Photography by JM Smith
On 2 August 2022, Pete Chambers and I collaborated in a combined SALA Festival event – my photos and his music. The theme was “Listen to the Earth,” taken from the name of Pete’s song, which you can download from Bandcamp here https://saltypetechambers.bandcamp.com/track/listen-to-the-earth
My landscape photos are all about listening to the earth, to really see what is in front of you, to notice and to appreciate. My spoken word piece I read at the SALA event explains what I mean by listening to the earth.
Below are the photos and narrative from the exhibition. I hope you enjoy them. Some prints are still available for purchase. Please contact me if you would like to buy one. They are professionally printed and mounted on foamcore board so they are ready to frame or they can be hung without a frame. The sizes vary but most are around the A3 size and are $50.
The Fleurieu; our home
When you drive over the hills towards Myponga Beach you must wonder where you’re going. There are rolling paddocks, cows and barely any trees. It’s a nondescript road. Until you reach the crest and the great wide vista opens out over the sparkling blue Gulf Saint Vincent. Is this our gulf? Our waters? They look different from this elevation to those beside the city where the coast stretches flat and uninteresting.
Second Valley was too crowded so we headed to Myponga Beach, as we guessed it would be missed by the summer holiday crowds. We were not wrong. A half a dozen groups were on the beach, the water was glassy and clear, a yacht was moored in the bay. As Pete and the kids kayaked and the adults swam, I roamed with my camera. It was one of those days when suddenly there is a shot in everything. Pete finally called me into the water for a snorkel. I’m terrified of deep water, but he held my hand as we snorkelled around the little reef on the northern side of the cove. There was an underwater garden of sea grass and kelp and colourful fish hiding in the rocks. I have no underwater camera gear (and was too occupied looking for sharks in any event) so the underwater garden’s secrets were not captured. Little did the couple in the boat, or the man with the umbrella, in the images above, know what they were floating above.
If you come from South Australia, you call it Salvation Jane. In the Eastern States it’s Patterson’s Curse. It’s an indication of how desperate our farmers get for rain that anything so poisonous to stock could have the word “salvation” in its name. It’s a weed, a pest, and a very pretty sight in the spring. It killed one of my ponies and I still remember my anger at the bloody stuff after I had poor old Fairy Floss put down. After the vet left, I took a mattock into the paddock and hacked wildly at the Salvation Jane until I was exhausted, all the time swearing at the fools who had introduced it to this fragile land in the first place. Of course, I was the fool as I had let it grow.
This is Moana Beach at sunset, in winter, at the mouth of Pedler’s Creek. Under the waves lies the wreck of the Nashwauk, which ran aground here on 13th of May 1855, on its way to Port Adelaide from Liverpool, England. It had a hold full of cargo and 300 Irish immigrant girls on board. All passengers and crew were rescued from the foundering ship. The Nashwauk though could not be saved and eventually broke up on the sandbank. The cargo and hold were later sold at auction on the beach. It was said that Captain Archibald McIntyre was so mortified by his clumsy navigation which caused the shipwreck that he exited this world a month later. When I walk here I can’t help but think about those dramatic events and also what the Kaurna people, who lived in the Sandhills just behind, would have thought about the whole schmozzle. I have found bits of old crockery on the beach here. Are they artefacts from the wreck?
This patch of earth on Johnston Road, McLaren Vale, was earmarked as a development site for more housing. Incensed locals, already grieving the loss of so much prime agricultural and viticultural land subsumed under the city fringe, successfully lobbied the South Australian government to give the proposal the thumbs down. Grain continues to grow here, while the city spreads out like spilt milk along the coast instead.
These images were taken after visits to my mother when she resided in a nursing home in Goolwa. I would visit her every weekend and take my camera with me. Going for a walk in the sunset was my reward for being the dutiful daughter.
This is Scott Conservation Park, a small park near Currency Creek. I had never heard of it until recently when I went for a walk there with a friend. It’s hidden away in the back blocks of the Fleurieu, tucked between cleared paddocks, a little oasis of native vegetation, full of orchids and correas and other gem-like flowers, as well as thick stands of yucca and South Australian blue gums lousy with Koalas. [This photo is larger than the others at 375 mm x 575 mm and framed. It’s $150.]
From 2015 to 2019 I was a lawyer at the Crown Solicitor’s Office. I was lucky enough to work in the Native Title team and to attend two trials on country, when the Federal Court took evidence from the claimants in situ, on the claim area. The first shot, above, was taken when the convoy of court staff, lawyers, claimants, and anthropologists pulled over on the road to Parachilna, with one of the observers shielding herself from the harsh sun of the outback with an umbrella. The two shots, below, are Oodnadatta, where each evening I was there I explored this unique outback town. The light in the desert, especially at either end of the day, is something magical.
I was in Oodnadatta for work, staying at the legendary Transcontinental Hotel. Each evening I explored this unique outback town. The light in the desert, especially at either end of the day, is something magical.
In contrast is this iPhone shot taken from the lunch room of 45 Pirie St, at the Crown Solicitor’s Office. The bleakness of the architecture and the figure cornered in a little triangle of sunlight below completely summed up how I felt that day. How I hated being cooped up in an office in the city.
Snowy Mountains January 2000
I was invited to join a friend in Jindabyne on his days off between fighting fires in the Snowy Mountains National Park. It was January 2020 and large swathes of Australia were on fire. The Snowies had just seen a huge inferno rip through the park and my friend, a professional firefighter, and his team had been called down to assist. It had started raining, dampening the fire, and causing the teams to stand downed giving them spare time.
Not one to refuse an adventure, I jumped in my ute and drove the 1600 km from Adelaide to Jindabyne. At Tumut I took the Snowy Mountains Highway, noting the sign which said, “road open.” What I didn’t know was it should have read “Road only just open.” I climbed the mountain range as night fell. There were no cars at all. Thick smoke settled in the valleys, cutting out any hope of mobile phone coverage and slowing my progress. I drove past ember bright forests, some logs on the roadside still alight. Occasionally a truck passed me in the opposite direction. I drove in the middle of the road to avoid the hundreds of displaced animals looking for food or drinking runoff. I joked later that I played wombat dodge-ems, but there in that isolated dark wilderness, I was afraid. After two hours I arrived at Adaminaby, a hamlet with a couple of lights on. My phone worked and I called my friend, who checked the online fire maps to reassure me that there were no fires going in my direction. It wasn’t too much further to Jindabyne. He told me I was probably the first car through after the road was opened.
This blue photo was taken from Mount Kosciuszko looking across the mountains when smoke was still heavy in the air, taken the following day during the Thredbo Blues Festival. The festival ticket gave me access to the chair lift to the top of the mountain. Some of the best blues musicians in Australia played at that festival while fires were still burning.
Beneath Lake Jindabyne is the old town, flooded when the dam was finished in the 1960s as part of the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme. My Uncle Gordon Slater was one of the thousands of immigrant workers who came to Australia to work on this scheme in the fifties. He was escaping the horrors of his youth during the war in England, when his sister, father and grandfather were lost in the most awful series of tragedies. Uncle Gordon loved Australia and eventually settled in SA after marrying a farmer’s daughter, my Aunty Dawn. He took his bride home to Draycott-in-the-Clay to meet his mother Alice and his remaining sister, my mother, Beryl, and convinced them to move with him to a better place, a land of light and promise, where the winters were mild and memories of the war so much further away.
I drove to Cooma across the Monaro plateau, with rain clouds gathering, providing spectacular evening light. Poplars line the road in this shot but on the horizon are stands of dead Ribbon Gums, giant skeletal scarecrows among the outcrops of granite boulders scattered across the plain. The cause of the dieback? You guessed it: climate change
On the way back to Adelaide, I drove the way I came, but in daylight. The devastation was shocking. Forests destroyed, as if a bomb had been dropped. Mountain huts a tangled wreck of iron, and road signs melted where they stood. To further convince me of the reality of climate change, I saw countless semis carting hay in convoys, many of them displaying banners to show the hay was donated for farms suffering from drought by Farm Aid. Then, as I crossed the Hay Plains, I drove for hours through a wild and disgusting dust storm.
These shots were taken during my 340 km cycling adventure in Cambodia in 2018, which included exploring a floating village on the great Tonle Sap Lake, a remarkable place where I was simultaneously appalled by the poverty and amazed at its beauty.
Those who lived in the village on the river lived in crowded conditions in wooden houses built on stilts above the rise and fall of the river. The main industry in the village other than fishing is the production of fish sauce, a process that involves fermentation and a terrible smell. Life expectancy here is extremely low with diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and dysentery endemic. I jumped on a converted fishing boat and followed the river into the lake where shapes were silhouetted on the horizon against the setting sun. As the boat got closer, I could see that these were floating houses gathered into a little village in the middle of the lake. There was a splash. A dog had leapt off the front porch of one of these houses and into the water – he was playing fetch with his master.
Life on these houseboats seemed better than life in the terrestrial village (pictured above), away from foetid muddy water and fish fermenting stench. As one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world, Tonle Sap is designated a biosphere reserve by UNESCO. Its unique biodiversity is under threat from deforestation, dam development upstream in China and climate change.
After we had completed our bike ride I ventured to the coast where I caught a ferry to the island of Koh Rong Samloen. On the boat I chatted to two Buddhist monks who were escaping the heat of Phenom Penh. The boat stopped in a cove so we could swim. The two young men took off their outer robes and leapt into the water. I put aside my fear of deep water and followed suit, everyone laughing joyfully. They later dried their swimming robes by tying them to the back of the ferry where they fluttered colourfully like flags. This shot of one of the monks, captures him hunting for seashells on the island’s empty white beach.
These three shots were taken during the last big drought on a drive home from Sydney in 2019. In Dundedoo I found these three shedding contractors having end of the day drinks in the pub. They had knocked off work early as jobs were thin. Farmers have no money spare to pay for sheds when they’re paying for feed.
In Mendooran, all the talk was about the drought in the front bar of the pub. One bright spark said to me “It’s so dry that when I milked the cow, all I got was powdered milk!”
Soon after Pete and I met, he took me out for a sail on his beloved Ranger. Pete obviously had the charm machine on full throttle, as within half an hour he’d moored and despite the cool weather invited me to skinny dip. It didn’t go quite as he planned. Pete didn’t know about my fear of deep water, and after jumping in himself, his head emerged from a deep dive to see me hanging in a semi foetal position, naked, off the back of the boat, my feet curled with cramp around the metal ladder steps and my white arse skimming the water as Ranger pivoted gracefully on her anchor line. I was screaming out “Pete, my feet! My feet!”
“Just jump in” he yelled.
“I can’t! My feet, My feet!” I screamed. He prised my feet off the ladder and I smashed into his arms, pushing him under the water, almost drowning him.
The “Unfurled” image was taken shortly after Pete heaved me up back on to Ranger, when I was sitting, now calm and clad, with a hot cuppa in one hand and my camera reassuringly in the other.
Sea, Sky, Forest and Shadow
In this slideshow are some more of my favourite images. This earth is a wonderful place.
The funny thing about knowing Anthony was going to die was that it concentrated the joy in our lives into intensely sweet lollies of experience, where happiness reared its lovely head despite itself. I took this shot of a spider’s web on the fence of the dog yard late in March that year. Anth was reading in his sickbed, and I was sitting on the doorstep, leaning against the frame, watching the sun get lower in the sky with the shadow of the hill slowly advancing towards the house. It was perfectly quiet. I realised, with some surprise, that I was happy. Then I noticed the web illuminated in the evening light, contrasted against the shadow of the hill behind. I grabbed my camera, wanting to record this most perfect metaphor. The spider’s web was intricate and complicated and beautiful, highlighted by the setting sun, about to be overcome by the steadily approaching shadow. But it was only because of that approaching darkness that I could properly see the web. Life was like the web; light was unable to be seen without darkness, happiness could not be truly appreciated without sadness and pain. The Ying and the Yang, good and evil, light and dark; here it was in the spider web.