The ‘Our Waters’ project: an update

The  Our Waters project, which is based around contemporary photographic responses to the Godson Collection held at the State Library of South Australia,  is starting to take shape.

At this stage several photographers have provisionally agreed to participate: namely,  Tony Kearny, James Tylor,  Nici Cumpston,  Stravos Pippos,  Paul Atkins, With Lars Heldmann and myself that makes 7  photographers in the project.  A few more may  come on board (possibly Mark Kimber and Andrew Dearman) whilst others may pull back from full participation.

Some background text to the project has been written,  and there are a few links to provide reference points for the project.  It is looking quite promising  at this  early stage, despite the lack of a website for the project. At the moment this blog is the only online presence  for the project.


The 1st exhibition has been planned for the SALA Festival in Adelaide  in 2019, with the gallery at Atkins Photo Lab  decided on.  The design  of the exhibition in this rectangular space has been tentatively mapped out:  there will be 6-9 photographers and 12-14 prints–maybe more– in the exhibition, with  each  responding differently to the general Godson Collection from their own perspective.

Some may just do the odd image  for the specific exhibitions  whilst others may link or connect parts of  their own projects to the general Godson Collection.   The responses will be quite diverse:  the  photographers could rephotograph,  reinterpret or critique  the Collection in general and they will be using using contemporary, classical  and alternative technologies.
Continue reading


Photography in the Anthropocene

It was a welcome relief to come across pockets of habitat in the Lower Lakes and the Coorong National Park that were  in a healthy condition,  despite the lack of river flow during the Millennium Drought (1997–2009)  in south-eastern Australia.

These low flows  happened within  the proposed  Anthroprocene  period, which is a time when much of the diversity of life on Earth is being lost through human action causing a steady global warming.

This experience foregrounds  the need for photography, as a form of art,  to be more open to the experiences of nature;  and to be part of a rethinking that questions our most basic cultural narratives if  photography  in the 21st century is not to degenerate into  idle chatter.

The  causes for  the ecological devastation  in the Coorong during the Millennium Drought were the reduced freshwater flows from upstream. These, in turn, were  caused by  both the low rainfall during  the drought,  and the over extraction of water for the upstream,  irrigated agricultural industries. As a result, the shallow water in the Coorong become saltier than seawater,  and this diminished the life that previously thrived in the mixture of fresh and saltwater.

The 28-32 Mile Crossing in the Coorong is at the bottom end of  the River Murray,  which  had become  a regulated river  for irrigation water supply between  1910 to 1950.   This was a  period of history in which dams and weirs became powerful symbols of the transformative power of engineering and technology.

Though the Millennium Drought  was a time of  low rainfall,  the  melaleuca  pictured below looked to be in good condition.   It was  growing  on the side of the Old Coorong Rd,   near  the 28-32 Mile Crossing, near  The Granites, and it would be  normally be  overlooked or disregarded.  However, such  a   healthy tree within the  highly stressed Coorong suggests the need to  start thinking about the fate of non-human others in the Murray-Darling Basin:


This part of the Coorong suggests we need to move away from a more simplistic dichotomy of nature versus humans to a photographic  culture that works with a  more nuanced and multilayered narrative.

The 28-32 Mile Crossing is before 42 Mile Crossing as the distance is measured  from the township Kingston that lies south of the Coorong.  The representations of  42 Mile Crossing  assume  the conventional understanding of the ‘natural world’ as  a passive background to human dramas.

It is seen as  a popular spot for fishers, campers and tourists,  as it is one of the few locations within the Coorong National Park providing ready access to the Young Husband Peninsula and the ocean beach without the need of water-craft. This conventional understanding ignores the deep time of earth history within which such human action is situated.  Continue reading

Landscape loss + nostalgia

One of the frequent responses to the common experience of landscape loss  in Australia’s industrial modernity –eg.,  salt ladened landscapes, dried out wetlands, low flows in our rivers, on-going land clearing and the loss of biodiversity  in Australia—is that of nostalgia,  or a yearning for what has been lost in the  Anthropocene.  The rivers used  to flow with clean water, the wetlands teemed with bird life, there were plenty of fish in the rivers, there was rich  biodiversity etc etc.

What has been lost in this  destruction of nature is  connected to issues of location and place of river communities. Nostalgia involves  a sense of unhappiness with the present, against which the past, or  often, an idyllic  past, is favourably compared. Lewis Bush in his  discontinued Disphotic: Writing on Photography  blog  puts it this way:

Contemporaneously nostalgia has come to describe an emotional response to a memory, typically a positive one of longing for a specific thing or time in the past, still in a way a sort of homesickness for a place once occupied but now impossible to return to.

This response to industrialized landscapes is often characterised  as a ‘defence mechanism’ for those who are uncomfortable with change. Finding comfort in looking back  is seen to  reflect parochial  concerns, which  are often conservative and backward looking. Nostalgia, as a yearning for yesterday,  is seen as  passive and reactive and contains  melancholic ideas and practices. 


Yearning and nostalgia are uncomfortable and personal emotions and themes, characterised by bewilderment, darkness and grief  bought on by the loss of home, community and landscape when the rivers stopped flowing.

For many the past in the late 20th,  and increasingly in the early 21st century,   has never looked more attractive and the future more scary. The past, with its rivers boats and flowing rivers   is seen to be  attractive because people find the present state of the rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin upsetting and bewildering.   They question the idea of progress,  namely the view that historical time is a  progressively improvement on the world of  the 19th century.   Continue reading

salty landscapes

Clearing the land of vegetation  for agriculture can often mean salty landscapes and salt lakes as well as  salty ground water  that flows into the River Murray. The felling of  billions of trees (approximately 15 billion)  to make room for the farming in the Murray-Darling Basin, which  has  led to economic growth and national prosperity,  has caused, in just 150 years, a salinity crisis.

The gradual loss of farm and grazing land to rising salt is known as dryland salinity. It looks like this landscape near Lake Alexandrina: 


It is true that  salt is a natural feature of the Murray-Darling Basin’s landscapes and rivers as it is  derived from ancient ocean sediments, the weathering of rocks and deposition by rainfall over millions of years. However, human activities such as irrigation development and land clearing often exacerbate salt mobilisation, causing it to concentrate in certain parts of the landscape and rivers.  Continue reading

at the Stockyard Plain Basin

When I was working in the Senate as a policy/political advisor  prior to 2006 I realised that one of the crucial aspects of the management of the River Murray  in South Australia was  the salt interception schemes (SIS) with  their associated disposal basins.

The current salt management in the Murray-Darling Basin  aims to intercept  the saline groundwater before it enters the River Murray,  and then dispose of, or rather store,   the salty water  in a  basin. The water then slowly evaporates, concentrating the salt in the basin, or gradually leaking it back into the groundwater systems.

There are 3  SIS’s in South Australia namely,   Bookpurnong (near Loxton) with its Noora Disposal basin,   Woolpunda  (between Waikerie and Barmera),  and Waikerie with its Stockyard Plain disposal basin. These are part of the Riverland Salt Disposal Management Plan.

In 2004/5  I  visited   Stockyard Plain, which  is a broad, low-lying area, that is  located 15 km southwest of Waikerie:


The two primary reasons  for the continual flow of the saline groundwater into the River Murray are the clearance of native plants and drainage from irrigation. The latter, in   adding water to salty groundwater aquifers, contributes to the elevation of salinity in the River Murray.
Continue reading

at Tolderol Game Reserve

Towards the end of the Millenium Drought  (1997-2009) we visited the Tolderol Game Reserve, which on the northern shore  of Lake Alexandrina  and  is east of Pt Sturt.   We wanted to see what had happened to this migratory bird sanctuary as a result of this  decade long drought. This was more than a  standard dry time  which are the settings of  the state and government’s drought policy responds to: ie., –immediate drought relief measures for people on the land who have been suffering with the reality of a  dry period.

The  various shallow basins in this game reserve are linked by  connecting channels and levee banks, thereby  enabling the manipulation of water levels to create rich foraging habitat for migratory wader birds.


We visited the reserve in  2009, and  the shallow basins and channels in this wetland were bone dry.  No birds were to be seen.  It was a silent landscape.  No water could be seen. It was a desert landscape.

It was very depressing walking around  this part of Lake Alexandrina.  Continue reading

Lake Alexandrina

During the Millennium Drought I did some  photography around the edge of  the shallow freshwater Lake Alexandrina, including the the seaside towns of Clayton and Milang. At the time, given the absence of sufficient flows dredging was undertaken to keep the Murray Mouth open and to ensure salt and other pollutants could be flushed out of the river system.

With minimum to no flows in the River Murray  during the drought,  the lake was drying out, as can be seen in these photos made of the foreshore of the lake at Milang:

boat + pier, Lake Alexandrina
boat + pier, Lake Alexandrina

It was a sad sight seeing a lake dry up. I understand that it  was much worse at Lake Albert as water had to be pumped into the lake to mimimize the extent of  the ex[posed   acid sulfate soils.

The history of the rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin has been one where the focus has been on maintaining sufficient flows to maintain regulated water levels, water allocations for irrigators, and sufficient quality to meet irrigations and drinking-water requirements.  Continue reading