Photography

Between Now and Nowhere: a conversation with Adam Ferguson 

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A Holden panel van, a caravan and discarded rubbish sit above a dugout home on an opal field near Coober Pedy, South Australia in January, 2017. Photo: Adam Ferguson

Adam Ferguson is an acclaimed photographer whose work focuses on geopolitical conflict and the complex relationship between humans and their environment. His work has appeared in TIME magazine, The New York Times and National Geographic.

If the things we witness end up shaping us, then Adam Ferguson has experienced enough change to comprise numerous human lives. First receiving international recognition for his work photographing the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, during which he survived a fatal helicopter crash, he has since made a career out of his willingness to venture into situations most would flee from.

This propensity for adventure, along with a desire to approach stories with empathy and authenticity, has seen his portfolio develop into an impressively diverse and staggeringly impactful collection of work.

We recently caught up with Adam, over a fragile internet connection that threatened to give out at a moment’s notice, as he drove cross country through the barren deserts of Nevada. 

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An out of control bushfire burns through farmland near Bredbo in NSW, Australia on Feb. 1, 2020. Photo: Adam Ferguson / Time

HAPPY: You’ve gone into hot zones, in more ways than one, over the course of your career. From your time spent in war zones, to photographing political leaders at the centre of ongoing controversy, has there ever been a moment where you’ve asked yourself ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ 

ADAM: Most days in my career I wonder what the hell I’m doing – I think that’s part of my creative process. For much of my work I’m traversing worlds that aren’t necessarily my own. Right now I’m driving through the desert of Nevada, wondering how I ended up here with a camera, just trying to make sense of this place. That’s just my state of being when it comes to photographing, to always be questioning the validity of my work. 

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A group of refugees sit around a fire at the detention centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea on Nov. 9, 2017. Photo: Adam Ferguson / The New York Times

HAPPY: Much of your work fits into what one might call photojournalism – and the role of a journalist is to be a bit of an outsider – so it’s probably not uncommon to feel like the odd man out. 

ADAM: I think it’s important to be the odd man out because the odd man out has perspective, something which people very rarely have about their own context. But of course, when people can see their own worlds with clarity, it makes for an incredibly intimate narrative.

It’s an interesting climate right now, there’s a real reckoning when it comes to representation and who’s allowed to tell which story. So while I think it’s important that people are honoured, and there is fair representation, I don’t believe that people should only be allowed to tell stories that they identify with directly, or have direct ownership over. 

I think some of the best stories throughout history have been made by outsiders. I know I could never have photographed Australia before travelling internationally and building on my perspective. I was too close beforehand.

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Untitled. Photo: Adam Ferguson

HAPPY: I really responded to your Through the Outback story. Your exploration of the outback captured something so familiar, yet curiously alien at the same time. What are your feelings regarding the hidden heart of Australia? 

ADAM: The New York Times story was always a vehicle for me to make work that was personal. I think one of its downfalls was that it pandered to an American, and overly foreign, sense of what the outback is. It walked a tightrope of clichés and tropes, which isn’t how I see my personal work in the bush – which I would like to think is a bit more nuanced and complex.

But the Times piece was a news story for an American newspaper. It existed in a context that I wasn’t totally comfortable with. That said, it gave me the means to go out and make work, some of which will certainly go into the monograph Silent Wind, Roaring Sky that I’m going to publish next year. I think that the work I’ve done since wouldn’t have been possible without that experience.

A young man and woman kiss on the ground at a Bachelor and Spinster Ball at The Rock, in New South Wales, Australia in November, 2019. Photo: Adam Ferguson

HAPPY: You just spoke a little about an American perception of the outback, but it strikes me that Australians romanticise it too. Why do you think that is? Also, many of our great films are set there, speaking of which you mentioned Wake in Fright in that story – do you have an outback horror story of your own? 

ADAM: I don’t have a horror story, but you know, I did live in a regional area around Dubbo until I was 12. My grandparents grew up in a farming community, Nan was from the land. There was a family mythology that I felt was intrinsic to my story, something that I wanted to understand. I think that led me to the interior of the country. 

To answer the first part of your question, so much of Australia’s national identity, and a lot of the narrative that exists in popular culture has focused on the outback. But Australia isn’t the outback, it’s a multicultural country where the majority of the population live on the east coast between Brisbane and Melbourne. Yet we still have this thing that, despite being fascinated by it, we don’t understand. 

In my work, which is a pretty dark and stark take, I look at the degradation of the landscape, climate change, and the desecration of Indigenous land and culture. I want to update the mythology that is infused with romantic notions of ‘the bush’. In many ways, the work is about colonial legacy.

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A pile of harvested almonds sits covered on an almond farm near the Murray River in Robinvale, Victoria, Australia. Photo: Adam Ferguson

HAPPY: We are first and foremost a music publication, and I’m curious how you have found working with musicians in comparison to other subjects. Are they the fiery souls of narcissism and ego they are so often portrayed as? 

ADAM: I’m trying to gather my experience of musicians [laughs]. Ok, who have I photographed? Mainly rappers in America – Meek Mill, Nicki Minaj – as far as musicians with a bigger profile that’d be it. At least in an American context, in the rap world, the narcissism is beyond epic. The gatekeepers, the handlers, there are so many people around them vying for a piece of the financial fortune. Very little self awareness, or care for anyone else for that matter. So yeah, pretty damning – at least based on my small sample size [laughs]

HAPPY: Is there any way that you have either used music in your work, or a way that music has informed your process? I’m thinking of setting a mood during a shoot, or would that work against what you are trying to achieve? 

ADAM: I have used music against photographs when I present slide shows publicly. But, more significantly, music inspires a lot of my photography. I tend to listen to music that feeds into the narrative of what I’m photographing. So when I’m traveling in the bush I like to listen to Midnight Oil. But I don’t really listen to Midnight Oil unless I’m travelling in the bush [laughs]. Travelling around America right now I’m listening to a lot of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and Gillian Welch. I like my country folk.

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Nicki Minaj, T Mag The Greats Party, Met Breuer, New York, USA. Photo: Adam Ferguson

HAPPY: I wanted to ask you a little bit about the pandemic, specifically how it has affected your process and profession. 

ADAM: A lot of my work has focused on international issues historically, and the pandemic halted international travel. So last year was probably my worst as a photographer, as far as how much money I made [laughs]

What I actually did in the second half of last year was buy a pick up truck and drive across America. I felt like I had to do that – I was kind of dying inside. I wasn’t making any money, the work wasn’t coming, so I just went out and made my own work. Now America has kind of opened back up again. I’m fully vaccinated and a lot of commercial shoots are happening again. It feels like everything is coming back to life. 

HAPPY: I noticed that you’ve launched a Substack, and wanted to ask you how running something so constant has affected your life. It strikes me that the non-stop social media feed could have a profound effect on the work of a photographer, including the need to stay relevant and visible. 

ADAM: It’s another platform for me to be an author and tell stories, and that’s just the world we live in regardless of whether you’re a photographer or muso. The world has changed a lot in the last few years, and there’s been a real de-aggregation in terms of power in music, fashion, and the arts. There are so many pathways to having a significant voice, and regardless of whether you are established or not, you have to be on social media, or at least the internet in some capacity. 

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The funeral for deceased Navajo Native American, Gilbert Yazzie, at the Sheep Springs Community Cemetery in New Mexico on Nov. 27, 2020. Photo: Adam Ferguson / The New York Times

My mentors produced assignments for magazines like TIME and National Geographic which were published, and then sometimes resold or exhibited, but that kind of photojournalist work just isn’t really there anymore.

I’m diverging here, you asked me about Substack. What I’m learning from this experience is how to better articulate my process, and I feel like it’s making me a better practitioner. I’ve always intellectualised social media as a platform to speak from, but Substack has made me realise it’s not just that. It’s about cultivating your own community of colleagues and people that want to engage, and that’s been surprising. I imagine it’s like running a small-town newspaper from back in the day – but it’s for people who want to learn about my practice as a photographer. It’s been exciting and rewarding in ways that I never anticipated it would be 

HAPPY: I imagine it would be an incredible resource for someone that is trying to find their feet as a photographer. 

ADAM: I hope so. The world has changed over the last two years, especially in the American context, with MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and then the pandemic. I’ve watched my industry and others get flipped on their heads. There’s been this rapid diversification, there’s been this huge push of people of colour into creative spaces, so all of sudden, after working for 20 years I kind of feel redundant. I’m an old white guy so who needs my voice anymore, you know what I mean? 

Part of the Substack mission was to be like, well I can sit down and be bitter about it, like I watched some of my mentors do when people started shooting digital cameras instead of analogue ones, or I can embrace the now and give up what I know. How can I say this without sounding pretentious… look I don’t know Al, but already the process of sharing my story is having a positive impact on my career, and it’s empowering. I’m not just hiding behind a camera and pictures. I’ve always thought the highest compliment isn’t awards or accolades, it’s being influential. That seems much more satisfying. So I’m happy to share whatever I have with anyone who is interested. 

Boko Haram strapped suicide bombs to them. Somehow these teenage girls survived. Photo: Adam Ferguson / The New York Times

HAPPY: Speaking of which, do you have a nugget of wisdom that you would like to share with others that are trying to break into the industry? 

ADAM: I think if I could see myself at 20 I would say don’t over consider what everyone else is doing, don’t try and fit into the status quo. I was insecure and did that for years. Take it all in, then take a lot of risks with your art form. The best work comes from acknowledging everything that has been done before you, and looking forward with that knowledge. Go for failure, more than success, because that’s the only way you’ll learn and it’s the only way you’ll do something that will stand the test of time. 

HAPPY: Alright, thanks so much Adam. One final question before I leave you to the highway: what makes you happy? 

ADAM: My family in the north-east coast of NSW. As a younger man, I desperately wanted to leave and have an adventure, but as I get older I just want to come home. What makes me happy is family and connection, more than work. 

HAPPY: And maybe a margarita in Mexico every once in a while? 

ADAM: That definitely helps [laughs]. That’s my second happy place.

 

Interview by Alastair Cairns
All images courtesy of Adam Ferguson

Find out more about Adam’s work on his websiteSilent Wind, Roaring Sky is due for release in 2022.