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Tasmania’s forests have long been the battleground of conservationists and pro-development forces, with acts of environmental vandalism and High Court cases littering their past. Noah Thompson’s photo book Huon takes a close look at a story that goes back more than fifty years, as the near-destruction of one 2000-year-old Huon pine sparked a clash from which the reverberations can be felt across Australia today.

Words by Hudson Brown

Photography by Noah Thompson

The balance between conservation and development is a complex issue that continues to divide communities. A prime example of this clash is in the forests of Tasmania, where the unspoiled wilderness is at odds with a significant population who remain reliant on the logging and mining industries for employment. Tasmanian-born photographer Noah Thompson knows this polemic discussion only too well. His first monograph, Huon, is a nuanced look at both sides of the narrative, where decades of conflict continue to influence the present-day.

The Huon pine is a species of conifer that’s native to the wet and temperate rainforests of South West Tasmania, which for many years was considered an ideal building material due to its strength and ease to shape. However, this specific type of pine has an exceptionally slow growth rate, taking approximately five hundred years to mature. In a post-colonised Tasmania, British convicts used Huon to construct boats in Macquarie Harbour, while its oil served as a handy natural insect repellent. Huon’s widespread popularity saw it rapidly disappear from the region throughout the 19th-century, with the local government stepping in to restrict milling of the species to some success. But the advent of chainsaws and helicopter transport brought about more exploitation, resulting in several increasingly serious clashes with conservationists.

Through the pages of Huon, Thompson juxtaposes the stark Tasmanian wilderness against striking portraits of activists, multi-generational loggers and the left-behind junk that still seeps out of the hinterland. With implications that encompass the global climate crisis and our relationship with the natural world, Thompson takes the destruction of one specific Huon pine and uses it to highlight the people and places that remain at the centre of this debate decades later.

To understand how the Huon pine became a symbol in the conservation or development debate, you have to consider a number of Tasmanian government projects in the 1960s and 70s that threatened to destroy the natural landscape. The most high profile of these projects was the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam, which would become known as a landmark event in Australian history. As thousands took to Hobart’s streets to protest the dam’s construction, which would virtually wipe out one of the country’s few remaining untamed regions, the Tasmanian government pushed ahead, arguing that hydroelectric power was the answer to the state’s lack of jobs and middling economy.

Eventually challenged by the federal government in the High Court, the Tasmanian government lost and the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam project was terminated. However, this finding only outraged the pro-development crowd more, with many Tasmanians furious that distant bureaucrats could have such an influence over their livelihoods. As Thompson describes, the conflict came to a head for those on the ground when one specific Huon pine was targeted in a symbolic attack.

“The tree was vandalised. It was chainsawed, holes were drilled in it to pour oil to its roots and it was set on fire.”

“The Lea Tree was a Huon pine that grew near the construction staging area for the Gordon-below-Franklin dam, which was believed to be between 2000 and 3000 years old,” explains Thompson. “In 1983, in the aftermath of the announcement of the High Court’s decision to not allow the dam to be built, the tree was vandalised. It was chainsawed, holes were drilled in it to pour oil to its roots and it was set on fire.”

The situation escalated further when a trio of workers sat for a photo in front of the vandalised and burning tree, which had been scrawled with the undeniably antagonistic statement, “Fuck You Green Cunts.” It was then sent to environmental groups working in the area. Serving as the first image you see upon opening Huon, this provocative photograph has come to represent far more than just a cruel action. “This was a poignant and disturbing clash between opposing groups that represented nature and culture – all documented by a lens and the media,” describes Thompson.

“I noticed early on that these conflicts over the natural world were not only a recurring theme with various chapters but represented a big part of the identity of Tasmania.”

Raised in Tasmania before moving with his family to the Northern Territory, regular trips back home saw Thompson routinely surrounded by arguments on new environmental issues. From debates around the woodchipping industry to the pros and cons of pulp mills, these polarising conversations helped Thompson realise such debates rarely have adequate answers. Having initially studied political science, Noah returned to university to pursue photography at Melbourne’s Photography Studies College. It was here that Huon began as his final year project, as he set out to explore the points of contention he’d heard throughout his life.

“I noticed early on that these conflicts over the natural world were not only a recurring theme with various chapters but represented a big part of the identity of Tasmania. For people involved with logging or hydroelectricity and for those involved with conservation, plus everyone in between,” says Thompson. “I was and still am very interested in this crossover and its implications for Australian identity.”

Across a busy eight months, Thompson travelled to Tasmania to shoot the project on medium format film, before editing, selecting and designing Huon. “Film has its limitations but I really enjoy having to slow down and think about my intentions for a particular image or my ideas around composition,” describes Thompson. “I find the limitations liberating.”

Meanwhile, Thompson is conscious of his own biases in capturing a story that he’s deeply passionate about. Approaching the topic with a neutral gaze, Huon doesn’t set out to judge but brings to light the stories and people who remain central to this pertinent story. “In the process of making the work I have always tried to remain impartial, but due to the questionable nature of truth in photography and of my distance to the story, I think it has been inevitable that my own views have come through indirectly,” says Thompson. “That being said, I always aim to be transparent with the people that I photograph, plus those I involve and speak to about the project. I think that’s really important.”

Tasmania saw the biggest tourism growth of any Australian state or territory in 2018, with many of those increases experienced in regional areas. The trend is expected to continue even though many small towns and remote landmarks lack the infrastructure to deal with this influx of people. As environmental and indigenous groups raise concerns about how significant sights are going to be protected moving forward, Thompson is also worried about what the balance between Tasmania’s natural beauty and the lure of tourism dollars will end up looking like.

“I definitely think that the growth of tourism will prove to be one of the biggest challenges for the preservation of Tasmanian wilderness,” says Thompson. “There are plans to build cable cars and skyways in various places around Tasmania, including Cradle Mountain, Kunanyi/Mt Wellington and the Cataract Gorge in Launceston to accommodate tourists.”

“As an artist, it’s incredibly gratifying to have your work recognised by your peers and a wider audience. However, I think this also reflects the groundswell of interest in environmental issues and stories.”

Huon might be Thompson’s first monograph, but his work has already received widespread acclaim. Having won the Merit Scholarship to the prized Charcoal Book Club Chico Hot Springs Portfolio Review & Publishing Prize, he was also recently awarded the 2019/2020 Pool Grant, which provides $15,000 to an emerging photographer to conceptualise and produce a solo exhibition. With this assistance, Thompson plans to take the subject matter of Huon into “unexplored territory,” which includes an exhibition featuring unseen archival material and video installations.

“The past year has been really kind to me,” says Thompson. “As an artist, it’s incredibly gratifying to have your work recognised by your peers and a wider audience. However, I think this also reflects the groundswell of interest in environmental issues and stories.”

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Noah Thompson

Noah Thompson is an Australian photographer working with expanded modes of documentary making. Coming from a background in political science and with an interest in visual narratives, his work examines the ways in which individual and community circumstance play out amongst broader social, political and cultural events.