The story behind the photo: ‘My Country Burns’ by Samuel Markham

By AG STAFF 4 September 2023
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This is the first in a series of Q&As with winning photographers from this year’s Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year awards.

Samuel Markham was crowned the overall winner of the 2023 Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year (AGNPOTY) competition.

The winning image, titled My Country Burns, was taken during a firestorm in Parma Creek Nature Reserve, New South Wales, at the end of 2019.

Can you tell us the back story of this photo? 

Nothing could have prepared me for the impact of confronting a pyro-cumulonimbus firestorm. It was a harrowing encounter that defies simple description, leaving an indelible mark on my memory. The ordeal was nothing short of terrifying, a sentiment that’s rooted in the recognition of the immense danger that unfolded around us.

On New Year’s Eve, my family, neighbours and a friend, bound by a common determination, embarked on a mission to safeguard our home in Parma, NSW. Our neighbours came to our house seeking refuge because their water tank, reliant on rain, had run close to dry. The skies darkened with an unsettling swiftness, casting an eerie veil over our surroundings and from the sky came a rain on embers. We stood our ground, uniting against the very embodiment of nature’s fury. As the firestorm descended upon us, it felt as if we were standing directly in the path of a colossal, jet-engine-like force fuelled by an unyielding southerly wind. The temperature soared to unimaginable heights, surpassing the 1,000-degree mark. The heat was a tangible entity, searing our senses and erasing any sense of comfort. For an hour we banded together to fight.

In those harrowing moments, words seemed inadequate to capture the magnitude of the experience. The emotions were a whirlwind of fear, determination and an instinctual need to protect all that we held dear, ourselves and our home. The photograph I managed to capture encapsulates a poignant moment, frozen in time, approximately 20 minutes after the ferocious main fire front had swept through the area. Yet, amidst the blackened remnants, there was a glimmer of hope that shone through. The figures in the frame, perhaps silhouetted against the smoky backdrop, stand as a symbol of the unwavering resolve to protect that which is cherished most. In the face of imminent danger, the human spirit stood tall, ready to confront the challenge head-on. It’s a tribute to the unity and strength that emerges when communities band together to safeguard their homes, their loved ones and their way of life.

My family home, against all odds, remained standing, a testament to the dedication and sacrifices made during those critical moments. Yet, the memory of the ordeal still lingers, etched into my consciousness as a reminder of the fragility of our existence and the resilience we possess when pushed to our limits.

What is your connection to the subject matter? 

Being a landscape photographer is more than just a profession for me; it’s a vocation fuelled by a profound connection to the subject matter. This connection isn’t merely about capturing images; it’s a reflection of my genuine respect for the natural world and an insatiable desire to encapsulate its breathtaking beauty and awe-inspiring power.

However, the experience I had during the pyro-cumulonimbus firestorm transcended the realms of my usual photographic endeavours. It was a baptism by fire, quite literally, into the ferocity and unpredictability of nature’s elements. The raging inferno that gave birth to the pyro-cumulonimbus clouds presented me with an opportunity – one that was both unsettling and profound.

Where is it taken, and what led you to this site?

The photo was taken in Parma, NSW, during the aftermath of the pyro-cumulonimbus firestorm. I was already at my family’s home when the firestorm hit unexpectedly and it led to a series of events that compelled me to document the aftermath and capture the impact on the landscape.

My home has always been a place of serenity and beauty, but little did I know that on this particular day, the tranquil setting would transform into a battleground between the elements and human determination. The suddenness of the event caught us all off guard, leaving us with little time to react. The NSW Fire Brigade arrived to apprise us of the road closures and recommend seeking shelter, given the imminent arrival of the fire in approximately 20 minutes. Subsequently, they departed and took refuge at the end of our road.

Were you unexpectedly there or had you planned to cover this moment? 

The unfolding of events on that day was far from anything I had envisioned or planned for as a landscape photographer. The firestorm that swept through was an unexpected force of nature that shattered the tranquillity of the moment. My initial priorities shifted drastically, with the safety of my family and the protection of our home taking precedence over any creative endeavours.

My family and I rallied together, implementing an emergency plan that had been practised but never truly anticipated for such a magnitude of chaos. In those intense moments, the concept of capturing a photograph was a distant thought, overshadowed by the immediate need to ensure the safety of our loved ones and our home. 
When the main fire front finally passed and a fragile calm settled in its wake, a deep sense of relief washed over us. The ordeal was far from over, but for the moment, we were safe.

What are the technical challenges of photographing this kind of scene?

Photographing in the aftermath of such a catastrophic event presented several technical challenges. The extreme lighting contrasts between darkness and scorched earth made finding the right exposure settings a constant task. I had to carefully adjust my camera settings to capture the scene’s essence without losing details in the shadows or blowing out highlights.

This photograph, with its juxtaposition of destruction and hope, continues to resonate deeply within me. It embodies a spectrum of emotions – the sorrow for what was lost, the gratitude for what was preserved and the unwavering strength that emerged from the ashes. 

The decision to document the aftermath of the pyro-cumulonimbus firestorm was fuelled by a deep sense of purpose, but as I turned my attention to the practicalities of capturing the scene, I was met with a series of challenges. The landscape before me had been transformed into a mosaic of contrasts – a visual separation of darkness and seared earth that required careful finesse to be translated into a photograph that did justice to the scene’s complexity.

Photographer Samuel Markham. Image credit: supplied by Samuel Markham

How did you prepare to take this image? 

Given the unexpected nature of the firestorm, I didn’t have specific preparations in place. However, my experience as a photographer and my familiarity with my camera allowed me to quickly adapt to the challenging conditions and make the necessary adjustments to capture the image effectively.

Unlike some situations where photographers might have elaborate preparations in place, I was thrust into the heart of this chaos without warning. The urgency of the moment demanded immediate action focused on the safety of my family and the protection of our home. My camera was secondary to these priorities, but as the main firefront subsided and the initial shock gave way to a slightly calmer atmosphere, I felt a burgeoning desire to document the aftermath.

Did you have special equipment? 

While I didn’t have special equipment for this particular situation, my standard photography gear was essential. Having a versatile lens, tripod and protective gear allowed me to navigate the hazardous landscape while capturing high-quality images.

Have you covered this topic/subject before? 

My journey as a landscape photographer had led me through a multitude of awe-inspiring scenes and captivating natural phenomena. I had captured the serene majesty of sunrises painting the horizon with delicate hues, the grandeur of mountains that seemed to touch the sky and the ethereal dance of the Southern Lights illuminating the night sky.

Yet, amidst this portfolio of diverse landscapes, there emerged an experience that stood apart as a singular, transformative moment – the documentation of the aftermath of a firestorm. The intensity of the event was overwhelming as if nature had unleashed its unbridled fury in a blaze of destruction What set this experience apart from my previous photographic endeavours was not just the intensity of the event, but also the deeply personal connection I had to the scene. This wasn’t just a distant landscape or a fleeting phenomenon; it was a place that held sentimental value.

Why is this form of photography important to you?

Photographing the aftermath of natural disasters like bushfires is important because it brings awareness to the impact of such events on our environment and communities. Through my lens, I aim to convey both the destructive power of nature and the resilience of human beings.

This form of photography serves as a visual record that can inspire change, empathy and action.

Any additional thoughts?

Surviving and documenting the aftermath of a firestorm was a defining chapter in my journey as a photographer. Nature’s unpredictability was thrust upon me with startling force. As the firestorm raged through my family property, I confronted the fact that no amount of preparation could fully brace me for the ferocity of such an event. In this chaos, adaptation became a survival skill, and the core principles of photography – exposure, composition and timing – took on new dimensions. 

The resilience displayed by the affected communities was a testament to the strength of the human spirit.
In the wake of the firestorm’s onslaught, a series of emotions surged within me – shock, fear and a resolute determination to respond in a meaningful way. The photograph I managed to capture serves as a poignant testament to the intensity of the experience and the image freezes a moment that felt almost otherworldly, evoking a sense of awe and sombre reflection.

Related: Winners: 2023 Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year