Mieke Boynton finds the photographic connection between land, culture and light in the Kimberley.
Kati Thanda is the traditional Arabana name for Lake Eyre in South Australia, and when it floods, the view from above is simply spectacular. The pink is natural – it’s caused by a particular strain of algae.
As the sun drops to the horizon and the evening clouds over Broome begin to glow in the last light, odds are that Mieke Boynton and her best mate, Banjo, will be watching it from just the right stretch of beach. She’ll be holding her remote shutter release and he, being a blue healer/kelpie cross, will likely be standing just behind his mistress. On her tripod, a Nikon D810 and a 21mm Zeiss will be angled perfectly to capture the unfolding sky show.
My best mate Banjo poses in front of two rusty old holdens and a family of boab trees near Derby, Western Australia.
‘He’s the best photography dog in the world,’ Mieke says. ‘He’s very intelligent and very patient. He actually walks behind me so he doesn’t put footprints in the sand – he’s learned that I get very upset if my pristine beach shot is destroyed by him running in front of me. But, when he’s had enough of me staying in one spot for too long, he’ll headbutt the back of my legs to get me moving, or he will purposefully seat himself in front of the camera so I can’t take photos. But that’s only when he’s had enough.
‘And he won’t allow me to take posed photos of him,’ she adds, ‘but he is the best photo-bomber in the world. So if I have my perfect shot lined up, he’ll occasionally go in and make it just that little bit more perfect – if I’m fast enough to capture him in it. And the photos of him tend to be the most popular – which as a landscape photographer is a bit of a knife in the heart but,’ she laughs, ‘I do understand it.’
Boab trees (Adansonia gregorii) grow throughout the Kimberley region of Australia, and are relatives of the Madagascan and African baobab trees. Their smooth bark glows like burnished brass at sunset.
Ten years ago, Mieke was a teacher at a Broadmeadows secondary school in her native Victoria. She wasn’t a landscape photographer – or indeed a photographer of any sort – and the Kimberley was just another name on the map.
‘When I was a kid, I wanted to be an artist. When I got to about year 10, when you have to choose what you’re going to study in the last two years of high school, I really wanted to study art. But my Dad said “no way; I’m not going to have another starving artist as a daughter.” I was devastated.’
Since an art career was not an option, Mieke decided to focus on literature instead. ‘Although I loved art more, I did enjoy writing too, especially writing poetry.’ And she had another string in her bow.
‘I was a pretty good rower and I got a scholarship for four years to California State University in Sacramento on their rowing team.
‘I had quite a bit to juggle. If you’re on a full-ride scholarship, you are theirs. They own you. You really need to be doing everything you can to make the ridiculous amount of money they’re investing in you worthwhile.
‘So, they were very reluctant to let me do art classes because art takes up so much time – and time is not something you have a lot of when you’re training 20 hours a week. So, I was studying literature, and I was trying to do any art classes that I could get away with without making my coach irate.’
Living remotely makes it difficult to meet up with other photographers, but on this occasion, a bunch of us decided to all head out to shoot the same sunset from various locations around Australia. The sunset didn’t look particularly promising, but I was astonished when this single cloud approach and curled around like a flying Luck Dragon over this silhouetted boab tree near Derby, Western Australia.
Back in Australia and four years into secondary teaching, Mieke found herself yearning for more meaningful work. ‘I was actually considering teaching abroad as a volunteer because I thought if I tried teaching kids that really needed good teachers, maybe I’d feel a bit more encouraged; more fulfilled.’
And then, as so often in life, the unexpected happened.
‘I had a really serendipitous discussion with a Marist priest who asked whether there was a particular reason to go overseas. I looked at him blankly and said, “where would I teach?” and he said, “you know we have our own disadvantaged kids here in Australia.” I just felt so ashamed that I hadn’t even considered that as a possibility.’
Not long after that conversation, she found herself driving the 4000 kms north to a new job as a primary school teacher in Wyndham.
‘I had no idea what was in store for me,’ she says. ‘Driving from Katherine across the border to Wyndham in the wet season was so unbelievable. The green of the grass is like nothing you’ve ever seen – it’s fluorescent. The red of the earth after the rain is the most vivid red you’ve ever seen and the sky, once the clouds clear, is blue as blue, and the clouds themselves are purest white. I said to myself: this is Eden! This is epic and of such proportions it’s mythological!
‘It was just incredible. There were critters everywhere – geckos on the walls and honeyeaters making nests outside. I had a Bowerbird living in my backyard and there were frogs in the toilet. I didn’t know that places like that existed in Australia. Where I grew up in Victoria, you just don’t see those colours.’
Wyndham would not only introduce her to the astounding colours of the Kimberley but to the richness of Aboriginal culture. And, through the combination of the two, she found the great passion of her life.
‘When I moved there, I thought photography was just happy snaps, record keeping, documentation of time and place and experience. In my eyes it was never an artform and I guess that’s partly to do with the education system. You’re taught about famous painters and sculptors and people who do etching, but not about great photographers.
This is Morgan Camp in Broome, a small, timber-framed, corrugated iron house bordered by mangroves. Despite its humble appearance, it’s a highly significant site for a number of reasons. It’s one of the few buildings left from the early pearling days in Broome, and it has been used by Aboriginal groups for over seventy years. Recently, the Hunter family announced plans to establish an Aboriginal Pearling Oral History Museum here, which would be fantastic for visitors and “new locals” – we’d all have the chance to listen to all the old stories of Broome. As soon as I saw this build-up of clouds, I raced home from work and grabbed Banjo and my new camera and raced down here. We got lucky!!
‘It was moving to Wyndham that changed everything, and really what changed it was the locals,’ says Mieke. ‘One evening I was sitting down with a couple of my Aboriginal friends, showing them some landscape pictures, and they said, “these are really good – you should enter the art show.” And I said, “they have a photography section in the art show?” And that’s where it all started.’
Learning photography while also learning about indigenous culture means that in a very real sense the two strands of her life are thoroughly entwined.
‘Being aware, right from the very beginning, that everywhere I went was known to indigenous people has had a profound effect on my photography,’ she says. ‘I would never, for example, “stretch” a mountain [in Photoshop] because it’s not real. My indigenous friends would know immediately: that’s not right. They’d say “that’s a liar photo; it’s not real.” So I do feel responsible about the way I portray the landscape – not just the Kimberley, but across the board.’
The beauty of the mudflats in the East Kimberley, Western Australia. (Aerial photo)
Asked if she thought this way of informed photographic seeing meant that she could perhaps look into a landscape rather than at it, she said, ‘Some people say to me that I’ve been really lucky with how many times the sunset or the sunrise is amazing, or the clouds are just fantastic when I go to visit somewhere. It’s superstitious I guess, but I actually think that if you allow the landscape to get into you, so you’re not shooting from the outside – you’re allowing it to get in there somehow – then you’re able to convey something that’s not possible when you’re just clicking. I know that sounds completely out there, but I genuinely believe that.’
Getting into the right frame of mind is, she says, really important. And then she adds, ‘Before sticking the camera in my face, I’ll take the time to look and notice and feel. Sometimes that’ll only take two minutes but it’s always taking time to actually look; not just seeing something that you’re interested in and going straight there and just shooting.
‘But, then, once I’ve done that, I never sit in one spot and wait for things to happen. Things are happening all the time.
‘I totally respect people who sit there for three days and wait for the right light, but that’s not me. For me, every direction you look in, there’s something going on and if it’s not happening here, it’s going to be happening somewhere else and you just need to find out where.’
After leaving the Dove Lake carpark (in Cradle Mountain, Tasmania) at 3:30am to trek up to this beautiful tarn, we were a little disappointed that the sunrise was a fizzer. Nevertheless, before the wind arrived, we had the good fortune of still water so we could take some photos of the beautiful reflections.
A strong believer in the virtues of a solid tripod for landscape work, she’s not a big one for bracketing. Instead she aims to get it right in camera rather than later when she’s at the computer. ‘I think I’m looking for photos that speak the loudest. Sometimes it all comes together. Sometimes you’ve got the composition, you’ve got the light. I don’t generally crop much out of a photo.
‘Having said that, I do consider photography an art form and that includes creative decision-making. If in the distance there’s a row of telephone poles for example, and I know when I’m shooting that that they’re an insignificant but distracting part of the photo, I’ll happily edit them out later.’
Ultimately, she says, her hope for each one of her photographs ‘is someone loving it so much that they want it permanently as part of their life on the wall. I’m so happy that I get such positive feedback when I post photos online and obviously I’m very happy when I win awards in competitions, but I don’t shoot for awards and I don’t shoot for social media likes. I shoot because I love photography and because what I want is this communication to happen about this place, this experience – with people who can connect to that.’
If you want to have “Spa Pool” in Hamersley Gorge (Minthukundi) all to yourself before the sun comes up and makes it very difficult to photograph, you have to depart the warmth and comfort of your bed at the Karijini Eco Retreat (or your sleeping bag) and hit the road several hours before your body’s actually ready to do so. I tried to get something a bit different from this well-photographed spot… so I had to do a little manoeuvring to get up to this vantage point! I love the Karijini rock formations… and the colours. It really is a spectacular (and very special) part of Australia.
Despite a full moon, the Milky Way is clearly visible across the night sky over Mount Bromo in East Java, Indonesia. “Mount” Bromo is actually a giant crater on the left obscured by Mount Batok in the foreground, and can only be identified here as the source of the billowing sulphur cloud. The volcano in the distance is Mount Semeru.
The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) over the Lyngenalps in Spåkenes, Norway. There is something so “otherworldly” about the “Nordlys” – she is magical, mystical, spiritual, and alien all at the same time.
When it comes to the question of what photography has come to mean to her, Mieke says, ‘It’s my passion, it’s my raison d’etre, it’s why I’m on this earth. I know that sounds like a big call but everything I’ve done contributes. Like my four years rowing in the States: I wouldn’t be able to traipse around the Kimberley with a backpack, camping out and doing all that stuff if I didn’t have the physical fitness and if I didn’t have the mental grit that comes from being a scholarship athlete.
‘If I hadn’t done all the art stuff in my past, I wouldn’t understand how colour works; I wouldn’t understand composition. I wouldn’t be able to actively assess how they work in a photograph. It’s one thing to sense it and just know it, but it’s also really helpful to be able to articulate how it works. And all of that comes from the art background.
‘I’m also really grateful for the literary path that my life has taken because I can use my words to communicate with people how I feel about this whole photography thing.
‘It has totally taken over who I am. Before photography, I really didn’t know where I’d end up. Now I know exactly where I’m going to end up: I’m going to be doing this for the rest of my life. There’s no doubt about it.’
Article by Don Norris
Excerpt from Photo Review Issue 62