Wilderness photographer with a twist

By Angela Case 1 June 2011
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Award-winning photographer Paul Hoelen has three passions: making images, getting outside, and helping others.

PAUL HOELEN’S CAMERA BAG has survived quite a few close encounters. It’s been carried off by a bear in Yosemite and tumbled from a cliff into the ocean in Tasmania, but despite a few patches, the Macpac works just as good as new. Tough equipment is a must for the Kiwi-born Tasmanian, who splits his time between shooting photos for a living and helping disadvantaged people get back on their feet as a wilderness therapy facilitator.

Paul has worked for 12 years with the Wilderness Program, a Tasmanian government organisation that provides voluntary rehabilitation programs to socially disadvantaged individuals such as truant teens, drug and alcohol rehab clients, and young single mothers from across the state.

Each program consists of five to six days in the wilderness, where clients participate in a variety of outdoor activities, from abseiling to kayaking, and are encouraged to be as self-sufficient as possible. Each group of eight participants has two facilitators to lend a helping hand, but these guides don’t take an active role in the process as much as a traditional trekking guide would.  

“We’ll teach them how to read a map and by the time we go walking they’re in charge, even if they’ve never been out in the bush before,” Paul explains. “If they get lost, they get lost. Then we’ll just support them, follow them around, and help them learn from the process.”

Participants are also encouraged to support each other. Programs often contain people from a variety of backgrounds and age groups, which is beneficial for both younger and older participants. The arrangement gives the older participants a sense of purpose and allows them to see they have something to offer, whereas the younger participants can learn from older clients who have often coped with the same challenges they are currently facing.

Photography as wilderness therapy in Tasmania

Paul is passionate about his work, but acknowledges facilitators like him play only a small role in the wilderness therapy process.

“We’re just holding the safety ropes and the container. Our skill and experience may shape it a little bit, but essentially the work’s being done through the interaction of the people themselves and the magic of the wilderness,” he says.

Wilderness therapy allows Paul to combine his love for the outdoors and helping people with a third passion: photography.

Paul is a professional photographer who has won numerous accolades for his work. Most recently, he received three awards from the Australian Institute of Professional Photography, including the Tasmanian Professional Photographer of the Year award.

For Paul, photography is a way to capture the uniqueness of the wilderness.  

“I’ve never felt happier; I’ve never felt more at peace [than in the bush],” he says. “I’ve found it’s in those moments in particular I feel drawn to take images.”

Paul says photographs allow him to capture a moment, giving him the opportunity to revisit it later or share it with others. This idea applies to his wilderness therapy clients as well.

He takes photographs during every wilderness therapy program he facilitates, and gives these images to clients after they complete the program. In addition to allowing participants to show friends and family at home what they did on the program, the images provide tangible reminders of challenges overcome.

“It’s really easy [for participants] to slip back into the lifestyle or be influenced by the pressures that are there and forget what they’ve accomplished,” Paul says. “But if you pull out this imagery, and you see yourself face-first on a 100-foot abseil blindfolded, or you can take yourself back to that moment of complete peace and silence out under a mountain, it’s a concrete, tangible window back into that experience. You can’t deny it.”