To Catch the Soon-elapsing Lifestyle with Camera Lens
---The interview of the famous Australian photographer Hugh Brown
Hugh Brown, a professional photographer from Australia, has long been engaged in the shooting of documentaries, catching disappearing styles and features. In 2006, he started photographing mining projects from all over the world, photographing people hand-extracting sulphur from the active volcanoes in Indonesia as well as some manual coal mines in India. He has been photographing in Pilbara in Australia and Kimberley area for 16 years, and has shot field survival exploration documentaries.
His published works include: The Desolation of the Wild Inlands of Australia, The Kaleidoscope of the Wild Inlands of Australia, Kimberley---the Soil of Spirits, Pilbara---the Ancient Heart of Australia, The Australian Geography Magazine, The Exploration of Australia, etc.
In April 25th, organized jointly by the West Australian Department of Culture and Art, Ningbo Henghou Industrial Commerce Corporation and Ningbo Research Institute of Culture and Art, the photography exhibition of Hugh Brown---The Narrowing Styles and Features of the World was held at Ningbo Museum of Art, and the exhibition lasted till May 4th.
Reporter: Welcome to bring your photographic works to Ningbo so we can have the chance to admire oversea photography art. How did it occur to you to hold an exhibition in Ningbo?
Hugh Brown: Firstly, I would like to express my gratitude to Mr. Han Peisheng and Ningbo Museum of Art, it is because of their help that the exhibition was held. My gratitude also goes to West Australian Department of Culture and Art and Mr. Mike Yang.
Two years ago, Mr. Mike Yang, who worked at an iron ore company, contacted and entrusted me to accompany a Chinese artist, Mr. Yang Peisheng, to the Pilbara area of West Australia. The Krijini National Park at the center of the Pilbara area boasts world’s first-level natural sceneries. The seven-day trip was delightful, and not only did I get to admire Mr. Han’s art, we also became friends. Before leaving, Mr. Han invited me to hold an exhibition in Ningbo China. I remembered Mr. Han’s words in my heart, and today the dream does come true.
When planning this exhibition, I was a little hesitated with the theme. As I have worked all over the world, the scope and subject of my photographic works are extensive and unlimited. My aim is to take not only beautiful but also meaningful pictures. In recent years, one of my wishes has always inspired and guided my work, that is to catch and record the rapidly-disappearing styles and features in some parts of the world. Such as people in the jungles and their stories, vanishing sceneries, changing cities and industries and disappearing professions.
At last I selected 97 works themed with geomorphologic maps, manual mines, portraits of Pilbara figures, geomorphic aerial photos of Pilbara, and the massive mines of Pilbara. I hope to build a connection with China through photographic works. Most of the iron ores produced in Pilbara are exported to China, generating huge industrial revolution for China’s last two decades. Through these buildings, roads, bridges and factories, the natural sceneries you see are closely related to China’s developing cities.
Reporter: Did you know Ningbo before? Will you take any photos themed with Ningbo?
Hugh Brown: I didn’t know Ningbo before. It takes a long process to know about the culture of one place, also one needs to get familiar with the basic necessities and lifestyles of the natives. After I came to Ningbo, I found people here very friendly and interesting.
I wouldn’t shoot the subjects that others have already done, things like tall buildings and sceneries in Ningbo are not my works. What I am trying to know is the people in the city, especially those ordinary people who have come from countryside to cities with the development of China’s economy. I want to discover their stories and the way how China’s rapid development is reflected upon these ordinary people.
What I want to do is to picture the real people in their daily lives, to learn about their life and reflect the world’s development through them. This also conforms to the theme of the series I made in Australia.
I have photographed people in many mining areas in Australia, after I came to Ningbo, I visited steel factories and shot Chinese steel workers and their conditions, this kind of connection is interesting. I’m also prepared to photograph Beilun Harbor, which I know is a large dock. Through interaction and corporation, we can be able to observe the way in which world is developing.
Reporter: Your works are basically themed documentary photography, why did you choose to picture miners?
Hugh Brown: Mining industry has been a key word in my life for the last 20 years. My first job after graduation was in today’s largest mining company in the world, and most of my working life has been related to the mining industry. At first it was out of commercial purposes, and now for the sake of art. In photography, I have been shooting massive mining projects for over ten years, and it was through work that I came to know hand miners.
The purpose of this exhibition is not only to unveil the industry which provides iron ores to China’s roads, bridges and construction industry, but also to show the workers using modern machines to do massive mining as well as the workers who are still using ways and tools of 500 years ago or the miners who are still doing their job with hands. Today these manual tools and methods are rapidly changing, and my purpose is, to the best of my ability, to catch this kind of lifestyle before all the changes wipe out all the traces.
The first time I got engaged in hand-mining was during a trip to Africa in 2006 and I was instantly fascinated. From then on, I have begun my trip of photographs, the places I have been to include Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Mali, The Republic of Congo and Senegal.
The job of the miners there is accompanied by dangers, which means that the photographer is in danger. Things like the collapses of underground mines and gas leakage happen quite often. I always choose to take pictures at night, as it is easier to control the light at night. Sometimes in underground conditions, I work 24/7.
Reporter: Could you tell us some stories that happened during your trips? For example, the
story of picturing the workers extracting sulphur from the active volcanoes in Indonesia.
Hugh Brown: It was an amazing experience. I once ate and slept with these workers in the campsite 300 meters away from the craters. Sometimes I went to work with them just to experience their life and work. I found that those workers worked really hard and were very calm. They climbed up for one kilometer to collect ores and walked down for three kilometers on the uneven volcano stone cracks carrying the over-100kg ores. Sometimes their feet got severely burnt. As they had worked around the volcanoes for a long time, their teeth were corroded by the sulphur in the air and had become dark yellow. Human beings seemed so small in this environment. The volcano would erupt at any time and swallow people. The volcano was so horrible yet looked so beautiful the moment being shot. At the same time, the volcanoes can bring abundant resources to human beings.
Reporter: You have worked 16 years in Pilbara and Kimberley photographing styles and features that are about to disappear, what do you wish to convey through your photographic work?
Hugh Brown: I didn’t wish to convey anything. Everything is changing all the time, so are human beings. Change is a part of life, which we can never stop.
The Pilbara area in west Australia is an ancient magical land formed 2.5 billion years ago, boasting unique landforms, which was incredibly difficult. However, the landform keeps changing. The aim of photographing landforms is to picture typical spots in Pilbara so as to be historical marks in the future instead of taking beautiful photos. In other words, I wish to catch the stunning moment of those beautiful and valuable places and take valuable photos.
Many people in this area also have rich and unique stories, which reflect the disappearing era. What I am trying to do is to record these histories as they are, the changing landforms, cities and towns, industries, people as well as their stories. In this exhibition, some photos record amazing people I have met since 1998, who come from all walks of life, including gold prospectors, underground miners, helicopter pilots, ranchers or farm janitors, aboriginal artists, business people, etc.
Sometimes I wonder, do all my records matter so far? Perhaps they don’t for history, but to me, they are the responsibility. To me, photography is not enjoyment but a purpose and a sense of mission. I devote myself to my work with this purpose and sense of mission.
Reporter: You also make survival documentaries, aren’t they challenging?
Hugh Brown: I once went to the jungle alone and set the record of hiking alone for 10 days without food, even water. The weather condition was harsh, with temperature of above 45 degrees, and wild animals such as crocodiles, poisonous snakes and rhinoceroses appearing from time to time. I brought nothing other than kettles, maps, biopack, fire-making tools. Everything was obtained through the most original way: I collected dews with plastic bags attached to the tree leaves, and obtained food through fishing and fruit-picking.
It was challenging to picture many photographs. For the longest time, I waited for 30 days just to take one picture, and I wasn’t sure whether it would show up or not. In 2005, after taking one photograph, I was struck by a lightning. But fortunately, I survived each and every one of dangerous situations.
Reporter: Documentary photography is now the main stream of photography in the world, how to do this kind of work well in your opinion?
Hugh Brown: The value of one photograph should not be measured merely from aesthetic views, but from the visual expression intensity to human beings and society as well. Documentary photography is the commentary photography explaining human and environment and human and social activities, which can make people experience that time. No matter what theme and working manners, no matter social events or figures and sceneries, they all reflex the time being and will serve as image demonstrations in the future.
I never received professional training about photography, and started it as a hobby. There is an old saying in China that goes: It is never too old to learn. That applies to me as well. I am always making progress during the process of learning. I was a management consultant in a big company in East Australia, living regularly everyday. All of a sudden I felt tired and bored and moved to West Australia. It never occurred to me that photography would become my profession.
At first, in order to take photos, I would get started at 2pm on Fridays, drive 2500 kilometers alone and get to the place where I wanted to shoot by the morning. I only slept two or three hours at night. By devoting much of my energy into photography, I improved my skills. Also, I hesitated for two years between hobby and profession, and made a hard decision. I was afraid that once I have turned hobby into profession, it would alter my passion. Luckily, I have been a professional photographer for over ten years and my passion remains still.
Till this day, I would still look into the methods of photographing once I encounter good photos and improve my skills. However, once the professional knowledge has amounted to a certain level, one needs to seek a new balance through practices and attempts, and that is the balance between emotions and techniques. A good work is anything but the mere showoff of techniques. Techniques can upgrade your level, but can never be all of the quality of a photographic work. In recent years, I reckon that the attitude towards photography grows more important, as I know how to make my works unique.
Reporter: Many people today like to photograph with mobile phones, what do you think about it?
Hugh Brown: Yes, it is a huge change. People from all over the world like to take pictures with mobile phones, because it is convenient and technologies keep improving the quality of mobile-phone photos. In the past, we would print the photos and frame them. Taking photos is too easy nowadays; and we can keep the photos in our computers or phones and even delete them whenever we want. Mobile phones have greatly increased the number of photos.
I think it’s good that mobiles can record our life at anytime. Mobile phones can do documentary photography, too, as long as you like it. But we still need cameras, because the quality of camera photos can never be reached by cell phone photos. Besides, it gives me chance to think with a camera on my hand. I build an emotional connection with my subject the moment I press the shutter, but with cell phones the only thing I care about is whether the picture looks good or not.