Behind the lens: photographer shares personal account of the 2022 floods in her northern NSW home town

By Story and photos by Tajette O'Halloran 5 May 2022
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Just after completing an assignment documenting the new lives of treechangers, photographer Tajette O’Halloran and her community on the New South Wales North Coast were hit by floods in early March. This is her story.

“It was surreal – a stark reminder of life’s unpredictability and how vulnerable we all are,” Tajette recalls. “We live in Upper Main Arm in northern NSW, our home backing onto the Mt Jerusalum National Park. I was in Sydney for a shoot when the flood hit on Monday morning so it took days for me to get back home and I ended up having to trek over a 300m landslide to be reunited with my kids who were luckily staying at my dads with my partner.

“After the landslides were cleared and we were able, we drove to Main Arm to see if our house was still standing. We parked at Kohinur hall where a hub was set up with food, donations and a local volunteer rescue team. For weeks this has been the community meeting hub, a safe place to debrief, get supplies, organise logistics, share meals and basically just be together.

“We started the 50 minute trek up to our house and we were in complete shock at the devastation at every turn. It felt like walking through a war zone, on the set of a movie. The road was now a river and I couldn’t recognise where I was. We saw where a neighbour’s house had washed away and they had clung to a tree in the raging water with their baby in the middle of the night for five hours. We shared the walk with a 65-year-old woman who dug out her neighbours who were buried up to their necks in mud after they were washed away inside their house.

“Among all the trauma and shock, what was most evident was the compassion and care that emerged out of everyone in the community. With the roads un-drivable, the whole community was on on foot. We’d see friends, neighbours and strangers on the trail and share our stories, and offer each other help.

“With no internet reception I noticed how present and kind we all were with each other. I realised how starved we have all been of connection after two years of isolation and dividedness. There was an intoxicating adrenaline that was strangely comforting and enjoyable despite the tragedy surrounding us.

“Being personally affected, I found it hard at first to pick up my camera and have the headspace to document what was happening in the moment. Seeing people around me taking photos who were not personally affected made me think of the relationship between the photographer and the subject. Personal stories from a personal perspective can be powerful but sometimes you need to hand that over to someone to tell that story for you.”

Tajette photographed Meg Rees (above) for our treechanger story ‘Escape to the country’. Meg moved 330km west from Brisbane to Moonie, on the Darling Downs in Southern Queensland.