British/Swedish photographer Will Vickers landed a few hours from Broken Hill in the summer of 2014. He’d flown to Adelaide directly from London, then driven northeast into the desert to where he'd live for the next six months. Back in London he’d had a nice flat and had studied at the Sir John Cass School of Art—then suddenly he found himself on a 400,000 acre property in the remote Australian bush. It was a scary change, but it was what he wanted. For himself, and for his photography.
We spoke to Will about what he saw of Australia's interior and what he learned about life on a sheep station.
VICE: Hey Will, let's start with the location. How did you end up in in this place?
Will Vickers: I'd fallen in love with a woman in Australia and travelled there the previous summer to see her. Then back in London I met a guy in a pub and told him the story. He shook his head and told me “we’ve all done that, you fool." But then he asked if I wanted a job on a sheep station so I could go back to Australia and I said yes.
So that's how you got to Australia. What was your first impression of the sheep station?
It was very dry. I remember I got there and jokingly said "this is the driest place I've ever been" and they were like “oh it's not at its driest yet.” Also I couldn't get my head around the way of working at first. The long days of 4 AM until 3 PM were a challenge.
Can you describe the culture out there? What were the farmers like?
I think there's a great sense of us and them—city slickers and bush people. The farmers understood that in cities there isn't a lived-in awareness of what life is like in the outback. Everyone's starting point was they expected to be misunderstood and not have their voices respected. Yet they were very open-minded about it. Politically, they see their task as communicating what they knew to those who aren't present.
Would you say that you developed a relationship with the land?
Absolutely. And when it comes to the land, I think there’s always been this glorious sense of man and his ego, or humanity and its ego. Sheep are very very hardy and diverse creatures—husbandry as a craft is something that's been about since the very start of civilization. And I think there's a form of kindness and compassion for the land and sheep out there that doesn't get reported on very often. There was always a conversation going on and great awareness and respect for the land by those who lived and worked on it.
Now that's interesting because to me these photos are pretty bleak. Like for example that lede photo of the kangaroo, that doesn't seem like a snapshot of an animal-friendly place.
Yeah, I didn't quite realise what was going on until I got closer and I realised it was a roo. It was stuck in the mud and still alive but it was struggling to move. I could see the tracks it had made through the mud—but I think the balance between what is kind and right to help animals is hard to understand. Was it beyond saving? Would it be right for me to intervene? It was a difficult moral dilemma for me to overcome: what was right for me and what was right for the roo.
So what did you do?
I killed it.
Shit, ok. Well moving on there's been a lot of talk about depression in outback communities. Did you get a sense of this struggle, economically or emotionally?
The farmers were always talking about other farmers who hadn't been able to survive, and I mean those who had committed suicide, not those who had simply given up the game. It’s an emotionally draining business being out there on the land, working hard without support. I think there's also a lack of understanding about the wool trade and why it needs this support. Through my work, I felt as though I wanted to contribute and provide this information. Each story is an individual and there’s a human at the bottom of it.
Why did you decide to take these photos in black and white?
When I started photographing seriously I couldn’t afford colour film, and I think I developed an attachment to black and white. I like the smell of the chemistry. I like the way a silver gelatin print looks. I like the fact I can be quite lazy and careless with all aspects of the process, and still be able to salvage images.
I think I shot about 100 rolls over six months, and I got friends to post me blocks of 20 rolls of film as care packages once every few months. I stored the film in a cool room before and after shooting and I chose to use a fully mechanical camera, just because the weather often got to between 40-50 degrees and I wanted to make sure I wouldn't have any trouble with electronic malfunctions.
Were you happy with the results? Do you think you captured the bush?
I was only 23 when I took these photos. I wanted to feel as though I was photographing something of value, something real, and I just wanted to get away from my post-art college life in London. But you can always have expectations about how things should be, or how we dream things could be, but then life comes along and guides us along this glorious rollercoaster that leaves all planning and preconception behind.
Ok I'll rephrase the question. Did you understand the Australian bush by the time you left? Did you have a greater understanding than when you arrived?
Absolutely. And I was lucky enough to spend some time in the Masaai Mara last year. The sense of being out in the bush again, and being close and respecting the land has become a really good way for me to reconnect with myself, and to feel connected to my soul. And of course, every time I drive around the US or Australia the bush just fills me with pleasure and joy. The Australian bush in particular is a wonderful, wonderful part of the world.