When a Photograph Fits Into the Story You Want to Tell

A group of day drinkers leads to a solitary portrait in an Australian bush town.

When I met Isla Hughes, she was drinking a green Midori cocktail in the front of the Family Hotel in Tibooburra with a girlfriend, Isla Lawson, and two young jackaroos. The four of them were tipsy, and when they spotted me lingering with a camera on the balcony, they asked if I would take their photo. 

I remember making one image to appease them—they posed with peace signs, tongues out, the jackaroos with their wraparound sunglasses on. There was a photo here, I knew it, but it wasn’t this drunken photo in front of the hotel. Like many young people living in the Australian outback, Isla Hughes had chosen a life on the land instead of moving to a city; she worked as a governess on a cattle station 600km away.

I asked the Islas if I could make a formal portrait of each of them somewhere quieter. Even though I didn’t feel drawn to photographing the jackaroos in their loud polo shirts, I invited them along to appear less threatening. I was drawn to the women because their clothes were contemporary but felt neutral, modern, and timeless.

My eyes darted around, trying to find a scene to pose them in. We walked behind the pub where the harsh afternoon sun filled a car park overgrown with weeds. I liked this space because it had the signifiers of colonial Australia: corrugated iron roofs and a wobbly fence. It didn’t look like 2017—it could have been 1980 or 1940—except Isla Hughes was still holding a jug of green Midori, and she was wearing a green wristband from the previous night’s rodeo.

In my project about the Australian bush, I am attempting to make images that reference the past but are positioned in the present. I often choose a classical composition, as I have done in this photograph. I want the photo to feel like it’s a historical record, anthropologic, and by using this visual language, I position my photographs within the centuries of photography before them.

I was drawn to Isla Hughes because she epitomized the youth that works in the bush. But it was the time in her life that I was drawn to the most. She was 19, and I could see a loss of innocence in her eyes, an intensity that comes from leaving home and working on the land. I asked Isla to stand and explained that she should look at me with a serious expression instead of smiling. “Like a classical painting,” I said. Isla lifted her jug of Midori unprompted and held it in front of her belly. She crossed her legs and gazed straight through my camera. I didn’t need to say anything else. She posed, perfect and as she is, under a blaring sun.