Documenting Numurkah

Xmas decorations, Numurkah

I’m not sure why I am attracted to the comical, the whimsical, but I am. For my “Village” project, a documentary of villages around the world, I wanted to photograph a town in the outback of Australia. A country town big enough to be communally self-sufficient, but with a population small enough for everyone to know their fellow townspeople. I mentioned this one day in conversation with an acquaintance of mine in Melbourne, who offered to take me to Numurkah — the town she grew up in, where her mother and grandmother still lived.

The very first time I went to Numurkah, I noticed as we drove into town a man standing on the lawn in front of his house, drinking a can of beer. The garden around him was resplendent with Christmas lights, decorations and cut-out animals. Dressed in T-shirt, shorts and cap, he looked entirely incongruous and, yet, somehow just right in this setting.

We stopped and I asked if I could take his picture. He happily posed among the reindeer, and then invited me to return the following year when he assured me he would have an even better display. I decided then and there that this was the town I wanted to document.

The local newspaper, The Numurkah Leader, interviewed me. I explained what I wanted to do and gave my contact details. I received many phone calls and e-mails from the people of Numurkah telling me of events that I might be interested in photographing — weddings, births, baptisms, hens’ nights. I returned all calls and attended as many events as possible. Even if I didn’t get photographs, it was important for them to get to know me and me to know them. At one stage, I was on standby for four births; I missed two and just made it to the other two.

When I was in Numurkah, I stayed at the local pub and had a room above the bar with a view down onto the lane, where amorous couples would meet and young men would brawl after a night of drinking. On a Friday night it was impossible to sleep because of the noise coming from the bar so I would go down and join the townsfolk as they celebrated the end of a working week.

One night I was leaning on the bar chatting to a farmer about some photographs I had taken of his family. At one point in the conversation he looked up and said, “Excuse me,” walked round to the other side of the bar and punched a man hard enough to make him fall over. He then came back to continue our conversation.

With medical services closing down, young people leaving to get work in the cities and farmers struggling with the drought, it is difficult for the town to keep surviving. Yet for all of this, over the eight months I was in Numurkah, the townsfolk were friendly and invited me into their homes to document their lives.