Portraits Without People in Coober Pedy


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Portraits Without People in Coober Pedy

Abigail Varney's series explores a sense of space and desolation.

Images by Abigail Varney

Coober Pedy, 800 kilometres north of Adelaide, is the opal capital of the world. It's known for its minerals, underground homes, and as a place to stop on the way to Uluru. The name comes from the local Aboriginal term kupa-piti, meaning "white man's hole." You can interpret that however you like.

But Melbourne photographer Abigail Varney wasn't interested in opals or rest-stops. She decided to create a series around the town and use the shots to explore a sense of space and desolation. The resulting works form Rough and Cut, her attempt to look past the gems and locals to the strange town that frames their lives.


VICE: What was your initial impression of Coober Pedy when you arrived?
Abigail Varney: It felt like a set. There was no-one around. There were all these opal stores that were closed. We walked along the street and this one guy came up to us with opals stuck in the lining of his jacket to sell. It was bizarre.

Did you get to know the locals?
There were so many different characters, we had so many different interactions. The guy who managed our accommodation was really sweet and told us who was who around town. There was a guy called Crocodile Harry, one called Swampy, another named Crazy Joe. We ended up meeting Crazy Joe after driving past his house. He has a mini museum with all this weird stuff in it.

Crocodile Harry's place is another we visited—he used to wrestle crocs and is apparently a womaniser. In his house there is all this underwear left for him with notes like "Love you, Harry."

Everyone was really nice. They were a bit taken aback when they found out it wasn't just a stop off. A lot of people go through Coober Pedy to get to Uluru so the locals kind of said, "Oh, you just want to be here?"

Were there any issues with taking photos?
They're used to cameras being around, people have filmed there before. if you walk down the main strip and you'll see this massive spaceship—something must have been shot there and they'd just left it.

Was it a choice to leave these characters out of Rough and Cut?
Yeah, I wanted there to be a sense of people but also show how desolate it was. It wasn't hard, a lot of the time there really was no-one around.


Can a landscape say as much about people as a portrait?
Definitely, using a different set of skills. I felt like I had a job to go to Coober Pedy and take portraits. But it became more about the place and taking shots that had a sense of people. It was nice to tap into a different way of taking a portrait.

Words by Hannah Scholte. Follow her on Twitter: @hannahscholte