Travel Stories: Andrea Johnson explores Australia's Northern Territory and the challenge of capturing meaningful travel photographs
12.18.12 | 11:10 AM ET
I‘ve been working as a photojournalist for over a decade, yet despite all of that experience, I still face the same challenge wherever I travel. How can I create photographs that really capture a sense of place? How can I communicate the sure-footed agility of the Himalalyan Sherpas who breezed past me on the trail to Everest Base Camp? Or the warmth of the Burmese in remote Myanmar villages? Or the surreal experience of swimming with jellyfish and drift diving with sharks in Palau? Each assignment brings a new quest to capture photographs that carry the same emotional impact that I experienced while creating them.
I was reminded of this challenge once again on a recent trip to Australia’s Northern Territory. It was my first time back to Australia since 2001. I hadn’t realized the importance of that trip at the time; the openness of the land, devoid of so many distractions, allowed me to clear my mind, remove creative blocks and begin my career as a photojournalist. Now I was traveling with a group of journalists while testing the new Canon Rebel T4i, a camera aimed at the advanced amateur market. It wasn’t yet released to the public, so I didn’t have a user’s manual or an opportunity to test the gear beforehand. And unlike my last trip to Australia, when I had three months to explore, this time I had just five days. I had my work cut out for me.
One of my first stops was the Bark Hut Inn, an iconic pub en route to Kakadu National Park. The pub is remote—the nearest village, population 773, is 44 miles away. The pub’s walls are covered with crocodile skulls, water buffalo horns, old saddles and ranching equipment. It’s the type of rough-and-tumble place photographers could spend days in. Unfortunately, our fast-paced travel schedule meant we arrived at 9 a.m. and only had 20 minutes inside.
This first photograph I took of the bartender, Kevin Carter, is nothing more than a snapshot. It’s essential to get eyes in focus in portraits, but there wasn’t enough light for the camera to quickly auto focus. The fluorescent lighting was horrible, but the tiny on-camera flash was not a good alternative either. In despair I began joking with Kevin that I didn’t know how to use my camera. It seemed to put him at ease. We talked about the stories behind his tattoos—though his thick Aussie accent was hard to understand, it was easy to see that nearly every part of his body was covered in ink. While he was reluctant at first to pose for our group of 26 photographers, I was eventually able to coax him away from the bar to open shade next to a door at the back of the pub. The second portrait is a big improvement, not only for the lighting, but also for the direct and confident gaze that comes from a more engaged encounter.
These portraits still weren’t quite conveying a sense of place, but when Kevin turned to walk back into the bar, I saw what I was looking for. Environmental portraits don’t always need to show the subject’s face; sometimes body language can reveal character. Some may call this a lucky shot, but I had been waiting for this kind of natural moment.
This composition captures the juxtaposition between the threatening appearance of Kevin’s formidable size and the slight figure of an out of focus tourist in the doorway. The meaning is left to the viewer’s imagination; the ambiguity of this interaction adds a layer of intrigue. For those who work a scene and recognize potential in pre-visualized options, serendipity often falls into place. Without my assignment, I doubt I would have had the nerve to approach and engage Kevin in conversation so quickly; sometimes the window of opportunity is brief; I’m glad that I was forced out of my comfort zone.
Early mornings are magical in Kakadu National Park. The billabongs are enveloped in mystery, fog softens the land, and the subdued hues of pastel pre-dawn light reflect across the glassy water. Initially all appears calm, but the park is home to a quarter of the freshwater fish and one third of the bird species in Australia, and they were slowly waking up. Any remaining illusion of tranquility was shattered as dozens of prehistoric reptiles silently surfaced.
We watched the crocodiles approach our boat, the full length of their bodies only visible when ripples revealed their swishing tails. Close-up photos of the crocodiles are menacing but I prefer the feeling the wide-angle image evokes, contrasting the tourist boat with the primordial scene in mysterious dawn glow.
Gesture, Scale and Perspective in Landscape
The landscape of the Northern Territory extends from arid red desert in the center to woodlands, wetlands and waterfalls in the tropical top end. Bender, our tour guide, knew the best locations for sunrise and sunset landscapes but couldn’t do much about the haze from nearby fires. Luckily, this haze took nothing away from Darwin’s sunset. A constant stream of people waded into the shallow waters of the beach, perfect silhouettes against the red-orange sky. The sunset colors add drama to the scene, but it’s the gesture of the people that makes the shot come alive.
It’s fortunate that the best swimming holes in Litchfield National Park were ideal for photographing in mid-day. Landscape photographers will wait for days, weeks, or seasons to find the optimal light to add drama to a scene, a luxury that travel photographers rarely enjoy. Instead of panicking, lamenting that I wasn’t capturing the beautifully lit sunrise and sunset landscapes I’d envisioned, I photographed swimmers next to the immense waterfalls to show scale.
This land is home to the Arrernte Aboriginal people who have been chronicling history with their dreamtime stories and rock art for over 40,000 years. They hold title to over 40 percent of the Northern Territory and believe in a close kinship with the land. Bruce Chatwin’s book “The Songlines” indicates how difficult it is for an outsider to gain access to authentic stories; I knew it would be impossible for me to capture their essence in photographs. So I decided to find my own connections, as a Kakadu vistor’s guide urges: “Aboriginal traditional owners welcome you and hope you take the time to look, listen, and feel the country, to experience the true essence of this land… If you respect the land, then you will feel the land”.
The Power of Play
One of the most difficult lessons for me to remember while on a tight deadline is to take time to have fun. In the past, while on an editorial or commercial assignment, I was rarely able to enjoy the activities I was trying to capture; like a voyeur, I worked all angles to best capture others enjoying the scene. Lately I’ve begun letting go of total control so I can participate in the experience. I’ve found the easiest way to bring this more playful spirit to my work is to find others who share my enthusiasm and make sure they’re part of the adventure. All three people in this scene are professional photographers. Working together we literally immersed ourselves in the scene and experimented until we captured a moment when all the elements came together.
Ironically, the constraints of this assignment I initially struggled against were the very conditions that forced me to return to the lessons of my early travel experiences. I was stripped of my typical 50 pounds of photo gear and forced to lighten my approach, both physically and mentally, allowing myself to become an active participant in the adventure. I re-learned early travel lessons: the importance of recharging your creative batteries by trying something new; remaining flexible enough to allow a place to make its imprint on me instead of trying to manipulate a scene to work for a preconceived idea; and most critically, remembering that the experience is more important than the photographs.
I’m inspired to explore by the words of great writers, but when traveling I intuitively react to visual stimuli. I photograph to freeze moments, to communicate the nuances I can’t put into words, and to respond to emotions I experience but may not immediately comprehend. These images become seared in my mind, and I never feel more alive and in harmony with my surroundings than when I am immersed in a scene, working to capture this sense of place in my photographs.
All photos (c) Andrea Johnson Photography. See more of Andrea Johnson’s photographs of Australia here.