Pilbara Project: images capture spirit of WA outback

By Victoria Laurie 16 September 2011
Reading Time: 4 Minutes Print this page
The Pilbara Project has brought together artists to celebrate the rugged Western Australia outback.

IN THE PILBARA, the sense of season barely fits into standard climatic categories. In fact, there’s little that fits into the normal rhythm of suburban, east-coast Australian life – hardly surprising, when this expanse of ancient earth crust is so far from where most of us live.

Yet more and more people are making their homes – or spending their working lives – in Australia’s remote north west. What do they make of it, and how do bare horizons and penetrating light strike them? What creative urges stir at the sight of its rusty hills and spinifex-covered plains?

The Pilbara Project aims to address just that. It is a large-scale experiment in which creative people – writers, photographers, visual artists and curators – have been invited north to savour Pilbara life and landscape. Over weeks or months, they interacted with local Pilbara residents with flair and imagination to jointly produce new responses to this remote outback place.

Spotlight on the Pilbara, Western Australia

The brainchild of FORM, a not-for-profit creative industry body based in Perth, the Pilbara Project aims to shed light on the inspirational nature of Australia’s north-west region.

“The Pilbara is unexpectedly breathtaking and diverse, yet it has escaped the attention of its arguably more renowned sister regions of the Kimberley and Central Australia,” says project instigator Lynda Dorrington, who is head of FORM. “This project is about examining the confluences of culture, industry, environment and history in order to begin to craft a stronger vision for its future.”

Since the discovery of iron ore in the Hamersley Ranges in the 1960s, the Pilbara region has become pivotal to Western Australia’s economy. Across half-a-million square kilometres, resource towns like Karratha, Tom Price, Port Hedland, Wickham, Newman and Marble Bar sprang up over the decades. Yet human beings remain relatively scarce – perhaps just 50,000 residents – and many have homes elsewhere too.

The region is poised for massive growth as China’s appetite for iron ore grows, as well as its thirst for liquefied natural gas, which is processed in complex tangles of industrial pipes amid rust-red outcrops on the Burrup Peninsula, near Karratha.

Images of the Pilbara

So far, The Pilbara Project has resulted in a book and a travelling exhibition, featuring images and impressions by local and visiting photographers. Peter Zylstra was struck by the cosy proximity of industry and people, as ore mountains loom over nearby houses in Port Hedland. Nicole Yardley captured the way young boys leapt from the jetty rails to do ‘bommies’ near the bow of giant iron ore carriers – until they were eventually moved along by the pilot boat crew.

For several weeks, professional landscape photographers Peter Eastway, Les Walkling, Tony Hewitt and Christian Fletcher piled into a four-wheel drive and explored the Pilbara. All were struck by the unique palette – purple, blue-cyan, green-yellow, orange-red and rust-brown – that confounded their cameras and tricked the eye.

Peter Eastway recalls standing on the road at Marble Bar, sweltering in 50ºC heat that rose from black bitumen. Retreating from the blast furnace heat meant hopping back into the car. “I was quite comfortable, cocooned in our 4WD with the air conditioning on full blast!”

As they headed towards the Marble Bar turnoff from Pardoo Station, the men spotted a wet season thunderstorm forming on the near horizon. “The road seemed to be skirting around the edge of the weather cell and in the distance we could see some willy-willies forming – small tornados of red dust climbing into the dark sky above. As photographers, it was more than we could resist,” Peter says.

They pulled off on a side road, and walked up a slight incline. “Thunder rolled ominously as we walked around the flanks of a small hill in the stifling heat, but heat was the furthest thing from our mind as we watched nature unfurl the most remarkable display I can remember. Lightning ripped through the cloud mass, starting spot fires on the grassy plain, and the willy-willies merged into a minor dust storm, picking up red earth in its path. It felt like we were on the edge of a huge amphitheatre,” Peter says.

Nature and mining

Les Walkling was struck by the dominance of mining operations in the landscape, the way a glistening salt pan is carved down the middle by a railway track leading hundreds of kilometres back into iron ore country.

Yet, he found that even vast mine sites seemed dwarfed “beside the land they try to possess, while everything is overpowered by the magnificent skies.”

“It’s unfathomable – the way we impose ourselves on the land, digging up holes that are bigger than belief, dwarfed by an even bigger landscape and a sky that is even bigger than belief…Geologists told us we had been sleeping on some of the oldest rocks on the planet. It thwarts your attempts to bring it into your imagination -even with all that awareness and poetic apprehension – that sense of being nowhere and somewhere at the same time was so profound. I’d never felt that before.”

Indigenous perspective of the Pilbara landscape

Perth-based photographer Tony Hewitt was a transient worker to the Pilbara 25 years ago. “I went up as a fly-in, fly-out trades assistant, and I remember staring out the window, looking down on dirt and trees and water and thinking ‘there’s nothing there’,” he says. “This time, being dropped into the landscape and its communities I realised the dirt was actually a tapestry of textures and colours.”

Hewitt also appreciated the diversity of Pilbara people, “from indigenous artists and kids in schools to the mine worker and his wife, who’d come up to work with him.”

The Pilbara project, sponsored by BHP Billiton, continues in various forms, from blogs to ongoing writing and art projects. Melbourne-based Les Walkling says it has whetted his appetite for a return visit to the north west. “Even the most beautiful lenses fall short of seeing everything there is,” he observes. “How can a single plane of critical focus capture the complexity and sheer majestic presence of the Pilbara?”