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Raining Embers
Curator Olivia Poloni interviews Ruth Maddison, Aletheia Casey, Gideon Mendel and Rachel Mounsey


This interview series is currently presented in partnership with the Auckland Festival of Photography Online Programme, as part of the 2022 festival theme Disruption [raruraru].


Raining Embers, an exhibition presented as part of the 2021 Ballarat International Foto Biennale, examined the global climate crisis through the lens of four photojournalists that captured the 2020 Australian bushfires. These fires, coined the Black Summer, devastated vegetation, animal life and communities on the east coast of Australia. Featuring Aletheia Casey (AUS), Gideon Mendel (ZAF), Ruth Maddison (AUS) and Rachel Mounsey (AUS), these photographers take us through the devastation and despair of communities that were taken by the wildfires. Intimate and broken portraits of people, the ravage that was done to human made objects and the devastation of the land stand for a heart-breaking time in recent history.


2021 Ballarat International Foto Biennale
Artistic Director and CEO: Fiona Sweet
Exhibition Curator: Olivia Poloni
Artists:Aletheia Casey (AUS), Gideon Mendel (ZAF), Ruth Maddison (AUS), Rachel Mounsey (AUS)


Ruth Maddison

What part of Australia features in your work? What is your connection to that land?
My work was made in Eden, far-south coast of NSW on the Princes Highway, 48 kms from the Victorian border. I’ve lived in Eden since 1996.

Why were you compelled to make these images?
I’ve been documenting Eden’s street life, working, domestic and recreational life, as well as the architecture & surrounding landscape, since I moved here. It was natural that I would go out on the street and document what was happening when the fires started to approach the town. And as scary as the situation was, I somehow felt less panicky being outside photographing than being in my house.

How do you approach taking images of vulnerability? 
In relation to the fires, the people who had been holidaying north and south of Eden and came to Eden as fire evacuees on the 31st December 2019 and set up camp on the sports field were fine about me photographing & I talked to quite a few of those people. And let them know I live in Eden.
With the locals during the approaching fires and the aftermath, we were all experiencing the same situation, feeling the same vulnerability and fear. And I’m known in the community. Locals appreciate my documentation of the town and want me to continue.
I evacuated to Canberra on the 3rd January 2020 & didn’t return until the 14th. Annette Evelyn asked me to come to her property & photograph the result of the fire and continue with her through her process of clearing and ultimately rebuilding.
The other similar extreme situation I photographed was in the street in St. Kilda I was living in when we were flooded in 1988. We all had a metre of water in our houses. It was a similar situation. I’d been photographing in the street & in our houses for 8 years.
Apart from those two situations it would be emotionally vulnerable people that I know, that I have a relationship with. I don’t ever go to an unknown place to photograph a disaster. That’s not me.

Do you feel that through your art you can help the community heal? 
Interesting question. I don’t know. If I think about all my post fire images, maybe it helps us all see how as a community we support each other through such a time. Reinforces that strong sense of/love of community that there is in small towns.
There’s an Eden FB page for locals only where I post heaps of my Eden photos and they do get a huge response with comments.

Do you have a new body of work you are working on?
No. Still recovering from major survey show Feb-April at CCP.
Doing some abstract images at the moment and continuing to do bits around Eden, which has suddenly hit the point of change over from small, quiet working class town to a building site (the whole town) on its way to the next gentrified upmarket seaside resort.


Aletheia Casey

What part of Australia features in your work? What is your connection to that land?
In this series I used images from the area around where my parents live on the South Coast of New South Wales, which I feel incredibly connected to, as I feel I belong here. Now, as I live in London, home in Australia has become a kind of dreamland for me, a land which is full of memories, family history, and is flooded with light, birdsong, smells and sounds which fill all of my senses, and make me feel that I’m home. 

Why were you compelled to make these images?
I felt so anxious when the fires were burning in late 2019 and 2020 that I felt I had to do something to ease my fear and anxiety about what was happening. Years ago, I was trapped in a bushfire in the Hunter Valley, NSW. There were flames on either side of the highway and I only very narrowly made it through them safely. It was one of the most terrifying moments of my life, and so I understood all too well how it feels to have your life threatened by a fire. Although the fire I had been stuck in was nothing compared to these bushfires, the memory of this fuelled my imagination and provided a basis for this work. I watched the news of the fires from my flat in cool and rainy London, feeling sick with anxiety as the flames came close to the homes of people that I love. The only way I could combat the fear and the horror of watching the country I love so dearly burning was to produce photographic work.
By putting focused energy into the making of this work I was able to ease my own anxiety, as whenever I make work I am completely in the present, and by being wholly present, fears of the future are diminished.  

Do you feel that through your art you can help the community heal? 
I don’t make work with a specific audience in mind, as I think the most authentic expression of artistic creativity is when an artist makes work purely to satisfy their own desire to create, rather than to satisfy any particular audience. Having said that, however, I do believe that through the sharing of an experience, healing can occur, and so if this was one of the outcomes of this work, I would feel honoured, and would feel that the work had served a valuable purpose. 

Do you have a new body of work you are working on?
Yes, I actually have several that I’m currently working on. One body of work is the next chapter in my series The Dark Forgetting, which address the trauma of Australia’s colonial history, and the repercussions of this violent history. The other body of work is also based around Australia’s colonisation and the colonisation and robbery of land. Landscape is almost always at the heart of my work, as my attachment to the land is a fundamental component of who I am. 


Gideon Mendel

What part of Australia features in your work? What is your connection to that land? 
Most of the work was shot in the Bega Valley in South East Australia. The area around the small town of Cobargo was my focus. I have no particular connection to this land as I grew up in South Africa and my home now is London.  I was drawn to this area because it was one of the communities hardest hit by these fires and came to feel a strong connection to many of the individuals I photographed.

Why were you compelled to make these images?
For the last fifteen years I have attempted to make work that on some level documents the climate emergency I believe that our planet is facing. Most of the work done so far has focused on flooding, but I began to see that the synergy between fire and flood could make my statement more powerful. So when I saw the fires happening in Australia, and the clear link between climate change and this occurrence, it felt like something I had to do.  Responding to fire was more me challenging as I had no desire the chase the drama of the burning flames and possibly endanger myself and others. I chose to seek out the traces left behind by the flames, physically and psychologically.

How do you approach taking images of vulnerability? 
It is crucial for me to not portray my subjects as helpless victims. In my photographic engagement with them for the portrait I try to establish a deep moment of connection. This is much more than a technical or aesthetic photographic task; a huge part of it is the emotional labour. I spend a lot of time with my subjects and hear their narrative, so besides the image their words are an important part of what is displayed. The assistant/collaborator that I work with is always a hugely important part of this. In Australia I worked with Annette Widitz who helped establish and maintain these relationships.

Do you feel that through your art you can help the community heal? 
Community healing is a long, slow process and I am not sure to what extent photography can play a role in this.  I am aware of both the individual and community trauma that I am documenting and I have little to offer in any practical sense when my subjects have lost so much. All that I can offer is a deep witnessing of what has happened to them.

Do you have a new body of work you are working on?
I continue to make work on climate issues and have recently returned from documenting the floods in Germany. Now I am in the midst of trying to organise a trip to Greece in response to their recent fires. But along with this I have a long-term family archive project that I am working on with my son. We have become the repository of a huge collection of family documents, photographs and letters relating to my parent’s history in Germany, the impact of the Holocaust on my family, and escape to South Africa.  So in my ongoing work I find myself torn between the climate traumas of the moment and the social/political traumas of the historical past.


Rachel Mounsey

What part of Australia features in your work? What is your connection to that land? 
I live and work as a freelance photographer in Far East Gippsland, Victoria. My home is at Mallacoota on the coastal tip of the Victorian/ NSW border. The area of East Gippsland is vast and covers a large land mass featuring the high country, old growth forests, wetlands, lakes and rugged coastal wilderness.
Living in such wonderfully diverse landscape gives me opportunity to explore a wide range of stories. You could say I’ve always had a connection to Gippsland. I grew up in the Latrobe Valley in central Gippsland but did the usual growing up and leaving, heading off to Melbourne as a teenager and then overseas. But before heading overseas, I was involved in the Far East Gippsland forest blockades and a deep connection to Gippsland’s land and forests grew from there.
I’ve lived the majority of my adult life in the Pyrenees Mountains near Barcelona, Catalunya (Spain) I returned to Australia with a desire of wanting to try life in Far East Gippsland and so we set up home in Mallacoota where we have the forest and the sea.

Why were you compelled to make these images?
These images were taken while bushfires were bearing down on our town. I took these images responding to what was happening around us. As an emerging photojournalist, at the time I was working as a journalist to  for the regional newspapers, I’d never experienced shooting anything of this scale, it was really like a baptism by fire (literally). I never imagined I‘d be shooting a major environmental disaster while being part of it. These images are a record of our experience.

How do you approach taking images of vulnerability? 
Respectfully.

Do you feel that through your art you can help the community heal? 
I’ve found through documenting the aftermath, part of the healing process has been through working slowly with people. Not just shoot and run, but spending time talking and listening. It’s been very healing for me also.

Do you have a new body of work you are working on?
I am currently working on a series exploring the youth of my father in the Latrobe Valley.  I also continue to document the town’s bushfire recovery.