Australia, this is mainly because of mining.  So I look for landscapes that might not be around in years to come.  Or I look for important historical landmarks.  I search for and find those landmarks and then wait for the light. 

My aim now is not to take beautiful photographs.  It is to take photographs of important places at their most beautiful.

This can be very challenging.  Two recent photos in the Pilbara came at the end of 17 days of waiting.  That’s 17 days camped in the bush with temperatures over 40 degrees on most days.  Nothing, until, at the end of those 17 days, the universe grants me a gift. Then there was the teaser after a 36 day wait, not the shot I was after but I love the image.

You learn much about yourself and learning to live with nature when the conditions are like that and the opportunities are so limited.  It becomes a battle with oneself as much as it does the quest to make an important photograph.  Because nothing is certain in life and one cannot be certain that the photo will even come.

Take a wait earlier this year.  To date, I have waited 36 days for a photograph in the Pilbara and it still has not yet come.  Included in there has been a direct hit from a cyclone and eleven successive days where the temperature topped 45 degrees on all but one.  But I will return until I eventually make that photograph.  Whether it takes me one day or another two months.

Working in the Pilbara has yielded some of my greatest life experiences. I live each year for the months from December to March. Working out where to wait. Deciding when to go and when to stay. It's a bit like fishing a mate once said to me. You have to know when to leave fish and when to stay for fish. Photography is no different. But in the Pilbara the journey well and truly is what makes the destination.

China v. West Africa WBC Boxing: Just Another Day Aboard an African Aeroplane

Sitting here at Kotoka Airport in Accra. Just been worked over as usual. Travelling as a photographer, airport travel is one of the more unenjoyable challenges. You're loaded up to the hilt so you know you're going to get hit with excess luggage. It's just a matter of limiting the damage.

Today, not too bad only to be told once I got upstairs that they'd botched it up and my luggage bill was nearly doubling. I had 57 kilos checked in I think. That's not including the 30 or so kilos that I'm sneaking onboard with me. Then, when I got upstairs, through customs and screening I was told that one of my bags had been detained by security and that I had to go all the way back downstairs again and go through the same rigmorole (spell?) again. Got downstairs only to be told that everything was okay and that I could go back upstairs again: through customs, through security and screening, etc.

So now not a happy camper. My video guy back in late 2010 got detained in Dubai for nearly 30 hours because they thought his gyro-stabiliser was in fact a bomb. He ended up having to can his flight and re-route through Addis Abiba in Ethiopia. Just hope this bloody plane takes off and we don't need to get out and push it. Asky is the airline. Don't like flying these airlines I've never heard of but that's part and parcel of travelling in Africa. You just put your life into the luck of the draw. But life's a lottery whichever way you look at it.

Nearly got bowled over at a zebra crossing this morning crossing one of Accra's busiest roads. My fault. Was looking one way and then this taxi driver just came charging through. I don't subscribe to this trying to make the world perfectly safe back home. Keeping safe over here brings a healthy level of awareness in my view that benefits one in other ways. It keeps you alive, pardon the pun.

Things a shambles here on the tarmac in Lome: the capital of the West African country of Togo. We've been delayed an hour at least already.

Story appears to be this. Lady travelling from Addis Ababa in Ethiopa to Bamako is sitting with two other friends. Only trouble is that she has been allocated a different seat for the sector from Lome to Bamako. Poor old Charlie Chinaman gets onto plane to find his seat is taken by the lady. Lady is asked by cabin staff to move but won't. A fight erupts and there's punches and whatever else flying around.

That's about when I started to try and work out what was going on. So security/ police get on board to take her off. But now she's built a bit of a following among the Africans onboard, which is about 80% of the plane, and the police are reluctant to remove her because they fear that the rest of the passengers will turn violent against them. So police leave the plane.

At this point, pretty much two thirds of the flight are standing up and watching what's going on or actively participating. It's the Malians against the Chinese bloke. Poor old Charlie Chen (I don't think that's his name by the way) is stuck in the middle. He wants his seat but is now pitted against most of a West African country. All the discussion is in French being a Francophone country. Probably a bit of Chinese from the Chinese bloke but no- one can understand him so he's better off saying nothing.

Now the discussions/ altercation have moved into my part of the plane. People yelling and shouting. Couple of us laughing. One passenger going ballistic because the plane is late. Woman now standing next to me. I'm in the middle of it. As a French bloke just said to me, just as well not happening in Mali where we are bound. Plane could be broken into north and south parts and then it could really be on. Country is in a middle of a coup.

Passengers now yelling at each other. Quite humorous though need to keep head down which is what I'm doing. Heat continues to rise here. Keep head down. Typing this is helping. TIA. This is Africa. Woman going ballistic now. Blokes yelling back trying to assuage her. Chinese bloke sitting next to me - they're everywhere on this plane - has no idea. Chinese is his language. French has him buggered.

That said, if they band together this could turn into an international conflict. The world's largest country against a West African country. Could be here for hours at this rate. This could erupt into an all-in in which case I will have to down my computer...If I join it becomes a world conflict rather than just an inter-country conflict.

Airports and air travel interesting in Africa. Whenever cabin crew tell you to be seated in the departure lounge you do the opposite. Today's discussion was typical. Walk up to the departure gate when a few started the stampede. "Please Sir be seated" I was told with the others. I start to do what they request and then a bloke says: "Please, Sir. Your boarding pass", after which I presented it to him. "Okay, you can go", he said. All in the space of 30 seconds.

20 minutes later. Things have quietened a fair bit. Plane still shows no sign of moving.

1910. So have just arrived at the hotel in Bamako. One of President Gadafi's hotels I think. Long day. Left hotel at 0845 and have only just lobbed. Particularly long given that it's only about a 90 minute flight from Accra. But you get that. TIA.

So eventually the altercation on the plane settled and we left about two hours after the listed departure time. Not sure what ended up happening with Charlie Chen and the African woman but the rest of the plane settled and we were able to take off. Mind you, when it landed the smoke hadn't finished coming off the tyres as we skidded down the runway and everyone was up on their feet pulling out their bags from the overheads. The hosties gave up trying to tell everyone to sit down and by the time we hit the taxi-way pretty much everyone had got their bags from the overheads. Again, TIA. But there's something about it that you have to laugh at and love.