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As Darwin swelters through the heat and humidity of the dry season and the population grows tired from the debilitating climate, an anxious tension grips the city as the monsoon season approaches. Melbourne-based photographer Abigail Varney captured this period known as ‘the build up’, resulting in a project that makes clear just how inherent our connection to the environment really is.

Words by Hudson Brown

Photography by Abi Varney

When the city of Darwin transitions from the dry season to the wet, the changing atmosphere is not only noticeable in the climate, but also within the people who reside within this sticky metropolis at Australia’s Top End. As locals keenly await the cool relief brought by the oncoming monsoons, this arid period is known as ‘the build up’. This harsh climatic pattern forms the basis for Melbourne-based photographer Abigail Varney’s latest documentary project of the same name. Delving into the concept of ‘mango madness’, Varney’s work explores this variety of seasonal affective disorder, where people express depressive symptoms during intense phases of hot or cold weather. Showcasing how closely our emotions are tied to the climate, the series also documents a landscape that might not exist in the future.

“I’m drawn to the Australian story of survival and places that have a pull towards the natural environment. I first visited Darwin off the back end of one of my Coober Pedy trips and was so captivated by the tropics and how heavily the area was dictated by its climate – the ecology, animals, architecture, the people and their way of life,” says Varney.

“We are not separate from our environment. One will always affect the other and vice versa.”

Fascinated by multilayered stories that reflect Australian society, the shifting nature of the environment is a topic that continues to feature prominently within Varney’s photographs. Making the most of her urban upbringing in Melbourne, Varney approaches rural locations through the lens of an outsider, capturing the varying cultural identities that are unique to Australia’s disparate communities. Having travelled to Coober Pedy in the depths of South Australia to photograph the remains of the once-bustling opal-mining town, on the road to Darwin, Varney encountered a dramatic change in the landscape as desolate desert quickly gave way to a tropical paradise. Learning about the concept of the build up, it became clear that her next project would focus on Darwin, which serves as the gateway to the stifling tropics of South East Asia.

“The personality of survival, going troppo and mango madness gave [the project] that extra layer I was looking for – really the essence of the story. We are not separate from our environment. One will always affect the other and vice versa,” says Varney.

“There’s a volatile, unsettling feeling to the images. I’m communicating the wildness and the heat that almost can’t be tamed.”

Abigail’s attempts to capture the interconnectedness of Darwin’s residents to their surrounding environment had its difficulties, especially shooting through the gaze of an outsider. With no local network of friends or family to connect her with the characters that give any story a compelling narrative, there was also the issue of the streets being virtually empty during the day as locals hide indoors to escape the heat. “The first thing I noticed was that there wasn’t anyone around in the daytime. I rely on conversations to get the locals’ perspective and insights that lead the story, but this was a big hurdle,” says Varney. “So, I naturally turned my camera to the landscape and watched its response to the build up.”

Across five intensive days of shooting, she also struggled to overcome the heat and humidity that sapped away at both her physical and creative energy. Shooting with a Canon 5D Mark IV or a Pentax point-and-shoot for something more practical for the climate, her images convey the blistering murkiness that permeates just about everything during the build up. Dark clouds block out the sun, while a brooding ambience sweeps across the city together with strong winds that leave behind countless bent over trees and a palpable sense of restlessness amongst the population.

“There’s a volatile, unsettling feeling to the images. I’m communicating the wildness and the heat that almost can’t be tamed,” describes Varney. “It’s pushing this sense that this area might not be a place where people will want to live in the future if we don’t listen to what is happening to our environment.”

Having previously completed major documentary projects in Surfers Paradise and Coober Pedy, Varney’s practice centres on locations that are within a state of flux. For Sand & Glitter, she sought out pastel colours and coastal fibre shacks before they were destroyed by the Gold Coast’s addiction to high-rise complexes, while Rough & Cut saw her travel deep into the desert to capture the last remaining opal miners as the industry entered its final days.

“For the build up, I am working on the cusp of this transition again, before the monsoonal rains arrive,” explains Varney. “Within all these projects there is a sense of sparseness, of emptiness. Maybe that’s a reflection on how I feel most comfortable shooting, or maybe it’s something within me – I’m still working that out.”

“This area might not be a place where people will want to live in the future if we don’t listen to what is happening to our environment.”

Varney was fortunate enough to have in part learnt her craft from one of the very best. Having graduated from Melbourne’s Photography Studies College in 2013, she travelled to New York City to intern with the late legendary photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark. “I think the greatest lesson I learned from Mary Ellen Mark was about the longevity of her projects, and how important it was to keep learning about your subjects before you decide on how to depict them,” says Varney.

The internship wasn’t always glamorous as many days were spent delivering documents and running other errands. But there were also perks like Mark appearing over Varney’s shoulder and matter-of-factly pointing out what she liked and what she thought needed more work as she developed her craft. There were also times when Varney could search through Mark’s extensive photographic library and see first-hand how her work evolved through the decades.

“I’d spent some time in India before New York City, so I was naturally intrigued by her Falkland Road and Indian Circus bodies of work, which I got to know from her perspective,” says Varney. “She had such rigour and energy and really was such a determined woman who had a natural ability to connect with people.”

“The build up is very much a work in progress. I’m going to tend to the project much more and see what strikes me the most to keep exploring.”

This energy and determination clearly rubbed off on Varney, as she battled through Darwin’s tropical conditions and finished capturing her initial experience of the build up, which is currently on display at Melbourne’s Centre for Contemporary Photography. Presented alongside the photography of Matthew Stanton, the collaborative exhibition forms part of a broader climate-focused spring showcase, with the show – 23° and Rising – examining the ecological impacts faced by communities within Australia’s northern tropics.

While both projects offer a fascinating perspective on the same region, the visual language and themes differ significantly. Where Stanton’s series Deep North, shot over six years, highlights the storied topographies of Far North Queensland, Varney’s series is a microcosmic look at one sweltering community as the New Year rain approaches. However, there are fresh plans to add to the build up in the coming months.

“The build up is very much a work in progress. I’m going to tend to the project much more and see what strikes me the most to keep exploring. I’m returning to Darwin this year in anticipation of another build up. Perhaps this one will be different from last year; I’m open to responding to my time and experience there.”

With a rapidly warming climate leading to a range of environmental and urban transformations, the impact that this oppressive weather has on the people of Darwin and their psyche can’t be underestimated. Documentary projects such as Varney’s convey the shape that these responses take, while exploring what our cities might look like in the near future.

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Abigail Varney

Abigail Varney is a portrait and documentary photographer based in Melbourne. Varney’s work predominantly evolves from her curiosity and connection to Australia’s land, people and ecologies.