With little to impede it, the wind blew across the leafless, grassless otherworld in deathly silence. It was a stark contrast to the infernal images normally associated with the word ‘wildfire’. This was the scene encountered by photographer Tom Goldner when he visited the charred eucalyptus forests of New South Wales and Victoria in the summer of 2019.
Goldner’s chilling photography project – Do Brumbies Dream in Red? – captures the aftermath of an environmental disaster. The Australian wildfires of 2019 and 2020 killed 34 people and destroyed more than 3,500 homes. Almost 19 million hectares of forest and grassland were burnt, including unique ecosystems that supported endangered species. Goldner remembers when the situation began to hit home: ‘In the summer of 2019, you couldn’t turn the radio on without hearing about evacuations, the loss of human life and biodiversity.’
Goldner’s work hones in on a sense of ecological uncertainty. The year 2019 saw Australia’s driest conditions and hottest temperatures since records began 120 years ago. Warmer air draws moisture from soil and leaf litter, increasing the flammability of eucalyptus forests and grasslands. Ecologists agree that the rising frequency and severity of wildfires is causing Australian forests to lose their resilience to them. Dominant trees have been destroyed. Meanwhile, younger trees, which require 30 years of growth before they can produce viable seeds, are going up in flames before they’ve had a chance to foster the next generation.
‘Climate change is really manifesting into something very real,’ says Goldner. ‘At the same time, it’s getting harder to define where it begins and where it ends. Did it begin with the Industrial Revolution? With agriculture?’ To him, it has been brewing for centuries and the consequences are now more acute than ever. ‘The damage of wildfires is felt for so long, by the species they affect; the impact on water systems; the loss of human possessions. The ramifications resonate through environmental, social and political systems.’
For Goldner, it was the charred corpse of a brumby (a type of feral horse) that had the biggest personal impact. ‘I didn’t set out to make the work about brumbies specifically, but I spotted one lying on its side in a sea of ash. It was a remarkable scene – one that I thought shouldn’t really manifest.’ Goldner points out that the Goldner points out that the nonnative brumby was introduced to the Australian ecosystem by European settlers in 1788. Now, in many states, including New South Wales, brumbies are protected, but this is controversial for ecologists. The animal’s selective grazing behaviour damages native vegetation and waterways relied upon by threatened plant and animal species; their hard hooves compact soil; their wallowing disturbs the flow of streams. Reports commissioned by the Victorian and New South Wales governments have demonstrated that brumbies’ activities threaten many endangered species, including the corroborree frog, the smoky mouse, lizards such as the alpine she-oak and Guthega skinks, and several plant species. As a result, many environmentalists have been campaigning for a systematic cull.
Others feel that a cull would go against cultural heritage. Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s poem The Man from Snowy River, a popular literary work in Australia, depicts a sense of wildness and freedom that is shared by feral horses and the Australian people. The Silver Brumby series of novels by Elyne Mitchell idealises the strength and spirit of wild horses – a characteristic that many Australians feel is enmeshed within their cultural fabric.
Goldner himself doesn’t take a stance on the issue; his work simply aims to highlight the impact and inconsistency of human decisions. Brumbies were first introduced by people, but now there are calls for them to be culled. ‘The work is about how we relate to nature and attempt to control it,’ Goldner explains. ‘To me, the image of the charred brumby became a metaphor for how our environmental thinking hasn’t been working out.’
Tom Goldner shares his thoughts on the photographic process
Purpose: 'We need to find new ways of talking about climate change. Strangely, an artful, experimental approach is an important alternative, as data alone can’t contain climate change. It’s all around us yet we rarely glimpse it.'
Inspiration: 'My inspiration comes from everything: from film, music, photography and literature. The photographers from whom I’ve drawn inspiration for this project include Texas-based Bryan Schutmaat and Richard Misrach, known for his images of the USA.'
Advice: 'Engage in lots of conversations that challenge your perceptions, and indulge in lots of other artwork. Encouraging people to think differently is essentially what we are attempting to do through a photographic practice.'