It’s important for me to recognise and thank everyone who contributed to this exhibition. The artists usually get all the attention but in reality so much work happens long before anything gets hung on the walls. The process of literally hanging these images on the walls was a family affair, with my wife and her parents making the two hour drive in cars loaded up with frames, tools and copies of my book. They hung around and unpacked the frames, folded the bubble-wrap and helped drop the framing wire onto each of the hanging nails. I didn't realise how much I needed that extra help until I had it.
Shellie, my wife, not only did the hours behind the wheel on half-a-dozen trips to Ballarat but did all the hard yards on the artwork you see around the frames. She took care of the posters, signage and captions - plus getting them properly mounted and fastened to the walls. You don’t realise how much work these extra details are, until you find yourself having to push back client deadlines to sit there trimming up bits of foam core till 11 at night. Shellie also worked tirelessly behind the scenes for weeks while I was trying to curate and redesign the collection. She made me yummy meals and took the load off some of my other professional duties so I could put in the hours needed to sort out technical and conceptual matters.
I even managed to squeeze out a one-off companion book of bird photos for this event, thanks to the fact that Shellie stepped in to help keep my life from spinning out of control. Shellie and I had to put another major project of ours on hold for several months, but she was willing to do that to help make this exhibition a success.
The day we loaded our car with the entire collection of 33" square prints was a little bit stressful. They're not cheap to print and frame at such a high standard and we didn't want to damage a single one. Indeed the process to be standing at Prism Imaging in Flemington and pondering the tetris manoeuvers to get them in the car was itself the end point of a very long journey. These guys have been printing my work for over two decades and while the shop is very very small their generosity is bigger than a tardis. I had visited the store three times to talk them about framing options and printing media before the final combination was locked in. Even then a post-printing change of plans threw a spanner in the works yet they found a way to move forward regardless, without breaking our deadline. The advice from Gary and his team was spot on and invaluable, and when I stand next to one of these finished prints the remarkable detail and finish does justice to the cameras and our photographic expression.
Sorting out a venue can be a major project all of its own, but we got lucky. The Mitchell Harris Wine Bar, where our exhibition is being held, is an absolute gem - stepping up those stairs to see the big beautiful space filled with daylight and our stunning images across the four walls was one of my favourite moments in the entire process. Over the past decade this beautiful old building has been rescued and become a home for some gorgeous wines and entertainment spaces. It's also home to lots of great events not the least which being "Feathers of the Dragon". It takes a certain kind of person to take on the responsibility of on old building like this, and thankfully the Mitchells and the Harris' have done a wonderful job of it.
I was very lucky that I happened to know about the wine bar and knew what was possible in that upstairs space, but it also took a lot of work from Sharon at Panasonic to see it through to reality and close the deal. Between us we had to work out a lot of fine details that neither of us anticipated. Sharon might well have predicted some of them of course, she’s a bit more skilled at these things than me. My job was essentially to get photos on the walls, Sharon’s was to get the venue locked in and fill the room with people for two months.
She and Diya pushed out to a list of magazines, radio and TV stations to make sure everyone knew about the exhibition. Diya crafted media releases and Sharon crafted a sponsorship deal for the BIFB. This stuff is hard graft, it’s old fashioned shoulder to the wheel stuff trying to poke media people until they pick up the release and look it over. Just to get so much as two inches of column space in a newspaper can often take a week of work for someone like Diya behind the scenes.
(Mitchell Harris Wine Bar)
All of these contributions assume that we have a collection of images worth putting together into a show. In order for that to happen the photographers need to get resourced and that is often the biggest hurdle. Scott at Panasonic accepted the challenge of trying to secure funding for this idea. I have pitched Scott plenty of ideas over the years and he’s even said yes to a few of them. This one was tricky because the vision was elaborate and expensive and ultimately creates a lot of work for people inside Panasonic. He said YES to the first stage without knowing for sure how to get the second stage over the line. Neither myself nor Ray would have been able to make the trip to Bhutan and photograph without Scott and Panasonic making that initial commitment.
It’s not as though we were all going to be leaving Australia on business class tickets, drinking sparkling wines and staying in fancy hotels: but the cost of sending a team of Australians to the Himalayas to photograph for 8 days is genuinely significant and certainly beyond my means. Getting a budget for this shoot was a big deal for me. Scott then had to go into bat for us a second time to get a budget for the exhibition and venue costs. There are days I make his job somewhat challenging. These images are not being sold to the public but will be used for other events in the future. My vision was to create an experience that can move to other cities and other venues and hopefully touch the lives and imagination of a great many people.
Once we got to the Himalayas the most amazing people you will ever travel with in your life were waiting for us. I am lucky to work with Tshering and Rinzi every year, and sometimes several times a year. They are brothers to me and I will always be grateful for how well they do their job and how wonderful they are to work with. They make Bhutan a second home for me. I knew Rinzi would be the perfect companion to Ray and help him step into the culture of Bhutan with a graceful ease. Rinzi understands how photography is like a series of moments that you either step into and embrace, or miss forever. He is wise and aware and his a talent for helping me and others find the moment even if we didn’t really know it was there.
Tshering and Rinzi also work tirelessly behind the scenes to adapt to changing demands and my changing whims. They plan ahead and then sometimes have to plan again when I move the goalposts. Big efforts on their part lead to small moments for us to enjoy that otherwise would be missed entirely.
This trip I met a new guide called Eejay who is a bird expert, but also turned out be just as wonderful to work with as Rinzi and Tshering. Eejay was responsive to the demands of my bird photography and willing to work with me in a calm yet engaging manner. He was as patient as he is knowledgeable, and even though he is very capable with a camera himself he took a step back when necessary to ensure that I could lead with mine. He is an absolute gentleman and rich in wisdom. I only wish I could spend a lot more time on the road with him.
(Portrait of a woman from Gasa, taken by Ray Martin)
One more fellow deserves a special mention. The challenge of travelling with a new camera system is often a technically daunting proposition, let alone one that hasn’t yet been properly finished at the factory. When Ray left Sydney with his Lumix S1R it was still a work in progress and the firmware was barely ready for lab experiments let alone to be released into the wild. Ray has his hands full adapting to this beast, but thankfully he had help. While I was focusing on the itinerary and getting our team across the countryside to meet park rangers, Ray was getting immense support with the camera from Dave Katague. Dave is better known of course for his video production talent, but on this journey he stepped into the shoes of tech support guru as well. He was recharging batteries, decoding menus and sorting SD cards on a daily basis, plus offering insights and support as his own experience of Bhutan unfolded. He took great care of Ray and I am deeply thankful for that, as it allowed me to step back and have several wonderful days where I could focus 100% on the birds.
When I started this journey I didn’t know exactly where it would take me. Those who understand me will know that I enjoy stepping into that kind of unknown. A good plan is a flexible one. I did not imagine anything remotely like the collection that came to being. It has taken on a life of its own. One reason for that is the breadth and depth of people who have contributed along the way. It’s not merely Ray and myself, but a flow of human spirit that brought it all to this. Which is fitting, because the essence of this exhibition is the very contemporary endeavour to bridge between humanity and birds. We humans now define the context in which nature exists, for better or for worse. We can no longer escape our own impact on wild creatures and their habitats and to ignore our connection is to potentially lose them forever. Our actions impact their very existence.
When I first scribbled down an idea for an a photographic exhibition the birds were what drew me in, but in the knowledge that as humans we have choices to make for their future. I wanted to underline to my audience that we hold the fate of our planets wild spaces. Bhutan is approaching this reality with compassion, kindness and awareness. They are taking careful steps forward, as have many individuals globally who dedicate their lives to birds and habitat protection. We can help the people of Bhutan to make good choices in the future, and they can help us.
Just like the months of effort that took place behind the scenes of this exhibition, none of us are in it alone.
"Feathers of the Dragon" runs until the 20th of October 2019.
Details can be found here including the companion book of birds and a guide to the exhibition:
(Ray capturing the morning light near Paro)