Adam Ferguson documents the changing landscape of the Australian bush

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Layered with riffs of cultural and symbolic references, Adam Ferguson’s ongoing series, Big Sky, comments on the ecological deterioration of Australia’s interior regions

Spanning over two million square miles, the Australian outback dominates roughly 70 per cent of the country’s total land mass. It’s an area equal to half the size of the US, and 10 times the size of the UK. Vast, arid and sparsely inhabited, the outback exists as an important part of the country’s history and heritage. With its red deserts and thorny plains, it is often romanticised in novels, poems and songs. But the dry outback and the country’s more populated interior region, known colloquially as ‘the bush’, is a place in decline. Year on year, Australia is getting hotter and drier. Droughts threaten agriculture, and precious water supplies fight against hundreds of bushfires ripping through the countryside. Once renowned for its robust mining and farming industries, community life in the bush is dwindling, with much of its youth moving out to nearby cities in search of a brighter future. Along with the mechanisation of farming, and the continuing shift towards city-centric economics, the reality of life in the bush is edging away from the romantic fantasy depicted in history and popular culture.

“A big part of my work is about exploring that tension,” says Adam Ferguson, who travelled roughly 30,000km through the bush towns for his long-term and ongoing project, Big Sky. Ferguson was born in Dubbo – “like the regional centre of New South Wales” – and spent his early years in a nearby farming village called Yeoval, around a five-hour drive inland from Sydney. When he was 11, his family relocated to Coffs Harbour, a seaside city on the northern coast of the state, but his formative years were spent in the outback. “I wanted to visit small towns, and make work that comments on this regional, interior bush landscape,” he explains. “I felt that was something I needed to understand. I had these childhood memories and these impressions inside my mind, and I wanted to get that out through photography.”

“Part of the experience of living in this huge, sweeping landscape is the relationship each individual has to form with this isolating environment”

Children play in puddles of water after a flash storm in New South Wales. © Adam Ferguson.
An opal field near Coober Pedy, once a thriving opal town in South Australia. The cost of mining, rising fuel prices and a cultural shift has left many opal fields almost abandoned. © Adam Ferguson.

Ferguson began to shoot Big Sky in 2014. His initial concept was to create on-location studio portraits, a spin on Richard Avedon’s 1985 photobook In the American West – gritty, black-and-white images of drifters, miners and ranch workers – which, at the time, shattered romantic notions of the west. “I wanted to use that as a roadmap to critique this interior, almost forgotten part [of Australia],” explains Ferguson. But when he began travelling, driving for hours at a time between mining towns and wheat fields, where he met kangaroo shooters, sheep shearers and Aboriginal elders, the photographer realised that portraiture alone could not narrate the stories of the people he met. “Part of the experience of living in this huge, sweeping landscape is the relationship each individual has to form with this isolating environment,” says Ferguson. “It made sense to position everybody in the spaces they have to occupy. I wanted to construct a scene which complemented, or helped to reinforce that person’s story.”

The resulting portraits are considered, layered with riffs of cultural and symbolic references. We meet Brendan Barlow [below, left], a 29-year-old drag queen, whose repertoire includes a tribute to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, an iconic 1994 film which follows two drag queens and a transgender woman as they journey across the Australian outback. Rather than photographing her on stage, she is pictured in a backyard, under a Hills Hoist (a height-adjustable clothing line; a common fixture in Australian backyards). It is a space which, in patriarchal colonial Australia, is commonly regarded as a woman’s domain. “It reveals a quieter moment, where I peer behind the curtain of this reference, rather than reinforce it,” says Ferguson. “I wanted to create a tension between her identity, and Brendan’s personal battle of coming to terms with being a gay man in the outback, which is not an easy place to be a gay man.”

“Growing up in a regional town I had trouble accepting it myself. I thought being gay was wrong, I didn't understand my sexuality, I had to go away and find it," says Brendan Barlow, 29, stage name Shelita Buffett. © Adam Ferguson.
Lake Huffer cattle Station in Queensland is owned by Martina Hoch, 57, who’s husband died of suicide on the property in 2005. Martina now manages the property alone. © Adam Ferguson.

Amongst the portraits are sculptural shots of the landscape and objects which inhabit it, which tend to speak more directly about the impacts of climate change. According to a 2015 Climate Council report, Australia is the driest inhabited continent on Earth, and climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of heatwaves and droughts. In 2018, towards the end of a six-year drought, Ferguson visited Epping Farm in New South Wales, where he encountered stacks of rotting carcasses, dumped in a giant grave [below]. Extreme weather cycles make it near-impossible to grow crops, meaning livestock cannot graze on natural feed. This particular farmer resorted to feeding his sheep and cattle hay, which caused their health to deteriorate. “This is the death pit where he threw them,” Ferguson says.

The pressure to grow crops can cause a huge amount of stress. Global studies, including a report published by the Medical Journal of Australia, link rising suicide rates among farmers with the devastation that climate change brings with it. Martina Hoch is the owner of Lake Huffer cattle station in Queensland, where in 2005 her husband took his own life. Ferguson visited her in 2017 and found a cluster of rusting metal chairs hanging against a tree [above, right]. Usually, in the wet season, the plain pictured in the distance transforms into a lake. The chairs have been hanging there for years, because it has been so dry. “They become a metaphoric object, of the hopeless nature of life when you’re in the middle of these extreme weather cycles,” says Ferguson. “The fact that the husband had killed himself on this land also made this feel like a relevant image to me.”

The owners of Epping Farm have been forced to reduced their sheep stock from 7000 to approximately 3600, and their beef cattle from 260 to 22. As the drought goes on, they slide further into debt because they are forced to buy feed to keep their stock alive. © Adam Ferguson.

Throughout his travels, Ferguson witnessed first-hand how extreme weather conditions are hurting communities and challenging livelihoods. “There’s an overarching concern about the planet, and how we preserve it, infused into this work, but I’m also quite cynical,” he confesses. “With the mechanisms that are in place – the economic mechanisms, the trade mechanisms, the four-year presidential cycles – I actually don’t believe that we will be able to mitigate climate change. I think we’ll just develop the technology to cope with it, as it happens.”

The photographer has been working on this project for six years now, and once the pandemic subsides, he will return to Australia to complete it, and plans to publish a photobook. “As a storyteller, I want to acknowledge the changing landscape and the people that exist in it. I want to comment on it. I want to explore that space. I want my kids to know, one day, that I said something about it, and that I made a little visual poem about what that space looks like.”

Big Sky by Adam Ferguson is an ongoing project. An extended version of this interview will appear in the next print issue of British Journal of Photography.

Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.