The devastation of Australia’s fires, in one frame
Words like "epic" and "iconic" get thrown about when it comes to describing photographs, but this image by Matthew Abbott is truly worthy of such description. Shot for The New York Times, the image is emblematic of the crisis facing Australia, and a grim forecast of what the world can expect to see a great deal of in the future.
Australian photographer Matthew Abbott was on holiday with his family on the coast, three hours south of Sydney, near a town called Lake Conjola, when he accepted an assignment on New Year’s Eve from The Times to document the destruction and devastation of the fires nearby. Abbott had already been covering the fires for two months when the call from The Times came through. He’s described the fires as “relentless. They only stop once they run out of fuel — when they hit the ocean,” he’s observed.
Below are extracts of Abbott’s incredible story of how he captured the stunning and shocking frame. First published on The New York Times’ website, Times Insider reveals the background stories of the incredible journalism featured.
As Abbott recalls, the situation was mayhem as people were being evacuated, and they were clearly frightened. It was at that point he decided to follow the road to Lake Conjola. “I went down the road and came across an area called Conjola Park. Every house was burning. It was catastrophic. I was just trying to document what I was seeing,” he says.
Heading down the hill to Lake Conjola, roughly four kilometres away, Abbott noticed that the situation was not quite as dire as in Conjola Park. “Here, there was a stretch of about four or five homes. But one home that was in the middle of this main street was engulfed in flames,” Abbott says. “The neighbours on each side of it were trying to hose down their own houses to stop the fire from spreading. They were using their shirts as masks because there was smoke everywhere.”
At around 1pm, a power line to the house that was burning fell and nearly hit a neighbour who was moving some bins that were on fire. “It was then that I saw a group of kangaroos coming up the middle of the road. They were obviously running from another fire. And this one kangaroo, for whatever reason, ran right in front of the fire between me and the house. I reacted and raised the camera so I could compose that one image.
“At the time, I remembered thinking to myself, ‘Yeah got it, good shot,’ but I never allow myself to get too excited about a photo in the middle of something. I’m always pushing myself and thinking: ‘What’s next, what’s next?’ A photojournalist is trying to tell the story with pictures, and you need a series of strong images. You’re looking to document everything that’s happening. So, I kept moving.” After making the incredible capture, Abbott headed down to Lake Conjola itself where he saw over a thousand tourists seeking refuge there, some having walked out into the water.
Documenting fires and the destruction they cause is extremely hazardous, and Abbott says that he’s been very fortunate to have learnt from experienced professionals how to read fires and stay safe. “It’s incredibly important to stay calm and not make any irrational decisions,” he says. “I wear special, full-body protective clothing that’s fire retardant. I also have a respirator with air filters. But my face is exposed to the heat, which singes your skin. The worst part? My ears. They get so hot I photograph with my arm up against them when close to the flames. And then you’ve got the smoke to deal with.
“Photographing bushfires is exhausting because your body is in overdrive. You’re perspiring, you’re constantly drinking, and you’re moving quickly and your heart rate is up. A lot of people think the big danger is being burned alive, but you’ve got to be very careful that you don’t injure yourself because of exhaustion.”
According to Abbott: “One simple picture summed up the human loss, the loss of property and the impact on the environment. Although the scene in the photo looks like hell on earth, the other side of the house wasn’t burning. The kangaroo in the foreground eventually ran to safety. It didn’t die in the fire you see.”
Other Australian photographer, along with Matthew Abbott, including Nick Moir and Dean Sewell continue to put themselves in harm’s way in order to produce compelling images that are seen by millions around the world. We’re incredibly lucky to have such gifted and brilliant photographers documenting the catastrophe unfolding in Australia.
Extracts above first appeared in the Times Insider section of The New York Times, and have been reproduced with permission.