Dont stop there, its a hellhole: Matthew Abbott captures the murderous, majestic Australian outback

Photographer documents life in the drought-hit Murray-Darling basin: An Australia I had always dreamed about finding

Matthew Abbott was in a one-man tent about 20km outside Lightning Ridge when he began to feel a profound sense of unease. The Sydney photographer was documenting life in the hard-up towns in the drought-hit Murray-Darling basin, Australias longest river system; he had rocked up the day before to the Coocoran opal fields and befriended a man who lived in the miners camp.

Its sort of like a farmers property, but its more like a lawless town, Abbott explains. Its home to some of the roughest people you will come across in the state. One guy I photographed had done 20 years in prison for murder.

I was hanging out with this [other] guy; he had a family in [another town] and he was out there by himself. During the day he seemed normal, Abbott says but, as night fell, the man took to the bottle and his behaviour became increasingly erratic.

I left him about 11pm to go outside to my tent, says Abbott. By 2am, he says, the man was ranting, had become violent, and was breaking and throwing objects. Abbott sat alone in his flimsy tent, unsure of his next move. The only other person he knew in the town was the convicted murderer hed photographed earlier.

Coocoran is the kind of place where, if youre murdered, no one would ever find you, Abbott says. Theres thousands of opal holes, exploration shafts that go down 10 to 20 metres. I had been told by the locals that people go missing there all the time, normally over personal disputes and things, and they never find the bodies.

Deciding to cut his losses, Abbott crawled from his tent, yanked out the poles and hastily stuffed the fabric into his dust-covered 4WD Pajero. I burned out of there, he says.

But then I was lost in the middle of this place with no signage. Theres no lights, no internet, no phone reception, nothing. All I had was a compass and I just drove north-east. I ended up driving close to 40 minutes before I hit this main road.

Abbott says it was like a scene from the outback horror film Wake in Fright apocalyptic and full of shady characters it was an Australia I had always dreamed about finding.

River Bank #2 Gundawerra, NSW (2015). Its a 20-metre drop from the tree to where the river is, and its bone dry. The farm hadnt been used since 1996, partly due to the lack of water and partly to do with the wild dogs attacking the sheep. Photograph: Matthew Abbott

Abbott, 31, has a knack for finding himself in hairy situations. In 2014 he photographed the conflict in South Sudan for Associated Press, embedding himself with rebel soldiers. Previously he documented the flight of MyanmarsRohingya refugees to Bangladesh, as well as the journey of a Pakistani asylum seeker from Quetta to Australia. This month, while on assignment in Manus Island, a Papua New Guinean police officer threatened to shoot him after he photographed two refugee men who had been brutally attacked by locals (Guardian Australia published the images).

Abbott says while he loves going to these exotic places he always finds himself returning to rural Australia. He spent two years in his 20s living with and photographing Indigenous communities in Arnhem Land, a world away from his comfortable private school upbringing on Sydneys north shore. He says he finds photographing Australia difficult but approaches it with the kind of methodical dedication of someone learning a new language.

As Ive matured as a photographer, its the average, everyday people in the towns along the Murray-Darling river that keep drawing me back.

Every Australian town has a guy sitting at a bar called Robbo, and hes got a faded Akubra on and hell tell you a yarn. I avoid those characters like the plague. I dont find the cliched guy sitting in the bar interesting. I find the guys getting on with their lives much more interesting.

Some of the most interesting pictures Ive taken are in places other people have said, Dont stop there, its a hellhole.

Amigo Underneath His Castle Lightning Ridge, NSW (2014). This photo is taken 15 metres below the ground, inside the mine beneath the castle that Amigo built on top of it. He sometimes sleeps in this room. Photograph: Matthew Abbott

Abbott journeyed solo along the Murray-Darling basin on and off between 2014 and 2016, pitching his tent by the side of the road and photographing communities from Tambo in Queensland down to Wilcannia, Broken Hill and Bathurst in New South Wales (he plans to continue his journey in Victoria and South Australia).

The towns that were once the backbone of the Australian economy many of which he says are now former shadows of themselves owing to climate change, declining youth populations and unemployment are the subject of Abbotts first solo photographic exhibition, The Land Where the Crow Flies Backwards. Named for a 1965 song by the Indigenous singer Dougie Young, Abbott says a man v wild theme permeates his black and white images, which he shot on a cumbersome, two decades-old large-format Toyo 810M field camera.

John and Julie Lightning Ridge hot springs, NSW (2014) There are a lot of eastern Europeans in Lightning Ridge theyre drawn to the area due to the hot spring. I begged this couple for four days before they agreed to let me take their photo. Photograph: Matthew Abbott

The series is about showing the absurdity of the white man living in this harsh environment, and also how the new settlers have approached the landscape.

At the Lightning Ridge hot springs we meet Julie and John, a Victorian couple originally from eastern Europe, swanning about in swimming costumes with fly nets draped over their faces.

In the same town, we are invited into the subterranean bedroom of a miner named Amigo, who has built a castle (now a tourist attraction) atop his opal mine.

In Morven, Queensland, we stand outside a shack adorned with a handwritten sign: O what a lovely little town. I wonder how long it will take for you to stuff it right up.

We journey past near-empty water tanks in Wilcannia; see protruding tree roots on the banks of a bone-dry Brewarrina riverbed; visit a decaying 10-metre-high fibreglass kangaroo sculpture in a Lightning Ridge backyard (another DIY tourist attraction); watch rawboned horses gallop beside the Ford Falcon of a horse trainer in Bathurst; and balk at what first appears to be clothes on a wonky Hills Hoist before realising they are dead wild dogs, shot by graziers and strung up on a roadside in Tambo.

Its very hard for dog lovers in the city to see this kind of thing but the reality is these dogs can kill four or five sheep in one evening, explains Abbott.

Hanging Dogs South of Tambo, Queensland (2014). The farmers hang up the wild dogs to show the public how serious the situation is [wild dogs attacking sheep]. Its on the side of the road and its very public.
Photograph: Matthew Abbott

We also meet the steady gaze of local children, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who have found unlikely playgrounds in truck stops and in the grounds of derelict buildings.

Abbott says because it takes up to 15 minutes to set up a single shot on his film camera, The person in front of the camera gets very comfortable with you. They also get bored. Its in the boredom that the real nuggets come out because you see what theyre really thinking.

I sit there with the shutter release in my hand and they still think Im setting the camera up. Ill just see a little something in their eye and Ill pounce. I know every time when Ive nailed it.

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