And The Assignment That Changed Her Life
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: www.uwap.uwa.edu.au/books-andauthors/book/conversations-with-the-mob/