War photographer focuses on climate change

Tony MagnussonAAP
An exhibition of Stephen Dupont's photography captures a behind-the-lens look at climate change.
Camera IconAn exhibition of Stephen Dupont's photography captures a behind-the-lens look at climate change. Credit: AAP

Drought. Dust storm. Bushfire. Flood.

These are some of the climate-related events that acclaimed photojournalist and documentary filmmaker Stephen Dupont trained his lens on for a new body of work.

But while the subject matter might be confronting, the images are aesthetically pleasing.

In Hillville Fires 2, captured in 2019, shafts of sunlight penetrate the smoky canopy of a section of partially burnt forest near the small mid-northern NSW community.

At first glance, the haze could be mistaken for morning mist, the image a contemporary pendant to Sir Hans Heysen's iconic oil painting Mystic Morn.

Yet a closer inspection reveals the dull, dirty orange of an inferno in the background, tongues of flame erupting off to the side and embers charring the air.

Even then, the grimy atmosphere and low horizon line combine to give the ghostly eucalypts a heroic cast.

"There's no question I'm drawn to death and destruction," says Dupont, who has received numerous awards for his war photography, including a Robert Capa Gold Medal citation in 2005.

"But in this case I was after a kind of beauty in destruction.

"You see a red and yellow sky and think, 'it's so beautiful'. Then you realise it's fire and think, 'should I be feeling this way?' It's confronting and confusing.

"What we are really looking at is tragedy. It's the death of the planet."

Seducing the viewer by aesthetic means, only to guide them towards a deeper level of engagement, is the rationale behind the exhibition, provocatively titled Are We Dead Yet?

It might sound glib - an echo of every child's favourite back-seat refrain, "Are we there yet?" - but Dupont argues the question is, well, deadly serious.

"Is it too late? Have we gone too far to repair the damage?" he says.

"Are we just going to keep talking about it and going to UN conferences and striking? What are we actually going to do? How can we fix this?"

For Dupont, the stakes are higher than they once were.

Just after becoming a father in 2008, he narrowly survived a suicide bomb attack while on assignment travelling with an opium eradication team in Afghanistan.

The experience motivated him to dial down on the death-defying datelines.

Inspired by his 14-year-old daughter, Ava, a committed climate activist, Dupont wonders what parent wouldn't feel a moral obligation to take a stand.

"She's reading Greta Thunberg and protesting with Strike for Climate and I find that really heartfelt," he says.

"If I'm going to be a good human, let alone a good father, I need to tackle this subject for her and her generation.

"Had I not had Ava, I don't think I would have taken this project to the degree that I have. She has been the core of my encouragement."

Using both digital and film cameras, Dupont shot the photographs while working on a feature-length documentary about the climate change, also titled Are We Dead Yet? with his friend, the actor and director David Field, and American conservation biologist Reese Halter.

"David is directing, I'm doing the camera work and Reese is our protagonist," Dupont explains.

"We've travelled with Bob Brown, talked to Tim Flannery and spent time with many Indigenous Elders on Country.

"The film deals with the destruction of native forests, such as the Tarkine in Tasmania, the warming of the waters, the bleaching of the coral, as well as coal and mining, and drought, fire and flood.

"Then we come out at the other end with solutions," he adds. "This is a solutions-based film. It's about saying, this is what you can do right now."

The documentary is being edited and Dupont hopes it will be ready for audiences by early 2022.

In the meantime, he's keeping a close eye on events as they unfold in Afghanistan, a country he last visited in 2012 as official war artist for the Australian War Memorial, a position he has held twice.

"Afghanistan continues to haunt me in many ways, not so much from what I experienced, but more from what I'm sadly seeing happening there now," he says.

"I am still motivated to continue working in places like Afghanistan, for example, where I feel I still have a lot to say. I'm just waiting for the right moment."

Are We Dead Yet? is showing at Canberra's Ambush Gallery until October 24 and can be viewed at ambushgallery.com

The exhibition will reopen to the public once COVID restrictions ease in the ACT.

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