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PERSPECTIVES: MICHAEL HALL | by Phillip Simpson

Michael Hall is a Sydney based professional photographer with over 20 years experience. He recently returned home to New Zealand to give a presentation at the AIPA's annual ‘Image Nation' conference. Phillip Simpson spoke to him about his major personal project documenting the causes and effects of global climate change.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



Phillip Simpson: Stage one of your climate project has now culminated in the booklet ‘Tragic Beauty', which serves as a very tangible taster of what might be to come. What prompted you to undertake a project of such vast scale?

Michael Hall: I've always wanted to figure out my greater purpose and what good I can do with my work. Cornell Capa coined the phrase ‘concerned photographer' and I've always held on to the meaning of that and asked myself ‘what am I concerned about?' I've always had an inherent need to make work that for me has some meaning.

Tim Flannery's book 'The Weather Makers' gave me a new awareness about climate change. In the process of clearing out old work I came across images of dead, drought stricken trees in the Hume area of Australia and for the first time I understood what they represented. It dawned on me that this is my calling and I started making plans to get around the world to photograph the causes, effects and solutions to climate change.

I went for a long bike ride and began thinking 'this is awesome man, I've found my purpose in life', I was absolutely pumped and I felt happier than I've been in many years. The next thing I knew I was underneath an 18 wheel truck, being shredded up and fighting for my life.





Lake Hume, Australia. Like measuring poles, dead trees show previous high water marks on their trunks.



How did you manage to turn an experience that would crush most people's spirit, into one that strengthened your resolve to undertake a major project, despite your injuries?

Spending over two weeks without being able to sit up, or even roll on my side, was an insane but very enlightening experience. Having my independence taken away from me gave me an overwhelming need to get out and experience the world. Despite a broken back and almost losing my arm, my mind was saying ‘I have to get up and get on with this.' I knew that even if I had to do it in a wheelchair I was going to do it.



So how did you manage to get started after only six weeks?

I called my mate Vinesh Kumarin who came to Sydney to drive and assist me. We went down to Wyangala Dam, which was a landscape of absolute desolation and drought. It was a profound experience as there was no water in this dam that has walls 85 meters high!



Finding locations that physically represent the idea of climate change is nowhere near as straightforward as it sounds. How are you selecting the places you will travel to?

I identify key areas where I'll find the kind of things I'm looking for through a lot of reading of books and other published material. I build up visual references using google, flickr and the work of other photographers who might have worked in such places. I then use Google Earth to research the lay of the land. Where roads are going to take me, where polluting activities are located, etc. I discover these places before I go there.

I am also a great believer in chance. For example, I'll travel to Nebraska where road upon road goes past incredibly polluting, high intensity hog farms. I don't need to do a lot of research about that. I just need to get to Nebraska and talk to locals. Sometimes you need to leave yourself open to just chance it.

 



Wyangala Dam, Australia. Slime covered water lies at the base of the 85m dam wall - taller than a 25 storey building.



How are you dealing with logistical challenges such as security guards in areas where a high level of surveillance is present?

People don't want me to do what I'm doing, so I have to do it covertly.

There is a bit of a naughty boy aspect to this. My school years were a good training ground. Going ‘through the right channels' is not the way I work. If I was doing this project 10 years ago it would be a lot easier. In 2010 you have to be sneaky or you are not going to get the shot.

A month prior to my visit to the Latrobe valley some hard core activists had chained themselves to the conveyor belts which move coal into one of the power stations. The Latrobe Valley is a huge brown coal seam. It's some of the dirtiest coal in the world and any car that stops off is a suspected left wing radical greenie. I was shaken down by private security guards and police on a public road, who ripped into all my gear and were carelessly dumping my Zeiss lenses in the back of the car. I was forced to leave and shoot from a distance the following morning, but I possibly got a better picture on that one occasion.

You don't want to be seen by security so you need to think very strategically about where you are going to drive, park and photograph. Time is of the essence, so I have my 4 x 5 camera and tripod all set up at eye height in the back of the car.

Because I'm often shooting at f32 to get the whole scene sharp, exposures can take several minutes in low light. While I'm spinning my story I'm often, unbeknownst to them, actually taking the photograph. The beautiful thing about 4 x 5 is that it is not so obvious to most people what you are doing. It's not so overt. I've learnt through experience that the best form of camouflage is a high viz vest, work boots and hard hat.

Of course when I photograph solar and wind, people are going to want me to be there, because it's the good news story.



I'd imagine you'll be needing some fairly robust insurance cover nonetheless.

Yes. Apparently there is a global insurance company that promises if you are totally fucked they will send in a helicopter to get you!



Your images of charred trees in the aftermath of Black Saturday in Victoria, South Australia are reminiscent of the post apocalyptic landscapes evoked in Cormac McCarthy's gruelling novel 'The Road', in which the planets ecosystems have totally collapsed. Were you conscious of this connection when you were shooting those images?

I spent the day walking the road through this forest, photographing, listening to music on my i-pod and occasionally stopping and reading a chapter from ‘The Road'. Some people might think ‘where's my head at?' if I need to do that. However it was one of the most profound days I've ever had. So incredibly hopeful and positive, which to my mind ‘The Road' is. There is always hope within that book.



The paradox encompassed in the title ‘Tragic Beauty' is that images of degraded environments can be hugely alluring, because they take us outside our everyday experience. Like the work of your greatest predecessors such as Richard Misrach and Edward Burtynsky, your images are starkly beautiful, so how do you seek to balance this against the environmental message you are promoting?

Alluring beauty captivates the viewer. It makes them want to be standing in front of the image. It's my hook. But I'd then like people to look further into the picture and understand what it represents. For me the biggest single factor in this project is truth. It has to be truthful.

 



Victoria, Australia. The 2009 bush fires resulted in Australia's highest ever loss of life from a fire.



Who has most influenced your approach to the project?

I have belief in Sebastiao Salgado and his work because the purpose is far greater than just a singular man. I love that. It's a selfless thing.



You have chosen to shoot film, on a large format plate camera. Is this because of the high level of discipline this approach imposes, or because you wish to work within a specific, established photographic tradition?

In short both. I also like the scale. I've always felt that large format is the most truthful medium. There is something evocative that comes from the long exposures of sometimes up to 20 minutes. I'm in love with that aesthetic. This way of looking at the world evokes a sort of timelessness.



What is your ultimate objective for the project?

I'd like to show my work large, around 3 metres across, displayed in chapters in galleries and outdoors in civic environments. It's global work for a global audience.

All of humanity is going to be profoundly affected by climate change and awareness of this issue has to take hold throughout the world on all levels. It's my belief that change is not going to happen until awareness takes place. It's only then that the arrogant and morally bankrupt governments and heavily polluting industries of the world will take note and bring about change. When people start demanding it!


You've said you will need to raise 2 million dollars in order to reach your goal. How do you plan to achieve this?

To date the project has been self funded and now, out of necessity, I am in the process of looking for a financial backer such as a corporate entity or individual philanthropist with a belief in the task ahead and the outcome. It's going to be an incredible journey; one I can't make alone. At least not in the timeframe it needs to be accomplished within.

I've spent 3 years now building up the credentials of this project. Putting together a prospectus and getting endorsements. I'm finding that a miniscule part of it is actually taking pictures, much to my frustration.

I'm already working in collaboration with Professor Dexter Dunphy, a sustainability expert who has joined my team. Tim Flannery and Ban Ki-moon have acknowledged and endorsed my work and Al Gore used one of my pictures as a backdrop in a recent speaking tour.

I have found my greater purpose, so this becomes the catalyst and allows me to ask for favours for my project. Which is very different from asking for myself. The thing about this project is that it is totally not ego driven. So people are coming and giving from their hearts and it's a wonderful thing.

 



Jökulsárlón, iceland. Drifting ice in the 200-metre deep lake, which grows faster as the climate warms.



It's not every day that the Secretary General of the United Nations pops up online to associate themselves with ones photography project. How have
Ban Ki-moon's comments on the Daily Beast affected your public profile and your ability to take the project to the next stage?

These endorsements and credentials add tremendous weight to the project. They also give me a tremendous amount of faith that my investment of time and effort is being recognised so early on in the journey.

An awful lot of people were looking at my work and all of a sudden I was getting thousands of hits on my site, but I need to make more use of this sudden flood of interest. Any project of this dimension needs a team of very savvy people who know how to make the most of these situations.



What are the main skills from your commercial practice that make realizing a personal project of the magnitude of the climate change series achievable?

Primarily, honing your technical prowess with a camera. Learning what you need to invest emotionally, physically and psychologically into taking imagery. Also having strong production skills and communication. If not for 20 years of work I would not be capable of doing what I'm doing here.

I have a firm belief that photographers don't become good until they are mature. Richard Avedon died on the job at 81, probably doing some of his best work. I was born in 1962 and am really just in the first years of maturity and taking good work.



Like myself, you studied at Wellington Polytechnic (now incorporated into Massey University) two decades ago. It was an exciting place to be. Are there any enduring lessons you learned at that time that still inform your work today?

It was a tough place to be - like a boot camp for photographers. It was absolutely formative. The discipline that tutors like Tony Whincup and Kevin Capon instilled in me still holds great sway in the way I go about doing my work. I learned so much, because so much was expected. This meant I had high expectations of myself. I would hope that the expectation is as high in colleges today.

I actually come from a background of being a very shy person. It's only through travelling and photography that I've become confident in my approach with people and the world. If I have a camera in my hand and a greater purpose as my driving force I can do anything.

 

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