Fear and Emptiness in Small-Town Australia

Wouter Van de Voorde's photographs are infused with an eeriness that occasionally borders on the surreal. Think "Twin Peaks" if it never rained.

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Apr 13 2015, 2:05pm

Wouter Van de Voorde is a Belgian-born, Canberra-based photographer who admits it doesn't take much to keep him creatively entertained. When he's not teaching high school media and photography, he's driving to the middle of nowhere and photographing forgotten places in rural Australia. His photos are of ordinary things—cars, empty roads, quiet towns—but are somehow infused with an eeriness that occasionally borders on the surreal. Think Twin Peaks if it never rained. We talked to him about feeling solitude while traveling alone for hours on end, and how the artist feels he will be "forever an alien, forever a tourist" while documenting these scattered locales throughout Australia.

VICE: Your photos often appear innocuous at first glance, what are you trying to capture?
Wouter Van de Voorde: I've always been interested in the darker side of things, things that make me feel uncanny, certain moods I can't describe but that I try to capture. All of Australia has this mad undertone that is kind of my reference point. But I just try to create images where people can see things through my eyes.

It's a lot to do with atmosphere. When I first moved here, I was unemployed for a while, so I read a lot of Aboriginal stories, and some of them were really violent and dark stories. I wanted to get a bit of an understanding of the place from all these Aboriginal stories and myths.

These stories about travelers sitting around the campfire and then having ghosts eat their kidneys when they fall asleep and putting green ants back inside their bodies. And stories about ghosts mating with people and all these kinds of mad things.

In a way, is taking photos a way to learn about an environment that's new to you?
I think exploring is the most important thing and there's so much to explore in this place, even though in Australia you can travel for 1,000 miles and be in a town that looks exactly like the one you came from. In Canberra, all these suburbs look exactly the same, so you have to look for the subtle differences. It's like learning how to appreciate certain types of wines.

What have your experiences shooting in rural Australia been like?
I quite like to just be somewhere where I'm not surrounded by anything. There's this sort of fear in it too. Belgium is so small you can't really get lost, whereas in Australia it's so big, if I get lost you would probably find my body decomposing years later. Solitude is always in the back of my mind and when I'm in my car and darkness falls.

What are some weird things you've seen out in rural Australia?
I've done most rural towns within a few hundred miles around Canberra.

There's this town called Nyngan and along this road that stretches on forever is just miles of broken glass lining the side of the road. It's just like, people who just don't give a fuck and have thrown bottles out their window for like sixty years. Stuff like that just blows my mind.

I've been here for seven years but I've just cultivated this thing where I'm forever an alien, forever a tourist. When you start taking things for granted, you might as well just die. I still freak out about parrots here—I can never get over that. And cockatoos! I still have that childlike amazement about a place.

Interview by Emma Do. Follow her on Twitter.

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