The Forgotten, Lonely Pockets of Semi-Rural Australia

Wouter Van de Voorde takes photos of the towns you pass en route to someplace else.

by Sam Nichols
10 September 2018, 5:56am

All photos by Wouter Van de Voorde

For more stories from the parts of Australia that don't often get a hearing, check out our editorial series: Australiana

For over 10 years, photographer and visual artist Wouter Van de Voorde has been documenting rural New South Wales and the ACT. Arriving from Belgium in 2008 with his Australian-born wife, Wouter settled in Canberra and began capturing the fog and gnarled bush of the Southern Highlands with a mixture of analog film and digital.

Wouter’s work presents rural Australia at its most quiet and gloomy. Reminiscent of painting, his work capture a sense of melancholic beauty that's unique to Australian small towns. We sat down to discuss what attracts him to these quiet, human-less landscapes.

VICE: You moved to New South Wales from Belgium in 2008. Tell me about your first observations when you arrived.
Wouter Van de Voorde: All the clichés rang true. Because of a lack of urban planning, Belgium has this issue where you can drive from one town to another without ever seeing any open space. You become used to that, but when you come to a country like Australia—they call it big sky country and it’s absolutely true.

Driving from the coast to Canberra, there are dramatic changes in the scenery. Leaving from Wollongong, you pass through the beautiful escarpment filled with lyrebirds and fern trees. Then the further you drive away, the dryer and dustier the landscape becomes, especially during the hotter months. You learn to appreciate the subtle changes in the colours of the shrubs and the dirt.

And what is it about this landscape that appeals to you?
Living in Canberra, you’re spoiled for endless landscapes. Initially, my obsession was to see as much as possible of the giant slab of land which is NSW. Coming from such a densely populated country, I found the absence of humans rather appealing—therapeutic and confrontational. My series Hume Sunrise , for example, started while battling a bout of anxiety one winter. After dropping my partner off to work in the morning, I went into this abandoned lot in the morning fog. My mental state projected on this landscape, I found myself in a war zone, walking in the trenches in WW1. The painterly aesthetic appeal of these images is in stark contrast with the mental state I was in while producing them.

Why do you choose these desolate areas over more aesthetically pleasing settings like the beaches or rainforests?
I never grew up along a coastline. Although I do like to visit, it’s not a subject I have too much affinity for artistically. [Rural] landscapes are thematically much closer to where I come from in rural Flanders. Ever since I was young, there was something magical and empowering about wandering alone through the fields behind my parent’s house; climbing a fence and seeing the other side. I just came back from a visit to Belgium and those fields still possess that nostalgic attraction. Essentially, living in Australia I am that same kid but with much bigger fields to venture into.

So this is supplementary to your own pursuit of experiences and exploration?
Originally, my photography was just to show my friends and relatives back home what I was up to. My trip to Broken Hill, for example, was much more about driving than about photography. It was the first time I did a substantial distance driving my own car. To get there and go so far by myself. Being alone by yourself, driving on these roads. The images were just a part of that.

What’s your process in documenting these areas?
Every subject, landscape and situation I come across, I inevitably put in my own context. I don’t feel like a pureblood documentary photographer [as] all the images I produce are totally biased to who I am. I use many painterly and photographic mannerisms, but I try to remain authentic to my vision and ways of storytelling. I cannot hide my background in painting.

Tell me about your experiences in travelling and driving all around rural NSW.
A fair few of the road trips I do have been done with my best friend Jamie Hladky. We both have this urge to go and get ourselves out there, setting “exotic locations” like Cobar as our final destination. Sometimes we'd have run-ins, rocking up to a hotel, asking for a room and having the locals treat us like we were in a relationship. Lots of rural towns still feel like the vibes captured in the movie Wake in Fright; that relationship with alcohol, misogyny and just the relative boredom.

You employ a mix of analog, film and digital cameras, creating a very tonally dark image. What has inspired you to work in such a way?
Shooting film offers a certain slowness and mindfulness when being in a location. You’re never assessing your pictures on the spot like you do with a digital camera.

The tonality of my images, however, harks back to my background as a painter. Like classical European painting, the use of Van Dyke brown and Prussian Blue is very prevalent in my paintings. I am always very conscious of the tonal range in my pictures. Often the colours are as or more important than the actual scene.

Your photography is clearly very much for you, but what are you hoping to say with this work?
I am continuously driven to create, whether it is painting, drawing or photographing. Slowly I am building a sizeable archive which contains different strands of stories. In its totality, or fragmented into singular images, these stories will be the proof of my times here on Earth.

Words by Sam Nichols