03 January 2014

Interview with Ken Duncan, author of Life's A Journey - The Adventure Continues

Australian photographer and author Ken Duncan took time out from his busy schedule recently to join me on the phone from his home north of Sydney.

Author & Photographer, Ken Duncan
Thanks so much for your time today Ken, it’s an honour to chat with you and I thoroughly enjoyed your new book Life's a Journey - The Adventure Continues.
Did you read it or just look at the pictures? (laughs all round).

I read every word.
Oh, (laughs) you must be the first one! 

How has it been received?
Really great.  It’s a sequel to an earlier book called Life’s a Journey.  I received a letter from a farmer who lost crops on the Murray River and the bank foreclosed on him.  He intended to commit suicide but picked up that earlier book from his coffee table and started to read it.  He told me ‘if Ken can make it, I can make it.’ He got another chance at life and hearing that makes the hard work all worthwhile.

Your work is instantly recognisable and is displayed everywhere from corporate offices to private homes.  Did you ever believe you would become a household name in Australian photography?
No, I never thought of it.  It still amazes me to this day that anyone would even have a clue what I’m doing.  My mission has been to bring the beauty of creation to people’s homes and workplaces.  There’s so much stress, (with work and social pressures) and I think it’s important to sit back and reflect on the bigger picture from time to time.

For those who may not have read your book yet, how did you get into the art of photography?
At 16 I went on a camp and learned about black and white photography.  I took some photos, came back, processed the film and watched - mesmerised - as my first image magically appeared in the tray.  I suddenly realised: wow, you can tell a story!  This was soon to the detriment of everything around me and from then on you couldn’t separate me from my camera. 

I then left school, and began working in commercial photography. I was chasing the dream, you know: money, house, wife and children. I learned that money didn’t make me happy and I felt there must be more to life than what was happening.

It was then that I found out about a panoramic camera and decided to find the meaning to life.  My camera was my diary and I thought it would only take about 3 months (laughs).  Some of those stories are in the first book: Life's an Adventure: The First Twenty-Five Years, including the story of a friend who died in my arms.  When his spirit left his body, I really felt that moment.  I didn’t believe in a creator at that time so that was a real turning point in my life.  I found meaning, realising we’re only here on earth for a minimal time.  Our bodies are just fertiliser for earth and the only thing that is eternal is your spirit.

That’s why I love hanging out with indigenous people because they would find it mystifying that a person doesn’t believe in the spiritual realm. They expect that.

I really loved the story in your book where you set up on a beach early in the morning to photograph the sunrise and a woman started doing Yoga right in the middle of the shot.  You were frustrated and annoyed and decided to move, and then captured the most amazing photograph of spray from the ocean in which you can see the image of an angel.  That story really spoke to me because it’s a personal lesson I need to learn, about patience and control.
Yes, it’s kind of a parable (laughs).  God has a sense of humour and I’m an idiot sometimes.  We all allow this anger thing to rise up when things aren’t the way we want them.  God has a much bigger picture than we have, and often if we’re willing to let go, and be out of control, then life becomes very exciting.  I have a lot of encounters in life, and don’t even know why I’m having them.

It’s the same for me in photography; I’m constantly humbled.  Sometimes I might be somewhere thinking: ‘oh, this is boring’, but then I let go and find out what sort of shot I’m there for.  All of a sudden, this picture - bigger than you could ever imagine - emerges.  We only have small pieces of the jigsaw and you don’t get the pieces until you’re ready to get them. 

I have a question from a Carpe Librum follower and photographer: do you see the final image in your head before you snap?  Sometimes I see the picture, before I’ve taken it.  One day I’ll just find it there in front of me; as if I’ve foreseen it.  There’s a certain picture that I still haven’t found, it’s a willow tree in a valley with a beautiful stream running by. I haven’t seen it yet, but I know I will.

You need to learn patience.  If you don’t learn patience you’ll end up a patient (jokes).  Photos are gifts given to those people prepared to spend time in a place, and relate and connect to a place.  Sometimes I might go somewhere and be talking to people and not bothering with photos, then all of a sudden I see something.  Other times I might be there to help someone, a greater purpose than taking photographs.

I’m glad I have the job I have, forced to spend time in God’s nature.  I have conversations with God, with time to talk and file things.  It’s a time to reflect. 

Don’t try to force it to grow.  It will grow in its own time if it’s meant to. 

Here Ken related a story that is in his new book: Life's a Journey - The Adventure Continues.  He wrote a letter to a well-known and wealthy Australian after he died, went to the other side and said there was nothing there.  Read his book for the complete story, it’s quite an eye-opener.

Ken, it’s clear that your faith has been a very important part of your life, is this the first time you’ve shared this publicly?  How have readers and fans of your work responded to this?
No it’s not the first time, I mentioned it in Life's an Adventure: The First Twenty-Five Years, and many people have been on the journey with me for a while. It would be very easy for me to put out another book of ‘pretty pictures,’ but there are people out there who are hurting and need hope and there are also things we need to deal with in our nation.  I believe I’m there to serve people, not myself, so I have a bit of a go at politicians etc as well as giving an account of my life. 

We all have our own troubles, but it’s about what can we do with what we’ve been given (our gift) to help others.

You certainly tackle the big topics: indigenous Australians, the environment, global warming…
Yes, I enjoy spending more time with indigenous people, working with kids and giving them access to technology we take for granted. Photography is storytelling, showing people how they can tell their story – and everyone has a story.

I’m not a natural writer though, I need to sit myself in a room and I’m not allowed to leave until I’ve done one story (laughs). When I was told that I needed to write the sequel to the first book, I thought ‘oh, no’ but I really enjoyed it in the end.

It’s good to have a faith. My job is closely linked to weather and the environment, and what they’re talking about now is politics; it’s all out of control. While the debate is going on, people need to look at the documentation that attaches to global warming or climate change.  Bureaucrats have reams and reams of documentation to read, so they only read the executive brief. 

As photographers we lost rights in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.  It was 360 pgs long, and in the small print was ‘no commercial activities in National Parks’ so we lost our rights to take photos. When people use the word ‘environment’ it’s often used to disguise other things. There is clear felling going on in forests in Tasmania, plastic in the oceans; deal with it now!

If you breathe the air in Beijing it’s the equivalent of smoking 20 packets of smokes a day! We know there are alternative energy supplies out there.  I’m just trying to stir things up, which might make me a target.  When it’s easier to take photographs in China than in Australia - the country of the free - that’s a major warning bell.  I believe the new generation should have same freedom I had.

I didn’t realise that you were the artist behind Midnight Oil’s iconic album cover from Diesel or Dust.  How did that happen, did they approach you for that particular photograph, or did they ask you to create something for their cover?
Oh, I just caught up with Peter Garrett other day.  Their manager, Gary, is a friend of mine so I knew about the Oils when I was living in Mona Vale.  At age 30 I went walkabout and didn’t keep in touch with anybody, I just went bush.  I came back 4 years later, and Gary asked what I’d been up to.  I’d been learning about panoramic shots and he said he was doing an album for Midnight Oil called Diesel & Dust and could he look at some of my shots.  He saw that one and immediately wanted it.
Midnight Oil's album cover
Diesel & Dust, featuring
Ken Duncan's photograph
of Burra Homestead

The building from that photograph (Burra Homestead) is an icon of SA, and we’re raising funds to support its restoration (the roof needs shoring up and the walls need repair).  We put out a new print of the cottage to raise funds and we’ve raised over $3,000 so far.

The reason I love [tumbled down or abandoned buildings] is that they beckon; they are full of forgotten dreams.  It makes you wonder: ‘what were the hopes and dreams of the people who lived there, who were they?  

Midnight Oil also asked me to do some band shots, and to be honest, I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time.  As a result, the work was very different, and won a lot of awards.

Where else have your images been used?
They’ve been used for the Sydney Olympics, by Tourism Australia, QANTAS and others. Movie makers even use my books for finding locations (laughs).  I avoid the obvious and I always look for hidden treasures.  I love shooting in other parts of the world, but I’m really enjoying Australia, and unfolding the layers within our own nature.

I don’t permit the use of my images for anything related to alcohol or cigarettes, or anything that might be detrimental to people.

Digital or film?
Both.  I still shoot film; I shoot digital like I shoot film.  The new generation think my photos are Photoshopped, but if you get the shot right, you won’t need Photoshop.  I come from a film background where exposure is critical, so I approach digital the same way. You need the histogram in the right place to give you the best amount of dynamic range.  If people learn how to read a histogram correctly and change their exposure accordingly, then there is very little Photoshop required. 

I think there should be a separation in photography between photo realism, and photo illustration. Neither is better than the other and I really admire some people who are doing photo illustration to create some beautiful pictures. But personally, I want to wait for the magical moment.

To me, the photograph Sunbaker (1937 black-and-white) by Max Dupain is a timeless representation of Australia.
I love that shot too, and I loved Max.  He had a great body of work.  However, if I did now what Max did then, I’d be arrested.  Everything is so commercialised (like the Olympic Games), everything is ‘owned’ and you need different permits for different places.  As a result, there won’t be a lot of shots in the future showing what life was really like.

Sunbaker (1937)
by Max Dupain
I love collecting photography, here are some of the photographers I admire:

Peter Jarver who has done a lot of work with thunder and lightning,

Richard Woldendorp who does amazing aerial photography

Peter Dombrovskis who did some great work documenting nature and life.

Members of the general public are taking more photographs than ever now with the use of smart phones. Do you think this clutters up the ‘sphere’ with low-grade shots or are you happy about this new trend?
Yes, people are taking lots more photos, but we need to slow down sometimes and stop the waterfall, as very little done is being done with them [the photos].  I love Facebook and all these different things but people need to leave a long-term record. 

You need to sort through your photos, then put some into a book or album so that when you pass on, you can share the little wisdom that you’ve learned.  If you don’t, and you just leave behind a hard drive full of photos, how will anyone know who you were, or who the other people are?

I don’t understand why people don’t have hanging tracks in their house; why stick holes in your wall?  My house has hanging track all through it, and lighting.  I hang my mate’s work and different people I love and admire.  I love putting their pics around, and then think: ‘I wish I’d taken that’. 

You teach as well don’t you?
Yes, I love teaching photography.  When I’m teaching I don’t want to change a person’s ‘eye’, but give them the craft and the skills to capture what they see.

New generations see what’s been done before and then set out to replicate it.  I say: ‘find your own story, your own style’, and stop copying others. 

What are you reading at the moment?
I love reading and I read different things for different purposes.  Naturally I love to read the Bible, but I read many other books as well.  I even read legislation to see what the politicians are up to.  Mostly I read for relaxation and love all genres.  I also like all types of music; you should see my iPod!

After discussing Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, I then ask Ken what's next?  Are you working on anything else at the moment?
I’m helping my indigenous friends build an enormous cross in the middle of Australia. We’ve got permission from the Central Lands Council to do it and the community are doing some paintings to help raise funds.  If anyone would like to make a donation, they can go to 
walkawhile.org.au. It is going to cost $1.2M to create a road up Memory Mountain to erect this cross. The view from the top is absolutely breathtaking; you’re completely surrounded by the beauty of nature and you can’t see any signs of humanity.

Reconciliation is not a policy: it is people learning to walk together, and creative arts is the best way to go about it.

Anything else you’d like to mention?
Thanks for allowing me to be who I am, travelling on the journey with me.  Be comfortable with who you are, then nothing anyone says will be able to shake it, if it is real.  I’m always connecting with all sorts of different people (you’re my style of person) and that’s what makes the world so beautiful - the differences.

Thank you so much to the talented and wonderful Ken Duncan for your time here today.

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