Photographer Edwina Robertson travelled to Australia’s drought-stricken rural areas to document communities in crisis. Here, she shares her story.
My family owns a sixth-generation farm in New England, northern New South Wales, which is where I grew up. Although I’ve travelled the world and Australia and now live in southern Queensland, my heart lies in the bush. I’m a photographer and for the past five years I’ve been specialising in country weddings, so I live in an urban population but I still have deep roots back to the country, and my work revolves around bush families.
Despite travelling all over the country, I hadn’t seen or heard much of the drought; then a friend posted some Instagram photos of him hand-feeding his sheep every day. I knew it was dry but I definitely didn’t understand the depth of it and how bad it was. I started calling a couple of people and asking if it was as bad as it seemed. It was, and it is.
I was meant to be taking a three-month holiday to America but I cancelled the trip and decided I would document what I was seeing. I thought, if I have such a good understanding of the bush and I’m not seeing anything in mainstream media, how would anyone else have an understanding of the drought? Two weeks later I was on the road.
The drought is 10 times worse than you see in the media. It didn’t start a few months ago; most people have been in drought for almost a year now and for a long, long time they had no acknowledgement from the government, industry representatives or fellow Australians about the struggle they’re going through. People have felt like no-one cares. You can’t see the emotional and mental strain of what drought does to people in a newspaper article. Western Queensland has been in drought for six years, 59 per cent of that state is now in drought; and 100 per cent of New South Wales. There have been worse droughts in terms of the ferocity but because of the area this covers and the length of time it’s been going, it’s been classified as the worst drought in 116 years.
One of the hardest stories I’ve seen was a family in Coonabarabran in central New South Wales where the father was having to leave the property to shear sheep for extra income and the mother was at home with their four children aged seven, six, four and 18-months old. The two school-aged children would take it in turns to miss school to drive the ute while their mum pushed hay bales off the back to feed the livestock. Sometimes it was the four-year-old driving. People might say: ‘That’s life on the land’, but what if that mother falls off the ute and hits her head? Is a fouryear-old going to be able to resuscitate her, drive back to the house and call an ambulance? No child should have to miss school because there’s a responsibility to hand-feed livestock at home. But that’s their only choice, they can’t afford to pay someone else.
So for two months I was on the road visiting families, businesses and communities, hoping to personalise these stories, put faces to the drought, give emotion to what’s happening and really make a connection to these communities living in drought and what that means, then share it with the rest of the nation. I’ve had the opportunity to speak to thousands of primary school children in Sydney and around the state, sharing with them stories of what I’ve seen, what kids their age are doing and what drought means to them. I’ve found giving real-life examples is a great way to entice children to think and imagine what it could be like for those who are affected. I’ve also had the opportunity to be invited to private dinners hosted by wealthy business people and speak to them of the struggle of families and communities that do not have off-farm income and the reality that faces their livelihoods now and in the future. Every opportunity I am given I share stories of what I’ve seen, what I’ve heard and more importantly, what I’ve felt.
Unfortunately, things aren’t going to get better, even if it rains tomorrow. When it rains again and properties green up and are worth something the banks are going to come in [because of] the amount of debt people are having to get themselves into to feed livestock. Others are having to sow crops because the bank wants to know their repayments are going to be made, so they have to spend half a million dollars putting crops in, yet don’t reap anything. Mentally that’s really hard. Anecdotally, suicide rates are twice as high in the country as in the city. That to me is an epidemic.
Earlier this year I met former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in Trangie. Two days before I’d been on a property speaking with cropping farmers who had had failed crops for three years running. They’ve spent nearly $2 million putting crops in, with zero return. While I was there they received a phone call that their brother-in-law had committed suicide. So when I met Turnbull I was pretty upset. I wanted to share my stories and tell him what was really happening. I said: ‘You have the power to help people, the power to do something’, and after hearing what [little] he was doing about funding, it really broke me. I don’t think he understood the depth and the crisis so many people are facing. The agriculture industry employs around 300,000 people. The industry feeds 75 million people globally, so it’s not just our own country that
relies on us. The financial and emotional impact of this drought is going to go on for years, it is exhausting and has no certain end point.
I started the website One Bucket in June to raise awareness about the drought and provide a place where people can donate. The name comes from the fact that there are families using just one bucket of water a day to clean, wash and flush the toilet. The money raised goes to Drought Angels, who provide fodder, financial assistance and food hampers to struggling farmers; and Rural Aid, whose clinical counsellors visit drought-affected properties to help with mental health.
I hope my photos show variety. There has been a backlash about the negative stories being shown from the drought: emaciated animals and really dry land and I try to avoid doing that. It’s not just people with livestock who are affected: it’s small towns, whole communities, sporting teams, the lady who runs a nursery and isn’t able to water the plants because of water restrictions. People in the city care, but they can’t care until they know. When you tell a personal story of someone’s struggle, it gives people a greater understanding of what that means. The reality is it is going to affect the city, it’s just a matter of when, because the cost of produce and meat and everything that relies on grains or crops will go up. Everyone’s going to feel the pinch and I would hate to hear people say: ‘Oh, farmers are just putting their prices up’, because that’s not the truth at all.
In mid-August I completed the two-month campaign and decided to take a break and help behind the scenes more instead. I’d been on the road for eight weeks and was physically and emotionally exhausted and needed to go home to Toowoomba for a bit. One Bucket is still going, there are still all sorts of things happening on the site. I’m starting back with wedding photography on the weekends, and will be volunteering during the week for Drought Angels, driving out to see families, helping with logistics through delivering hampers and prepaid Visa cards. They need a lot of help and I can do that. I’m still doing a lot of public speaking and guest speaking for events, awareness and fundraising balls. I have many events coming up over the next few months. I have seen enough of what is happening in the country and the city, so I feel like I can speak about what is happening in both.
I have been overwhelmed by the incredible generosity I have seen through this campaign. I have seen children donate a year’s worth of pocket money; struggling farmers give donated fodder to other farmers who may need it more. I’ve had calls from strangers who have heard my story, worked with their sports club or school board and raised thousands in just a few days to give to charities. The stories of generosity, kindheartedness and help are in equal quantity to those of struggle and pain.
It’s a positive step that the government has now appointed a drought envoy, because the drought is not over and communities are still hurting. It is very real and very traumatic for many. We’ve got to keep the momentum going about what’s happening in the bush, because soon the mainstream media will stop talking about the drought and people will get on with their lives. We can all do small things to help the bush community who need so much. Make an effort to purchase Australian-made and Australian-grown meat and produce when you are at the supermarket or butcher; buy produce that’s in season, because anything that isn’t will be imported. It’s a small thing to do, but it’s impactful for the people who require it. Donate a couple of pre-paid Visas. Instead of taking an overseas holiday, go for a road trip through Australia: there are plenty of amazing places to visit, even for a long weekend. Drive further than the Blue Mountains and go to Orange, support our local communities. And instead of stopping into a service station, take a five-kilometre exit off the highway and buy your lunch in a little town. Keep the money in Australia, basically. You can make a difference, just by being there for them.
Go to www.onebucket.com.au.
The financial and emotional impact of this drought is going to go on for years