James Bugg investigates ecological decay in Australia

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Each year, British Journal of Photography presents its Ones To Watch – a selection of emerging image-makers, chosen from a list of nearly 500 nominations. Collectively, these 15 talents provide a window into where photography is heading, at least in the eyes of the curators, editors, agents, festival producers and photographers we invited to nominate. Throughout the next few weeks, we are sharing profiles of the 15 photographers, originally published in the latest issue of BJP, delivered direct through thebjpshop.com

“We need to stop treating our land as a commodity and instead as an ecology,” says Bugg, “to do that, we first need to listen to the traditional owners of the lands it flows through”

James Bugg searches for the “edges of Australian life”. The 26-year-old travels the country, seeking out people and places hidden between vast highways and immensely populated coastal cities. It is estimated that 85 per cent of Australians live within 50km of the coast, with over 70 per cent of the population centralised in eight major cities. This led Bugg to question: but what about everyone else? 

Since graduating from Photography Studies College, Melbourne, in 2017, Bugg has been meeting Australians living in small working-class towns. These communities have been the focus of two projects: The Bend and The Pines. The towns are mostly kept afloat by the mining and farming industries, but they suffer from high levels of poverty, low employment and isolation. These conditions make social mobility and relocation seemingly impossible, a “pulling force” that keeps inhabitants from finding a way out. For many, the only option is to stay put. Bugg mournfully describes this as “sticking”. 

From the series Be Angry at the Sun © James Bugg.
From the series Be Angry at the Sun © James Bugg.

“My previous projects were about trajectories and directions, and how hard it can be to get out,” explains the Melbourne-born and based photographer. In his new project, titled Be Angry at the Sun, Bugg turns his lens to the Murray River and its surrounding area in south-east Australia. “I’ve been camping there since childhood, and recently, I’ve been returning with my camera,” he says. “It’s a place of incredible natural wealth, but also an environment highly managed by human intervention. The ecological and Aboriginal approach to land has been discarded. Simply put, the river is slowly dying due to the ongoing belief that it can and should be controlled.”

The health of the river has declined significantly. In a 2012 government assessment of the ecosystem, more than 80 per cent of the river valley was found as having poor or very poor health for aquatic life. In the same year, a $13billion plan was introduced to balance the damage, but a government investigation found that the plans ignored “catastrophic” risks of climate change. Bugg refers to this ecological decay as a ‘slow violence’: a term coined by British author Rob Nixon. ”Slow violence is unseen and ongoing, it isn’t disastrous or spectacular enough to make headlines, but its consequences are dire,” he says. “I am interested in how photography can be used to document something that is invisible, that creeps with time, always out of sight.” 

From the series Be Angry at the Sun © James Bugg.

Bugg was nominated for Ones to Watch by photographer and educator Jack Latham. “James Bugg’s visualisation of slow violence within the landscape demonstrates a deep understanding of not only subject matter, but the role photography plays in depicting it,” says Latham. 

Despite his refocus from small towns to ecological collapse, Bugg still presents his core concerns of “sticking”. He argues that we are stuck in our environmental ideology, and by attempting to control and manage land, we are instead enacting a slow, continuous violence upon it. 

Bugg calls for a return to Aboriginal land practices, a “listening to the river” that kept the basin healthy for centuries before European settlement. “We need to stop treating it as a commodity and instead as an ecology,” he says. “To do that, we first need to listen to the traditional owners of the lands it flows through.” 

Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.