Edward Stokes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 August, 2010, 12:00am

A HONG KONG CHILDHOOD My father was here at the end of the [second world] war. He'd been an officer in the Australian navy and fell in love with Hong Kong. So he returned with a young family in 1953. I was a five-year-old when we came here [from Australia]. It was a Hong Kong beset with refugees, poverty-stricken people fleeing China and many squatter estates. Our life was completely different. My father worked for the government as a teacher, later as a headmaster. And we grew up in Repulse Bay, Mount Nicholson and The Peak. Lovely places, wonderful for children to grow up in - we were very fortunate. I think my love of nature and landscape goes back to those years.

VIEW FINDING I'm quite sure the visual drama of Hong Kong affected me in a subconscious way; its hills, its city areas, views over the harbour. Having a view was part of life as a child, living where we did. If you grow up in a suburb in Australia or Britain, a view is a rare thing. As a youngster and teenager I took photographs in Hong Kong. I still have some of them and, looking back, I can perhaps see the glimmerings of a photographer's eye.

A LONG WAY FROM BROKEN I studied at the University of Oxford [in Britain], then became a primary-school teacher in England before returning to Australia in 1975. In my heart I had already decided I wanted to become a photographer but I continued teaching for a number of years to buy time to learn the skills of photography.

In my final year of teaching, I ran a one-teacher school in a tiny township called Pooncarie - 'Population 48, Tidy Town 1981' the town sign read. Ed Stokes the teacher, with my wonderful cattle dog who roamed with me in those days - and 10 country, pre-television children, full of energy, activity and imagination. But, of course, the life was socially isolated because it was a 200-kilometre drive to the nearest town, Broken Hill. And in bad weather, after rain, the dirt roads were closed. But it was a real eye-opener on what childhood can be when children are left to develop on their own without the daily onslaught of television.

NEGATIVES INTO A POSITIVE My first book, called United We Stand: Impressions of Broken Hill, sprang from my fascination with the [town's] outback community. I started looking at old photographs of Broken Hill and found scattered, eclectic images in libraries. I heard about a rare collection owned by a miner. His father had been an amateur historian in the 1930s and had found a cache of glass negatives in a house that was about to be demolished. Wonderful images, kept in an old metal case. So I set out to record the memories of people in their 80s and 90s, who were young adults when these photos were taken, in 1908. The book became a synthesis of the photographs by James Wooler and the oral history. These people were miners who went underground with candles; bullock drivers; and women who had given birth in tin cottages. Within a few years, most of them had died. And that was the whole purpose of the book, to preserve their memories.

IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF EXPLORERS My three books, on Edward Eyre, Charles Sturt and John McDouall Stuart, explorers of the mid-1800s, were first envisaged at that little school in Pooncarie, on the Darling River, which flows into the Murray River. Sturt had trudged up the Darling past the same ancient towering red gums that I saw. I studied their journals and, using modern maps, replotted their navigation. These men just plodded on and on and on, often without water - heroic yet sometimes flawed. On my own three expeditions, I retraced their journeys to take photos of where they travelled.

The explorers all went by horse. Sturt set off with his mistaken view of an inland sea and came to the incredibly arid Simpson Desert. But he got all his men back to Adelaide, bar one, whose death was due to an illness. They were heroic people and had incredible bush skills to survive.

MAKING RECORDS [Having returned in 1993, I found] photographing in Hong Kong was fundamentally different. [Elsewhere], the explorer trips would be six to eight weeks. With my co-drivers, we were completely out on our own, absorbed in the rhythms of nature. But the fundamental challenges of landscape photography are the same wherever you are. In Hong Kong, I would get up at two in the morning and look across to where I could sight a radar light on Mount Parker. Unless that light was crystal clear, I'd wait for another day. [One morning] I encountered a barking deer at Fan Lau, on Lantau. I was sleeping on a hillside and at dawn, this barking deer came out, our eyes met before it bolted into the bushes. And it reminded me of why I was there, to record this ecosystem.

In many ways, the Photographic Heritage Foundation, the body I established with others in 2008, primarily to publish historical photos from different parts of Asia, takes the circle back to the beginning, with my book on Broken Hill. That book integrated historical photographs and oral history, which I would dearly love to see done with Hong Kong photographs. I don't think the incredible post-war era in Hong Kong has been properly documented through oral history.