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Q&A with photographer Matthew Abbott

We managed to ask Matthew Abbott a few questions as he sat on a train travelling to Amsterdam to attend the grand opening of the World Press Photo Exhibition.

 

Portrait of Matthew Abbott, by Saskia Wilson

Photo by Saskia Wilson

CONGRATULATIONS ON WINNING WORLD PRESS PHOTO STORY OF THE YEAR. WHAT DOES WINNING THAT PRIZE MEAN TO YOU AS A PHOTOGRAPHER?

It’s very exciting. Especially as I was shortlisted two years ago, for work I did on bushfires but because of Covid I couldn’t travel. This is the top prize in my field. Being able to have my work seen by so many people — the exhibition goes to 120 cities around the world — is great. As is the recognition among your peers as well. All I want to do is keep making great stories and this helps me do that. It shows editors around the world, and the international publications which I mainly work for, the stories I’m interested in and the work I’m making.

CAN YOU SHARE SOME BACKGROUND TO YOUR WINNING SERIES SAVING FORESTS WITH FIRE?

I lived and worked in Arnhem Land back in 2008. I was working part-time at an art centre in Gunbalanya and photographing at the same time. I was there for a long time, so I met people and built trust as I photographed life there. Living there was life-changing. I ended up spending two years there full-time and another two years on and off after that. I made a lot of friends and had incredible experiences. It was a really good grounding in how to work in communities — that patience and slow approach is critical in making relationships possible so that you can tell really great stories. Actually, I met some of the people I ended up photographing for this story. So fast-forwarding to now, I’d just finished photographing the catastrophic bushfires two years ago — months of chaos and destruction. I was wondering what to do next. I was approached by National Geographic who asked about long-term stories about fire and the environment, and forests. How do we approach fire in Australia after such a terrible tragedy? I immediately thought of the work that the Warddeken rangers are doing in Arnhem Land. It is such an incredible insight into how Indigenous people have been managing the land for such a long period of time and how they work fire into a landscape.

DO YOU THINK PHOTOJOURNALISM IS INHERENTLY POLITICAL?

Yes, definitely. And I would argue that photography is generally political as well. Art is political. I don’t see myself as an activist, but I see myself as wanting to highlight stories around the country with insight into unexplored ideas. I like finding interesting specific stories where I can dig deeper into issues and stories. Photojournalism is really good at that. Photography is an intimate and vivid way to take people to a place and say, ‘This is what it’s all about.’

OUR WORLD IS SATURATED WITH IMAGES. DOES PHOTOJOURNALISM GET LOST IN THE GLOSSY STAGED PICTURES WE SEE ON SOCIAL MEDIA?

What I’d say about social media is that people are becoming more visually literate without realising. They’ll see a photograph and make judgments about what they’ve seen without even thinking about it. Visual communication is becoming more important in today’s society. Photography has this amazing ability to hit people quickly and hard. It’s rare, but a powerful picture can knock someone for six. It’s exciting that there’s more exposure to it. I think, perversely, the perception of photojournalism by some academics and maybe even some journalists is not what it should be. Maybe it’s not as respected. It’s not given enough investment by local media organisations, especially when it comes to longform photojournalism projects. You can’t get to the heart of a story in a day or two. You need time to build connections and approach the subject in a considered way. I’d like to see more of that kind of work. Single images can get lost in the chaos of what’s happening. I’m interested in longer bodies of work that speak to a story.

WHAT TRAINING HAVE YOU HAD OR DID YOU LEARN BY EXPERIENCE?

I started university in visual arts but dropped out. I did a short photo course at TAFE. But it’s an obsession. My life is dedicated to documentary photography. I’m so passionate about it. I’ve always had that curiosity to have these incredible experiences. It’s the challenge of storytelling. Figuring out what’s a creative way to tell stories. That drives me to keep exploring. To keep finding new stories.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST CAMERA?

My first camera — once I started taking it seriously — was a Voigtlander with a 35mm lens. I shot that for many many years. Having just one lens and a simple camera — shooting film — was really good grounding. It made me the photographer I am today. These days I’m shooting digital. The work I’m doing is much more fast-paced, but I still try to keep things as simple as possible. I only use one lens — a zoom lens, 24–70mm.

IF TIME AND MONEY WERE NO OBJECT, WHAT WOULD YOUR DREAM PHOTOGRAPHIC PROJECT BE?

Honestly, this last project is my dream project. When I was first living and working up in Arnhem Land in 2008, I was invited on this 10-day bushwalk. To this day, it was the most incredible experience of my life. That was where the idea was first seeded, through that experience, seeing what was happening in this part of the country. So this project means a lot to me. But ok, since you’re asking, I would really like to do a story in Antarctica. About isolation. I don’t know what the story would be because I don’t know what goes on there. I know there are are logistical challenges. I’m fascinated not necessarily by the environment, but by how people live there.

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Saving forests with fire’ © Matthew Abbott for National Geographic/Panos Pictures.

This interview appears in Openbook winter 2022.

The World Press Photo exhibition is on display until 19 June 2022.