Setting out in a beat-up car turned mobile studio and covering a total distance of 10,500km over five weeks, photographer Tanya Houghton journeyed through Australia’s national parks and deserts to learn about Songlines and capture how they relate to the complex relationship both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians have with the land.
Tanya Houghton has been taking pictures ever since she was gifted a red Kodak Gemini on her sixth birthday. Recognising Tanya’s creative talent early on, her mother worked endlessly to fill their home with inspiration in the form of geography, art and photography books – all of which Tanya spent hours poring over. Now a successful interdisciplinary photographer and artist in her own right, Tanya’s current practise clearly reflects her mother’s literary influence. Landscape, ecology and memory are all primary themes in her work, which are then united through her mixture of thoughtful and carefully curated images that highlight the oscillating relationship between humanity and nature.
One of her key motivations as an artist is exploring the stories that people imprint into their environment and what narratives those same landscapes tell about humanity in return. “Photography is my voice to tell these stories,” Tanya explains. “I have a platform as a creative and I intend to use it to elevate stories of the land in a hope to inspire people to protect it.”
“The land speaks of what has passed and what will be.”
Her latest work is a testament to those goals. Centring around Indigenous Australians connection to the land, Songlines of the Here+Now looks at the complex politics of space that exists in Australia by “exploring the past and present connection that contemporary Australians hold to the landscape they call home”. Tanya achieved this by learning about and interacting with ancient Indigenous Songlines, which are a series of map-like paths found amid both the land and the sky that enable people to navigate their way across the Australian landscape – if you know how to read them. However, they aren’t physically recorded, but rather passed on through songs, stories and dance, many of which are thousands of years old.
“The whole land is full of signs, like a chapter in a book. The land speaks of what has passed and what will be, and it can be used or read by those that understand the language,” Tanya explains. “The Songline describes the nature of the land, of the route it passes over or of the sky it passes under, by using prominent features in the landscape. They are important, as [Indigenous Australians] believe that by singing these songs they keep the sacred land alive.”
“People were curious as to why a woman was travelling alone across the desert, they opened up and shared their experiences of the Australian landscape.”
Rather than undertake her journey by flying, Tanya wanted to make sure that she would be able to move through the landscape and see it change slowly. So she turned her car into a makeshift mobile studio by filling it with “kit, camping gear, water and spare petrol cans” and weaved her way across the country for five weeks. But the small space also meant she was limited gear-wise. “If I’m out in the landscape, my kit needs to be light and compact, I also need to make sure I have everything with me so as not to miss any images. I usually have two packs, a hiking pack and base pack,” Tanya says. “I use Nikon cameras, lenses, cable release and dry bags. I carry Rode on-camera mics and mini directional mics and an Olympus digital voice recorder, plus power bank batteries, solar chargers, mini LED light panels, a lightweight Gitzo tripod, gaffa tape, a mini first aid kit and fly nets. And always a small notebook and pen.”
For Tanya, one of the most important aspects of this series was ensuring that she preserved an equal power dynamic within the narrative, at no point favouring any past or present Aboriginal community. “I’m not Australian, so therefore have no place speaking on behalf of certain communities,” Tanya says.
Keeping that in mind, she omitted all images of people and split the series into four sections: “the landscapes, which represent sites of significance in Indigenous stories; the constructed still lifes, which act as semiotic representations of the stories shared; the abstracted views of campsites and vehicles, which represent the contemporary commercialisation of the land; and the black and white telephone masts, which act as contemporary visual Songlines – symbols of connectivity to the past dancing across the landscape.”
One of her favourite images from the series is an image of the Mutitjulu watering hole in Kata Tjuta. Nestled in the middle of the desert, the reservoir is one of the few large natural water sources in the outback. Waterfalls cascade down the rock when it rains, carving out almost luminescent channels to the watering holes below. “It’s a spiritual place for past and present communities,” Tanya explains. “I was fortunate enough to visit the pool in daylight and a rainstorm, seeing it take on [both] a calm and forceful presence.”
“The most beautiful thing they had ever seen was the desert flower after the rain.”
Another image from the work that Tanya highlights is a sunrise shot of the mining fields just outside of Coober Pedy. The town’s name comes from the term “Kupa Piti” – which roughly translates to “white man in a hole” and is perhaps an homage to both the area’s mining history and the searing hot summers that often see the townspeople retreat to underground dugouts to keep cool. Tanya distinctly recalls the day she took the photograph thanks to an unexpected encounter: “I had left early in the morning to beat the midday summer sun, I got about two hours outside Coober Pedy and I began to see this small dot on the horizon, as I approached I realised it was a cyclist, it was the first person I had seen that morning and it was another two hours to the next roadhouse.”
It was chance meetings like the one on that day that, no matter how fleeting, influenced much of the way Tanya interacted with and appreciated her surroundings in the desert. From men working on the railways who told her that “the most beautiful thing they had ever seen was the desert flower after the rain”, to rangers in the national parks, recent divorcees and people with near-death experiences – every person had their own story to share about their relationship to the land.
“People were curious as to why a woman was travelling alone across the desert, they opened up and shared their experiences of the Australian landscape. The images represent objects and sites of significance to the stories that were shared with me, a visual retranslation of individual experience,” Tanya says. “I was also fortunate enough to meet Custodian Leroy Lester during my time at the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, who taught me about the history of the space and the tensions surrounding it. My time with him was invaluable.”
“I wanted to disappear to make this work, to focus on our human connections to these vast spaces.”
Her personal connection with the land also served as a defining factor for how the work was developed. Deeply influenced by one of the Aboriginal peoples’ coming of age ceremonies, a solo temporary mobility involving both a physical and spiritual journey through the landscape that is sometimes referred to as a ‘walkabout’ Tanya purposefully undertook her journey through the desert alone – choosing to tackle the most demanding desert environments first, and then heading into farming country, towards the rainforest and later along the coast.
“I covered close to 10,500km, at times with no phone or radio signal,” Tanya recalls. “I went off on hikes into the outback alone, visiting the same space at sunrise and sunset, catching the landscape in its best light. In modern society we fill our lives with artificial noise, it is over the past few years, due to the current coverage of the climate crisis, that we are beginning to see a global sense of rewilding, getting back to the natural world. In a sense, I guess I wanted to disappear to make this work, to focus on our human connections to these vast spaces.”
As is inevitable nowadays when considering works that encompass how humanity and nature interact, it’s almost impossible not to think about the climate crisis when looking at Songlines of the Here+Now. And while Tanya states that those themes aren’t intentionally addressed in this series, she is an active conservationist and believes people should pay more attention to how First Nations people all over the world connect with and look after their land. “We can only look forward and work together to slow this climate crisis, by listening to Indigenous communities, taking drastic action, working collectively and individually, realising and enforcing our consumer power, and not supporting companies, governments or individuals that do not strive for protecting the planet.”
And regardless of theme and content, in the end, Tanya hopes her images will prompt people to leave their devices and screens behind for a while, go out into the tactile world and really live in it. “I’m amazed and in awe of the things I see in nature; I want to encourage others to seek them out as well.”