Tanya Houghton’s lyrical journey across Australia’s national parks

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This article is adapted from a piece first published in September 2019.

Captivated by the Indigenous tradition of Songlines, Tanya Houghton travelled 10,500km across Australia’s national parks

Songlines are a series of paths across the land or sky that allow Indigenous Australians to navigate the landscape. These paths are recorded in the lyrics of traditional songs, many of which date back 50,000 years. “The Aboriginals believe that by singing these songs they keep the sacred land alive,” explains Tanya Houghton, who spent five weeks travelling across Australia’s national parks, covering a total distance of 10,500 km.

Houghton’s first photobook, Songlines of the Here+Now explores the Indigenous community’s deep-rooted connection to the land, and modern Australia’s connection to it through eco-tourism. It is a record of Houghton’s journey, told through landscapes and still-lifes that gently draws parallels between the past and present.

Houghton began photographing from the age of six with red Kodak Gemini film camera, and later began using and manipulating photography within paintings. She was raised by a single mother who invested in books for her children, and recalls spending hours absorbed in art and photography books. “I learned early on that a camera is a powerful tool,” she says. “There is a level of trust involved. You get access to places, people and stories that would otherwise pass you by.”

Now, working on editorial commissions alongside personal projects, the London-based photographer focuses on themes of ecology, landscape, memory, and the tension between man and nature. In this Q&A, Houghton discusses the process behind her latest project and the experience of camping alone for five weeks, as well as the importance of reconnecting with nature.

© Tanya Houghton.
© Tanya Houghton.

How did you find out about Indigenous Songlines, what was it that captivated you and made you want to explore it photographically?

I had visited Australia a number of times and had fallen in love with the landscape. It is an ancient landscape like no other, with vast spaces that have remained uninhabited, and no signs of human existence. After my first visit I knew I wanted to make a body of work about it, it was all about timing.

At the time I was doing research on the Aboriginal Walkabout — a rite of passage during which males embark on a journey, marking their transition from boyhood to manhood. I was discussing the research with a colleague who pointed me in the direction of Bruce Chatwin’s 1987 book The Songlines, in which he searches for Songlines in the outback.

Songlines themselves are Aboriginal maps; they are not physically recorded and are realised through songs, stories, or dance. The song describes the path across the land or sky by describing features in the landscape. Indigenous people believe that by singing these songs they keep the sacred land alive.

Songlines of the Here+Now  is about the Australian connection to the past and present landscapes, and the Songlines act as one layer of the narrative — an unseen web of stories scattered across and imprinted on the land. The Songlines are a metaphor for these personal and untold tales of the present.

You were camping alone in national parks. Had you done anything like this before?

The methodology for this project was inspired by the Walkabout tradition, so I wanted to undertake the project alone. It made sense to camp, to fully immerse myself in the spaces I was working in. It was the first time I had spent that long living out of a tent, a total of five weeks.

It was an amazing experience but it was physically demanding. I covered over 10,500 km in five weeks, in the height of the Australian summer, camping in a different place every night. You have to be aware of wildlife and take certain precautions when working in these types of landscapes. In the desert you are driving down straight roads for 10 hours at a time, there is no phone or radio signal, and you have to carry extra fuel and water, but there are no distractions — it allows a lot of time to think.

We need to stop asking what the planet can do for us and start asking what we can do for the planet.

© Tanya Houghton.

What were you looking to photograph and why?

My main interest was in photographing the language of the landscape, and realising this through physical form. Due to the history of the formation of Australia, I had to be sensitive when approaching the subject, giving no weight to any one community or culture, it is not my intention to speak on behalf of anyone in this work.

I decided to omit physical representations of people, representing those I encountered through the stories they shared. This is done through landscapes of sites of significance, still lifes, abstracted views of campsites, and the black and white images of telephone masts.

Could you talk a bit about your aesthetic, how did you develop this style of shooting?

My aesthetic draws inspiration from my art background. I work with a wide range of sources when I research, mixing text with the image, gathering objects from the spaces and people I work with, and more recently sound. I also like to work by collecting and highlighting the details that we often overlook, always looking for that one piece of the puzzle that will bind the narrative together. The work has a slow and quiet pace to it during production and this is hopefully reflected in the final images.

I’m interested in new ways of story-telling. There are a lot of practitioners making interesting work at the moment that resonates with me. A few pieces of work that have caught my eye recently are Taryn Simon’s Occupations of Loss vinyl release, Oliver Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s Bandage the Knife not Wound, and Martin Toft’s recent book Te ahi kā: The Fires of Occupation

© Tanya Houghton.
© Tanya Houghton.
© Tanya Houghton.

Your work feels very relevant in light of the current climate crisis. What can modern Australian society — and modern society in general  — learn from this Indigenous connection to land?

A common thread seen through many Indigenous cultures is the spiritual connection to the land, a respect for all that mother nature provides, and a desire to co-exist with the land, not to exploit it. These cultures have been around for thousands of years, before their nations were colonised. While this is a generalisation of global indigenous cultures, this deep-rooted spiritual connection is something that isn’t necessarily ingrained within the culture of modern society.

We have lost touch with the natural world, choosing to live our lives behind our devices in a virtual world. In the global North big corporations have exploited the planet’s resources for monetary gain, mainly at the expense of the global South, taking too much for too long, its unsustainable. We need to reconnect to our surroundings and learn to co-exist with them. We need to stop asking what the planet can do for us and start asking what we can do for the planet.

Songlines of the Here + Now by Tanya Houghton is published by Lost Light Books.

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.