And The As­sign­ment That Changed Her Life

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A sim­ple as­sign­ment has turned into a life-chang­ing com­mit­ment for pho­to­jour­nal­ist Me­gan Lewis. She talks to Ali­son Stieven-Tay­lor about her de­ci­sion to go be­yond merely pho­tograph­ing a sub­ject and be­come com­pas­sion­ately in­volved.

In 2000 pho­to­jour­nal­ist Me­gan Lewis climbed on board a plane bound for a re­mote min­ing lo­ca­tion in Aus­tralia’s Great Sandy Desert to shoot what she thought was a pretty straight­for­ward ‘good news’ story for the news­pa­per she worked for – Martu Abo­rig­i­nal boys play­ing foot­ball.

On the ground for two hours, Me­gan got the shots she needed and headed back to Perth. On that re­turn jour­ney she be­gan to think about how Abo­rig­i­nals were por­trayed in so­ci­ety – the fo­cus be­ing pre­dom­i­nantly neg­a­tive and usu­ally cen­tred on vi­o­lence, poverty and sub­stance abuse.

“Dur­ing that trip there was a feel­ing in my gut that I had to re­turn to the desert to do some­thing dif­fer­ent,” she re­calls. “When you shoot for a me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tion there is no room for go­ing in­side. We have this check- list – drama, ac­tion, vi­o­lence or con­tro­versy. I wanted to tell a deeper story, and to look be­yond the stereo­types per­pet­u­ated in the me­dia.”

Me­gan made con­tact with the Martu people and over the next two years she trav­elled to the desert a num­ber of times, gain­ing their con­fi­dence.

“I thought an in­ti­mate pho­to­graphic record of their lives would be a good way for me – and oth­ers – to be­gin to un­der­stand the Martu people,” she ex­plains.

The Mid­dle Of Nowhere

The Martu people are one of the last Indige­nous groups in Aus­tralia’s Great Sandy Desert to come into con­tact with white people. This area of Aus­tralia has one of the harsh­est cli­mates with tem­per­a­tures reg­u­larly soar­ing past 50 de­gree Cel­sius in sum­mer. It

is lit­er­ally in the mid­dle of nowhere, hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres from the near­est town­ship.

Dry, hot and sparse, this land is alien to the ma­jor­ity of Aus­tralians. The Martu – or ‘the Mob’ as they call them­selves – num­ber around 850 and in­habit a ter­ri­tory ap­prox­i­mately the size of the United King­dom.

In 2002 Me­gan Lewis threw in her full­time job, packed her cam­era gear and what­ever she could fit in her car and headed into the desert to live with the Martu in Rudall River Na­tional Park in Western Aus­tralia. In the first six months that she lived with the Mob Me­gan added more than 30,000 kilo­me­tres to her car’s odome­ter, trav­el­ling across the desert be­tween each of the four Martu set­tle­ments.

At the time she had no con­cept of how this de­ci­sion would im­pact her or that the photo story she was to ex­plore would be­come a much greater part of her life than the few months she es­ti­mated were nec­es­sary to cap­ture the story. Me­gan ended up liv- ing with the Martu for close to three years, for­sak­ing her western life­style and leav­ing be­hind the crea­ture com­forts of ur­ban liv­ing.

Hit­ting The Wall

In her book Con­ver­sa­tions With The Mob, pub­lished in 2008, Me­gan Lewis talks about how in the early stages of the project she al­most lost her re­solve, so con­fronting was the en­vi­ron­ment as well as the cul­tural gulf that sep­a­rated her and the Mob.

“I re­mem­ber one par­tic­u­lar day… af­ter liv­ing with the Martu for three months I was hit­ting the wall. At around 48 de­grees Cel­sius it wasn’t the hottest day by desert stan­dards. I drove out of camp and found my­self sit­ting un­der a lone Aca­cia bush. Ants and flies were crawl­ing in ev­ery avail­able ori­fice and I was think­ing that I now knew what it felt like to go troppo.”

But in­stead of giv­ing up, she de­cided to im­merse her­self in the desert cul­ture. “From that mo­ment on, my re­la­tion­ship with the Mob be­came real and our jour­ney to­gether, with all its un­ex­pected turns, dra­mat­i­cally deep­ened our mu­tual trust and un­der­stand­ing,” she says.

The trust and friend­ship Me­gan de­vel­oped with the Mob are ev­i­dent in Con­ver­sa­tions With The Mob, a book that de­liv­ers pow­er­ful in­sights into the Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture and the Martu people with hon­esty, com­pas­sion and hu­mour.

Among other ac­co­lades, Me­gan has been awarded a pres­ti­gious Walk­ley Award for Ex­cel­lence in Jour­nal­ism for this work. Her project has given the Martu people a mir­ror at which to look at them­selves and make bet­ter de­ci­sions for a health­ier, hap­pier fu­ture, some­thing all hu­man be­ings as­pire to.

Twelve years af­ter she first moved in with the Martu people, Me­gan is still con­nected to Aus­tralia’s indige­nous pop­u­la­tion.

In 2009 she worked with com­mu­nity lead­ers and the com­mu­nity school in War­ra­long in the Western Desert to in­sti­tute healthy eat­ing pro­grams for the chil­dren. She also en­cour­aged the young people to en­gage with pho­tog­ra­phy and film mak­ing to tell their own sto­ries.

Re­turn To The Desert

Friend­ships run deep in the desert and, in early 2014, Me­gan headed into the out­back once again, this time to Cen­tral Desert in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory to help Kather­ine, one of the Martu women, re­con­nect with her chil­dren.

“I first met Kather­ine and her chil­dren 12 years ago. She was a mother in her twen­ties, beau­ti­ful, in­tel­li­gent and coura­geous. Her son, Se­bas­tian, was about 15 months old and her daugh­ter,

“I re­ally be­lieve that pho­tog­ra­phy can be trans­for­ma­tive, and for me to shoot some­thing, it has to mean some­thing,”

Chantal, a month old.” Me­gan ex­plains that when the chil­dren were five and four years old, Kather­ine had a psy­chotic episode af­ter ex­per­i­ment­ing with cannabis. When Kather­ine be­came ill, Me­gan looked af­ter her for three months and also cared for the chil­dren.

“Life has never been the same for Kather­ine since, and nor es­pe­cially for her chil­dren,” says Me­gan who, un­til this year, had not seen the fam­ily since 2008.

Kather­ine’s story is fraught with the strug­gle of sep­a­ra­tion, drug ad­dic­tion and men­tal ill­ness, yet through Me­gan’s re­la­tion­ship with the Martu, and her deep com­pas­sion and re­spect, the pho­to­graphs

“It is pos­si­ble to be a doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­pher and in the same breath be a com­pas­sion­ate hu­man be­ing. I be­lieve it is know­ing when to act and when not to. I trust my gut, my in­tu­ition – life is about be­ing present.” Me­gan Lewis, 2014.

taken on her re­cent visit are un­der­pinned with love and hope. Once again, Me­gan has been guided by her in­stinct in know­ing when to pick up her cam­era and when to leave alone. When she shot the work that be­came Con­ver­sa­tions With The Mob, she chose to shoot on film. On this year’s visit she took the new Fu­ji­film X-T1 mir­ror­less cam­era with its light­weight, com­pact body and dust and wa­ter re­sis­tant hous­ing – an ideal so­lu­tion for Me­gan who of­ten ends the day cov­ered in the red dust of Aus­tralia’s in­te­rior.

“When Kather­ine saw the X-T1, she laughed and said, ‘ That’s much bet­ter, not like that big cam­era you had be­fore’. This is an ideal cam­era for the kind of work I do as it is so small that it is eas­ily for­got­ten.

“I re­ally be­lieve that pho­tog­ra­phy can be trans­for­ma­tive, and for me to shoot some­thing, it has to mean some­thing,” says Me­gan. “The X-T1 makes me want to take pho­tos again. I don’t know what my next project will be, but I am now con­fi­dent I’ve found the dig­i­tal cam­era to shoot it on.”

To buy Con­ver­sa­tions With The Mob visit UWA Pub­lish­ing:­dau­thors/book/con­ver­sa­tions-with-the-mob/

All pho­to­graphs by Me­gan Lewis, copy­right 2014.

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