Landscape Photography in the Time of Corona
I’m lucky enough to earn money from my landscape photography (in print sales, commissions and licensing deals) and it’s the main way I bring money into the household. I sell my images to businesses, to real estate agents, to owners of tourist accommodation and to council, state and federal tourism organisations. It’s taken a while to get to this point and it’s been no rocket-ride to stardom, but here I am. It’s feast or famine with me when it comes to my income from photography and that’s the way it has always been.
Back in September 2019 I started making plans for all the micro-adventures and photography trips I would make over the course of the summer. I turn these trips into photoblogs on my website, into videos on my little region-based travel channel, into prints for sale on my website and, of course, into images that anyone can licence for use on in print or online. The aim of the game is to get the maximum use out of the images and the time spent taking them.
Couple of days before Christmas and the Comberton fire threatens to cross the Shoalhaven River at the eastern end.
And then the bushfires started
Those fires began hundreds of kilometres to the south of where I live and began burning their way inexorably through all of the amazing national parks and nearby towns and villages in this part of New South Wales. The fires exacted an extremely heavy toll on the residents of the towns that stood in the path of the bushfires and on the firefighters who bravely defended properties and livelihoods from the seemingly unstoppable fires and of course on the landscape and the creatures that live within it. We dodged a bullet in our town but many others were not as lucky. By the time the last of the summer bushfires were out, a full 74 days after they began, they had obliterated 499,621 hectares of land.
However the bushfires of summer 19/20 also had a massive impact on the local economy. There’s no heavy industry here and not very much manufacturing. If you want to live and work here you either cut lawns, wipe old people’s arses or own or work in a service/tourist related business. But with the bushfires raging tourists were told to stay the hell away and, for the most part they listened. There were some who came and visited anyway and they ended up being stranded in small coastal towns choking on acrid wood smoke and fighting the locals for supplies that were already dwindling due to broken supply chains.
Round here we counted ourselves very lucky that the fires never reached us (though they did get very close) and it all had obvious repercussions for me and my little photo expeditions. I didn’t want to get in the way of the fire-fighting effort, or to consume the rapidly diminishing resources of small towns and villages or, let’s face it, photograph blackened tree stumps and apocalyptic red skies. The entire summer was a write-off for pretty much everyone from Jervis Bay south to the Victorian border. For a part of the world that’s been welcoming tourists down for a century or more it felt off-kilter and weird.
As you all know there were some colossal fund-raising efforts to assist the people, the businesses and the wildlife of this area. Everyone put their shoulder to the wheel and prepared to try and salvage whatever they could from the tail-end of the summer.
Nearly a metre of rain fell in 24 hours.
Then we had floods
In early February some places got as much as 700mm in just 24 hours which is by any standards a hell of a lot of rain. They weren’t the worst floods we’ve had here and, since we had been in hard unforgiving drought for many years the rain was extremely welcome, but it took the shine off the marketing effort aimed at getting people back down to the south coast of NSW. But everyone put their shoulder to the wheel and the tourist agencies and tourist businesses begged all the visitors to come back and see us. And they were just starting to come back too. And I was planning on getting down the coast and doing my bit to support the burnt-out towns and villages by spending a few dollars down there. And I had a chance at long last to go out and explore and share my view of this beautiful part of our planet.
Then the pandemic began
I come from Generation X and while we haven’t had it quite as easy as the boomers, most of us privileged folks in developed nations have lead a fairly blessed existence. We didn’t have the Great Depression or a world war. Instead we were lucky enough to be born and raised just as home computers and the Internet popped into being and the significant events in our lives were the Dotcom boom & bust, AIDs, the Gulf War and the Y2K bug. So yes, we had it pretty easy and that was why the pandemic crept up on us – we were all far too comfortable to notice its arrival.
Everyone carried on like it was business as usual – in fact some folks still are – but it slowly but surely dawned on the vast majority of people that we were now living in strange and different times. One by one the countries of the world scored their first CovID19 infections and one by one the governments of the world began reacting. As with every country on the planet, the fragile network of businesses that make-up our capitalist systems have been badly affected. It has had an impact on everyone and everything and the repercussions will be felt for many years to come.
So it seems kind of lame to be talking about photography in the face of this planet-changing epoch of ours – but photography is what I do and I can only frame my current experiences within the context of photography.
National parks and reserves were closed and gyms were shutdown, but surfing was permitted under lockdown here in New South Wales and the line-up was suddenly packed.
The practicalities of the pandemic
Landscape photography as a hobby retracted into that little strip of land on the coast because, down here at least, the beaches were kept open. All of the national parks, reserves, forests, wetlands and lookouts were closed, so photography there was impossible. Travel was limited to your post code area which meant that zooming down the coast for three hours to shoot a sunrise was out of the question. And even when you did go outside it was supposed to be for the purposes of exercising and not photographing idyllic crescents of sand and blue water.
I had a get-out for some of these. Since landscape photography is my business I would have been okay photographing in those public locations still open to general access. And theoretically I could have driven down the coast to shoot a sunrise, but I think it would have been a bit of a dick move. I did however carry on photographing the beaches and rivers in my immediate vicinity, which is no great hassle because I’m lucky enough to live in a very picturesque part of the world.
The public attitude to the lockdown here in the south coast has been somewhat more relaxed than elsewhere. Even at the height of the lockdown when everyone was carefully observing their distancing, the quieter corners of the beaches here still had families relaxing on the sand next to an esky, a couple of boogie boards and an unused fishing rod. Theoretically they were breaking the law, but it was evident that they were doing nobody any harm – they were nowhere near anyone else and Seven Mile Beach is big enough to comfortably entertain lots of visitors without anyone getting beach sand kicked in their face from passing strangers. To get around the ban on just chilling out in the great outdoors, a lot of people took up fishing and surfing, both of which were permitted under the lockdown regulations. And nobody gave a shit about me and my tripod and camera – or indeed about the other photographers I saw on the beaches. But I always made sure I had a few business cards in my pocket in case anyone decided to go sheriff on me.
Some people stretched the definition of 'exercise' to its limits ...
The south coast lockdown was a very different situation to Sydney. Many of the photographers based in the big city had far more rigid lockdowns and some of them took to social media to slag off photographers who’d used their exercise time as a cover for getting out and taking photographs. I can understand why there were pissed off, but the rules didn’t say anything about not taking a camera with you on your morning walk. And it’s hardly our fault that down here we live in an area with a fraction of the population density. Those folks in the larger built up areas had few options for photographic experiences and so retreated into their Lightroom catalogs and processed all the shots they’d taken but never released.
Many of the people who follow me on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube do so because they love the south coast but cannot always be here. So to take their minds off the pandemic for a short while I started making simple beach and river experience videos with all natural sound effects, no music and and no voiceover. They were a modest success and seemed to get to the people I was trying to reach. I think it’ll be interesting to look back on them when we eventually get this virus under control and to have those ‘remember when’ conversations. It was incredibly valuable to me (and to all the other locals) to be able to get out into nature and just exhale.
Photography for me has always been much more than a hobby or a business. As I’ve confessed here previously it’s an embedded aspect of me and I have a compulsion to practice it. If the last year of bushfires, floods and pandemics has taught me anything, it’s that the natural landscape is far more important than simply looking nice. Most of us humans might live in big cities and other suburban areas, but we are from nature as surely as the animals are and we do ourselves a disservice when we block ourselves off from the natural world. Having the possibility of access to that natural world threatened I now have an even greater appreciation for it and look forward to expressing that appreciation through my photography over the coming, hopefully more normal, years.