Robert Walwyn is a Photographic Artist based in Sydney. His project, Karrikins, documents and explores the aftermath of the 2019/2020 Bushfires in NSW.
Can you give us a brief introduction to yourself, your photographic practice and how your ongoing series Karrikins came about?
My name is Rob Walwyn and I’ve been taking photographs for just over 11 years. My initial foray into photography was driven by my passion for the ocean, which remains the biggest source of creative inspiration for me and a key feature in a lot of my images.
I used to work in a camera store and used digital cameras for many years (particularly in waterproof housings taking photos of waves and surfers) but found something lacking in both the images and the process. No matter how many more megapixels or stops of dynamic range the latest model brought, I began to lose interest in spending hours at a computer sorting and editing thousands of images.
Just before a trip to Africa in 2013, a colleague sold me a Canon EOS 3, with which I could use the same lenses as my Canon digital camera. I shot my first couple rolls of film on that trip, including a roll of Fuji Velvia. Once I held the slides up to the light, I was hooked and have been unable to shake the habit since.
These images are part of an ongoing series that I have been working on called Karrikins, which aims to document the impacts of the recent Australian bushfires of 2019-20. The name Karrikins refers to a family of chemical molecules that are produced as a result of bushfires and can stimulate the regrowth of certain plants.
Karrikins utilises a special type of Infrared film. Can you tell us a bit about this film stock, how you started using it and why you felt it was useful/relevant for this project?
For this series I have used some discontinued and reasonably rare infrared films, with the vast majority shot on Kodak Aerochrome III Colour Infrared (CIR) Film 1443. This film has come in several iterations since it was developed by Kodak in tandem with the US military back in the 1940’s, and the 1443 type is the latest emulsion in the series, before it was unfortunately discontinued in late 2009.
CIR film had many useful applications, with its initial target use in camouflage detection. It has been used to great effect by many artists, with notable examples including Karl Ferris’ images of Jimi Hendrix, Elliott Landy’s images of Bob Dylan, and Richard Mosse’s Infra and The Enclave series.
I initially purchased 5 rolls of this film back in February 2020. I had seen some images circulating on social media with the bright green regrowth coming back after the intense bushfires in early 2020 and knew that it would be a perfect subject to use this rare film on. Whilst I knew roughly what to expect from the film, I had no idea whether the images would turn out or if they would be anything more than a cliché.
My usual way of working has been somewhat reactive, without too much thought into specific images or the story I’m trying to tell. These images represent a change in my approach as it is the first time that I have planned a project, previsualised how the images might look, and been happy with the execution. Aerochrome captures the infrared light reflecting off the regrowth in lurid shades of pink and red, which contrasts against the burnt and blackened trees, evoking images of the flickering flames that crept up these trees only months earlier. When I finally saw the film on a light table, I was ecstatic as they had turned out exactly as I had hoped, revealing renewal after destruction.
Karrikins has a hopeful and rejuvenating throughline of the healing power of nature. It is also, however, contextualised by the on-going threat of climate change to natural environments. How do you see your work as engaging with the troubled status of the natural world?
The natural world is something that is very close to my heart as I spend a lot of my time exploring new places, hiking, and in the ocean. The natural world is both what initially got me into photography and has provided me with a constant source of inspiration.
To me, these are the first sets of images I have taken that are more than superficial snapshots. I hope that they evoke a sense of beauty and surrealness, and that this is followed quickly thereafter by the realisation that this was a result of absolutely devastating bushfires. Whilst bushfires are a natural phenomenon, they are just one example of the effects of climate change. These bushfires, some of the most intense in living history, killed many people, burnt nearly 19 million hectares of land, and killed or displaced over 3 billion animals. Those figures are staggering; yet as the world continues to heat up, such extreme weather events will only continue to occur, with increasing frequency and ferocity.
The natural world is clearly in trouble as a direct result of humans’ actions over the last few centuries and more recently, inactions. I want these images to both highlight the destruction that comes from doing nothing in response to climate change, yet also provide hope that it is possible to restore things to the way they were before we humans came along. Just as the trees in these images can regenerate following a fire, so too could the natural world if we gave it a chance and did things like rapidly transitioning to renewable energy and more sustainable ways of producing/consuming food and goods.
Further to this, what role do you think photography can play in not only documenting environmental change, but in advocating for more ethical approaches to how we live and engage with the natural world?
Photography has the power to not only document what is happening in the photojournalistic or scientific sense, but also to do so in a meaningful way that resonates with the viewer. There is a really strong risk of climate change fatigue with images – oh look, another picture of California on fire, or yet another huge chunk of ice melting and falling off a glacier – and so I think photographs need to become increasingly more creative in depicting what is at stake so that people have that engagement and drive to come up with solutions to combat climate change.
If my images can leave a lasting impression on the viewer and contribute in whatever small way to raise awareness or effect a change in approach to how we cherish and strive to protect the natural world, then I will count that as a big win.
Looking forward, how do you see this project as evolving? Do you plan on publishing or exhibiting the work as some point? What other projects are in the works for you at the moment and in the future?
I have spent the last couple of months stockpiling as much infrared film as I can get my hands on, shooting more images for the project, and planning what I want to do with it next. I have about 30 images in this series that I am happy with and I have some ideas on what to shoot next and how I could pull it all together. My intention is to have an exhibition at some point that coincides with the release of a book. I would like to do a lot more research and cover way more ground, both in terms of areas photographed as well as subject matter. I would love to delve further into the science behind bushfires and Karrikins and their role in regeneration of plants, as well as cultural burning methods.
As for other projects, not sure yet. I think I’ve still got a long way to go on this project, so I want to focus my efforts on that for now. It has been very interesting and rewarding working on a specific project so I will certainly put my mind to other things that I might be able to offer a different perspective on.