Waiting and watching for a portrait in the Australian Bush
Panicked, I stopped my rental car and stared down a rocky red farm road for the second time that day. My iPhone displayed no bars. It was January and the late afternoon summer sun beat down on a landscape spotted with saltbush, gums, and rust coloured granite fractured by time.
I was looking for Tony Gyss, a professional kangaroo shooter from South Australia who was harvesting ‘roos’ on Plumbago cattle station, with whom I’d spoken over a scratchy mobile phone line a few days prior. I scribbled directions into my notepad when we spoke; they seemed black and white at the time - turn right off the Barrier Highway at Olary, drive 60 kilometers, stay right until I see the Plumbago sign, keep driving until I see workers quarters on right.
Now, amidst the pressure of time, heat and solitude, the sporadically used farm roads were tracks that splintered in unexpected places and challenged my notions of left and right – a maze to my urban eyes. I thought I had driven the correct distance from the highway, turned around and retraced my steps and driven that distance again. Still I couldn't find Tony. Plumbago was indeed a cattle station– pastoral land– but the once thriving community of graziers and their children, jackaroos, and full time roo shooters were ghosts over lapsing fence lines on an abandoned farmstead.
I was sitting on this road because I was on assignment for The New York Times working on a story about the Australian bush. My plan was to spend the next few days, or as long as he would have me, working with Tony and his off-sider, a young labourer that worked with him, while they shot kangaroos commercially for their meat.
Scared by the thought of getting lost on the farm roads at night and sleeping alone in the bush, I knew I would have to return to the highway before dark. The expansive silence of the landscape produced a feeling of resignation. But I couldn't give up; something I have learned working on assignments is to keep pushing through the temptation to give up because it’s hard to recapture opportunities after they elude you. It’s hard to remember how many kilometers I drove on for, but I was increasingly nervous with each hill and turn as I moved further away from the highway - every minute that went by cast a longer shadow of shrubs on the dirt road as the sun dipped. Suddenly I saw a white pick-up truck, or ‘ute’ as they are called in Australia, barrelling down the road towards me.
The first thing that came out of Tony’s mouth was “you’re late.” He didn't stop, but drove past me slowly as he squeezed the words from pursed lips. The last thing I caught was “follow me” and in my rear view mirror I watched him stir red dust as he pulled back and forth on the narrow road and then shoot past. I accelerated in tow. I was pretty sure my presence was an intrusion to Tony; I would later learn he was the quiet male bush archetype who got on with his work and didn't care much for idle chit chat. Tony only agreed to meet me because of an introduction from a cocky contact of mine who grants him access to his holding of cattle stations across the border in New South Wales for shooting.
The dilapidated workers cottage where he camped was made from white fibro under a rusted tin roof. A now defunct large satellite antenna sat outside. I suspected that if Tony wasn’t using the place as his shooting campsite it would have gone to rack and ruin. He pointed me to a room with a dirty mattress on a springy steel bed frame and said we would go to work when it was “dark in halfer” (half an hour). I pulled my sleeping bag and equipment inside the house and checked my camera bag for fresh batteries and film. I sat my Mamiya 7II with an 80 millimeter lens and my Nikon D810 with a 35 millimeter lens on the bed. That's all I would take out for the night, and for the rest of the trip. I checked that I had two charged Profoto B2 flashes and wished my own battery was as charged as they were. It had been a long day and it was going to be a long night.
Soon the sky turned violet and the white of the clouds burnt to flames with the last seconds of sidelight. I went outside and waited next to the work ute - a single cab Toyota Landcruiser with a stainless steel tray that served as a platform for bars and hooks, a custom built structure for hanging up to 50 kangaroo carcasses at a time. A bald-headed young man emerged from the house and I introduced myself. “I’m Dwayne,”he said, and I knew he was Tony’s ‘offsider,’ the labour responsible for picking up the bodies of roos and throwing them on the ute. Tony would later tell me in private that Dwayne was a quiet kid who just hid in his room playing video games, but that “he’s a good worker,” with an Aboriginal woman in Broken Hill, “but they don't take any of the government benefits.” Tony came out of the house with his rifle and with few words, the three of us squeezed into the bench seat of the Landcruiser, me in the middle nursing my two cameras and flash head.
We drove for 20 minutes in a direction that felt arbitrary because of the remoteness. The low green shrubs blurred in the headlights as we bounced over rough terrain. We were no longer on a farm track, but Tony knew where we were and told Dwayne they would check an area they’d worked a few days earlier. When we got there, Tony flicked the switch for the spotlight that was mounted on the roof of the ute. He reached up and grabbed a handle that allowed him to swivel it and a focused beam of light stretched for 500 meters, surveying the landscape for roos.
As Tony panned, we could see several sets of eyes turned into red dots by the spotlight. This was the very reason we were hunting at night; during the day roos sleep under trees, blending into the landscape, but in the darkness large mobs of them graze, making them easy targets for a trained shooter.
From his driver's seat, Tony aimed his rifle across a brace bolted to the door and released. A bullet stung through the air and into the head of a big red kangaroo and we watched as its body dropped, then convulsed, onto the red clay dirt. By the time we drove the 200 meters to the kill, the roo was still. Dwayne jumped out, lifted it up, and then hung it on the side of the ute. The routine went on like this, roo after roo caught in the spotlight and snapped dead into a supply chain of pet food and meat for human consumption. Throughout the night, Tony shot 70 roos, the quota his license allowed for the night.
He missed one large Common Wallaroo, then mumbled, cursing himself. He quickly reloaded, shot again, and hit the creature in the shoulder. The roo staggered 5 meters and then paused, turning to look in our direction instead of fleeing. With another quick reload and a stronger curse, Tony’s third bullet brought the animal down, twitching. It was a messy kill and Tony continued to swear in an angry mumble. He killed each of the other 69 roos that night with a single deadly shot to the head.
When the side racks were full, Tony parked the Toyota on a clay pan - a hard flat area devoid of flora. We all got out of the car and Dwayne started working his way around the rear of the ute, breaking the animals’ arm and leg joints with a round metal bar and slitting their throats so they bled out. I followed Tony as he worked in the same direction, finishing what Dwayne started. With the speed and complacency inherent to repetition, Tony cut off their limbs at the broken joints and flung them on the red clay behind him. Each kangaroo's head and guts met the same fate. The fur carcasses were then stacked firmly on the inside of the ute’s rear racks and the once serene clay pan looked like a battle between kangaroo tribes had taken place, blood, heads and limbs littering the landscape.
We went through this routine about six times throughout the night and I photographed with the rigorous attention of a photojournalist trying to make compositions out of fleeting moments. These attempts took place under the heavy, wet smell of death. The photos I was making felt dramatic and interesting but I knew the photo I really wanted to make was a portrait with my film camera of Tony or Dwayne, holding a dead kangaroo. I imagined this would serve as a metaphor for the colonial domination of Australia, whose national mythology and popular culture are steeped in the narrative of Europeans taming an unforgiving land. I knew I couldn't interrupt the work too much, but if Tony agreed I would get a quick window to make a portrait. Time was money for these men in the dead of night.
As we were driving between kills I asked Tony if I could take portraits of each of them with a kangaroo. I didn't explain to Tony exactly what I wanted to do, but I secured permission. I find it better not to over-explain ideas to subjects in advance when working in a documentary context because it can seem pushy and stifle any spontaneous poses a subject might find. Dwayne was the one who lifted the kangaroos onto the back of the ute, so it made sense to pose him holding the kangaroo, but Tony was the boss, so I needed to appease his authority.
I didn't make the portraits on the next kill. I waited, watched, and a few minutes before midnight a ‘big red’ appeared in the spotlight. Red Kangaroos are the largest of the species and their iconic status made for the strongest symbolism for a portrait. An easy round from Tony’s rifle hit its head and it jolted and wavered before appearing to box itself to the ground.
This was the moment, and as we drove to the body of the fallen animal I asked if I could make the portraits. Tony got out and stood near the roo and when my flash went off in the dark I realized he didn't have his rifle, so I asked him to grab it for a second photo. I was focusing in the dark, making an exposure with my right hand and holding my flash head in the left. I took two photos of Tony and then asked Dwayne to pose for me. When he stood next to the kangaroo I asked, “would you like to pick it up and hold it for the photo?” Without a word Dwayne turned and bent down to the roo, lifted it up in front of him, and stared at me. He did it so quickly I wasn't ready, and as I lifted my camera I fumbled. I was rushing, I knew he couldn't hold the weight of the animal for long. I focused, then picked my flash up with my left hand and released the shutter. Between each exposure I had to sit the flash back on the ground so I could wind the film. I made three photos and as I went to wind my film for a fourth I hit the end of my roll. Dwayne dropped the roo to the ground and it was over.
“Let's go,” said Tony, and Dwayne loaded the big red onto the truck. I was still kneeling on the stoney earth where I made the portraits. I gathered my gear and once again squeezed into the front of the landcruiser between Tony and Dwayne, and we drove into the beam of the headlights.
A great read Adam, vaguely reminds me of home when I was a bit younger, only one or two at a time, but we cut the legs off for the dogs, and the back straps for ourselves.
Sounds like a heck of an experience for anyone.
Really enjoyed this story, I hope it's the first part of a saga. What happened next. Did you throw some tins down after, eat some sensitive kanga parts in bonding ritual. Can't wait to find out.