For a long time I have had a real calling to see more of the precious land that is Australia. For me, this calling is especially about the outback which is mostly unknown to me. The land seems to be drawing me to it like a magnet.
We had planned a great adventure in remote Australia for this year. Instead, we unexpectedly bought our dream home, also a grand adventure!
I really enjoy the process of finding women to interview for Devi Living. For a long time I have been wanting to do an interview with a woman who knows and loves the outback. Someone who is also connected to First Nation’s people. Through my man’s sister Sue who lives in Kununurra in the Kimberley, north of Western Australia, I got to know about a woman photographer there, Sarah Duguid. Sue felt Sarah would be that woman. I am happy to say that Sarah said yes to the interview.
Wow, what a woman, what a journey and what stunning photography! Sarah also does important and significant work highlighting the diverse talents of First Nation and people in the community. I know you will love this woman’s journey and her work.
While I was working on the interview, an email landed in my inbox. Flights were on sale to Kununurra! We acted fast and are now heading to Kununurra in March next year on a mini adventure. We will spend time with my man’s sister and her partner and yes, also Sarah! On her recommendations we are going there in the very hot and humid season before the tourists arrive, when the waterfalls flow and the animals are out in plenty before the dry season. I love how the Devi Living journey takes me places. Allow yourself to be taken to the Kimberley where Sarah encounters and captures the extraordinary.
Devi Living – In 2005 a friend took you on a road trip to the Kimberley in the north of Western Australia. You had some unexpected and very significant experiences on your way there. Tell us about that journey!
Sarah – In 2000 I had been diagnosed with a rare terminal illness and sentenced with a 5-year life expectancy. I was 30 years old and basking in one of the greatest years of my life. I will admit I was more annoyed than fearful when the diagnosis was delivered.
It was not the first time I had been told l may die. The annoyance l felt was more about the amount of mental, physical work and courage l knew I would need to summon to overcome this newly announced hurdle.
I had just moved into a new rental. The train trip from the hospital to my place was about 15 minutes. In the time it took to get home, I had dissected and examined all the information I had been given. I knew what l had to do.
Arriving home, l walked calmly through the maze of boxes I had still not unpacked. I ripped the phone out of the wall. This would allow me to free myself from my need to fix everyone’s problems and from the need to discuss my illness with people. I believe even discussing the illness would give it energy. My energy needed to be 100% set on healing. It was not denial; it was my way of fighting it.
l then walked out the back door and stared at the backyard. It had been neglected for a long time. Most of it was tall grass and weeds and the remainder of a pumpkin vine with enormous ripe pumpkins. It rambled across the whole large garden like a giant octopus.
I smiled… and said softly to myself – It is perfect! l knew instantly this garden was my saviour. Even if l could not control this disease l could control the weeds. With that I was guaranteed to never lose my personal power!
Though remaining forever positive, by 2005 I was now gravely ill. My fight to stay on earth was not looking great. My friends were getting concerned, so much that one of them unexpectedly knocked on my door one night and announced he was taking me on his next pilgrimage to the Kimberley. He was leaving in two weeks’ time.
My friend said I needed to go because the Kimberley was a place where people get well. My friend was not spiritual in any way, but his uncle had overcome his cancer there.
I do not remember agreeing or asking much more, I just put in my notice at work the next day and bought a pair of boots to walk in. Two weeks later my friend arrived and lifted a very sick me into the front seat of his Troupe.
I was too weak to share the driving. The trip up to the Kimberley felt like watching the landscape from a Gold Class I-Max Theatre seat. And a divine cinema landscape documentary it was! I had never driven this part of Australia.
By the time we got to the deserted Curdimurka Railway station, my heart was overflowing. Journalist Paula McManus described the abandoned Station as ‘Curdimurka, located on the Oodnadatta Track is an abandoned railway siding on the old Ghan Railway Line. It is 104 kilometres from Marree, a few kilometres west of Lake Eyre and miles from anywhere’. Maybe I should not be surprised that my first strange event happened there.
While exploring the abandoned site, l attempted to open the large and very heavy door that led to the station office which was now converted into a historical museum.
I had to pull so hard to open the door, using all my depleted energy. As the door opened, a small young boy flew out, ducking under my arm. He was dressed in an historical railway uniform and nearly bowling me over in his haste. It gave me a huge fright.
He looked petrified, so I quickly stepped back and followed his path with my eyes as he flew past. As my head turned, he was gone. He had vanished completely. I knew that what l had seen was impossible, but I had seen it so clearly. I had felt his fear like it was my own. I concluded that maybe as l was so close to death, I was seeing things I normally may not have otherwise.
I chose not to say anything to my friend. As our trip continued the sightings of spirits became more frequent. I was hearing the voice of a man that kept telling me where to stop and suggesting that l needed to go off the road here or there and look at this or that. He was cheeky and funny and almost teased me over me not believing he was talking to me.
Each time I was told to pull up the car, I had to ask my friend if we could pull over. I made excuses about why we needed to do this. l often chose to say I needed to pee, but often I would be gone for half an hour.
Often on arrival to these unplanned spots l was led to stunning locations, some of hem were places of traditional cultural significance which was something I learnt much later. They all felt peaceful, welcoming, and so beautiful.
I have since childhood always talked to nature when I am in nature. I acknowledge the land and the animals, the sky, and the earth. I pay respects to spirit around me and the energy of all things that live or have lived here before. I also introduce myself and my intentions. I have always believed in respecting a place before l enter it, just as you would knock on your grandmother’s door or call out hello before you walk in. I see it as a common courtesy. I did the same when I arrived at the locations I was being led to by the spirits.
In return, I was often humbled to tears by the landscape and the way it made me feel – so perfectly insignificant and yet a part of something infinite. I did not understand what was happening, but I could feel the benefits of the journey already. It was strange but not scary at all. If anything, I felt quite honoured and very much at peace with the journey I was being gifted with.
As l was not the driver, my friend caught on quickly that something strange was happening. l could not explain it and I chose not to. My friend graciously, though sometimes reluctantly, stopped or drove wherever I suggested. He too was amazed and delighted at the places we were finding.
4500 kms later we arrived one late afternoon at the Kimberley Cattle Station. I would call this place home for a few weeks. I finally got to explore this wilderness that had stolen my heart. I remember the sky at dusk was purple, an indicator that rains were coming and a storm brewing. I thought it was the most beautiful sky I had ever seen.
Later that night I went for a walk. The moon was full, and the sky had so many stars it felt like I was viewing it from another planet. I looked up at the sky and spoke my affirmations aloud against the wind; My body is healing perfectly. I repeated it to the moon; My body is healing perfectly.
Returning to camp I quickly fell asleep in my swag, visualising as always my army of good cells kitting up to fight my bad cells as l slept.
I woke unusually late the next morning and could hear my friends laughing and talking under the camp kitchen’s tin roof. It was at least 40 degrees already and too hot to lie another second in my swag. l sat up and got up… Then froze! Oh my God l just sat up and got up!!!
I had not done that in two years. Normally it would take me half an hour to wake up and get the energy to crawl to the bathroom where l would sit on the floor of the shower and find the energy to rise and dress for work. This morning l felt good. in fact, I felt really good!
Excited by this, I rushed to the open-air kitchen to join my friends. As l entered, they all looked up at me and then all three instantly and simultaneously spat their coffees out.
l rushed to the bathroom to look. I found a dust drenched mirror and frantically rubbed at it to see what had caused them to react when seeing me. l stared at the face in the mirror that stared back at me, and I screamed! I yelled out the first swear word that appeared in my brain. Then screamed again and started to shake. I held onto the basin to keep myself steady as my legs were shaking so much l feared falling. Then l released the most important words – THANK YOU!
The girl staring back at me was Me before I was sick. This girl looked healthy, she looked happy and the 28kg of fluid that was making my health so difficult had disappeared as well. This girl was not sick, this girl was not going to die, and she did not! This was my first Life Changing trip to the Kimberley and the first time I felt I had found my home.
Devi Living – You describe yourself as a gypsy who could never settle anywhere for too long. Kununurra and the Kimberley region seem to have won your heart – what have you found here that you did not find in other places?
Sarah – I do see myself as a Gypsy soul. I learnt very early that life comes with no guarantees and had realised delightfully early that there are many ways to live a life.
I abandoned a normal regular life to explore the extraordinary. I have always pushed myself hard to achieve it.
I came to the Kimberley and Kununurra the first time in 2005. I returned in 2007 and got a job while I was there. I went back to Victoria, where I lived, to get my things and return to Kununurra.
But as fate would have it, I unexpectedly became my father’s fulltime carer for three and a half years. I did not return to Kununurra again until 2014. Even though I had known I would return to live there one day, fate stepped in to make the move a reality.
I was working in civil construction on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. Our crew had just finished off a new estate. We were all looking forward to our next job which was a 3-year contract. At our last work meeting, we were told that the finance for the job had fallen through. We were unemployed immediately.
I thought hard as l drove the two hours home. I repeated my personal mantra; It only takes two seconds to change your life Sarah and four weeks to implement it.
I left for the Kimberley 3 days later, arriving with $70 and a full tank of fuel. I just knew it was time and that I needed to be there.
The Kimberley region has won my heart. I have travelled the world and have found beauty everywhere. The difference here, and why I have stayed so long, is that you ‘feel’ the Kimberley. It has a presence. It either holds you in close like a child or spits you out across the room.
Many long-term residents will tell you they came for fuel and never left! Plenty of car breakdowns or simple car repairs have for many people turned into ten years and still counting.
I do not think anyone feels the same after their first trip to the Kimberley. And trust me, it calls loud when it calls you back. No place has held my heart and attention for so long and I this stage I can not imagine living anywhere else. I strongly recommend it!
Devi Living – Country is a term First Nations Peoples of Australia use to describe the land and waterways to which they are so deeply connected. It also has more complex meanings that can be difficult for non-aboriginal people to understand. Seeing your photography, it is impossible to not feel this deep connection to Country. You have the gift of being able to capture this through your lens – In your words, what does it mean to be connected to Country?
Sarah – This is a difficult question to answer, and I would never be in the position to express what it means to a person of First Nation.
My definition of the connection to Country is an acceptance. It is the internal knowledge that you are a part of a place. You are not a visitor and it is not somewhere you live.
The connection is that you are a part of this place. It is within you, like the oxygen you breathe and the food you eat. It is all part of your being. All land is Country. The connection is the knowledge, lessons, wisdom, animals, seasons, and traditions that make up your life. I do not feel superior to people, animals, or the land. I feel a part of it, a cog in the wheel of Earth.
Devi Living – You have strong values and integrity around your work as a photographer – what is important for you and what guides you in this work?
Sarah – Kununurra was the first town I had lived in that had a high population of First Nation. I was shocked by the obvious two-way racism, the violence, abuse, and the crime. It felt like a place I did not know in my Australia.
How could so many negative things happen in such a small paradise? I made a promise to myself on my first day here – I would find out why so many negative things could happen, without judgement. It is not my place to judge anything l have no knowledge of.
After two years of researching reading, yarning, and observing, I did form an opinion about the situation in Kununurra,
Instead of vocalising it or stamping my feet about what l thought was right or wrong, I decided instead to do what I could in my tiny world to make changes. I chose to do that by focusing my lens on the positives. There are so many positive things happening in my community.
I started to volunteer to do photography at town events and by supporting grass roots local businesses and individuals for free. Anything that would help me promote the positives. I would post and share my images on social media, with the participants and in the local paper.
I know that ‘you cannot be what you cannot SEE.’ It was my way of letting my town see how special it is – yes, even though we are not perfect, we are strong, resilient and we all have worth. I was often criticised for doing so much for free, but l could not disagree more strongly. Volunteering opens you up to countless opportunities and vast knowledge that would take you decades to achieve. It gave me a safety net to decide if I could pursue photography as a full-time career.
I gained greater skills with every shoot and l got to choose to photograph what l wanted which is a rare luxury in a photographic career. Over time the pro bono allowed my photography and my values to start gaining recognition. Even though I still do not advertise my business, (my jobs come almost exclusively from referral), I now have enough paid opportunities to survive.
The opportunities in 2021 were amazing photographic assignments, all over Country and on Country.
I met and worked with incredible Aboriginal entrepreneurial women and men, traditional owners and elders, artists, designers and models. With NGO’s (non-governmental organisations), theatre companies, events, tourism, government departments and fashion.
My slow burn is now my full-time career. Due to not waving my flag too high or too fast, I am blessed to work with individuals and organisations that align with my own integrity, values, and dreams.
I am so passionate about photography and proud of the images that I produce in my shoots. To see the success that comes from my collaborations is another level of pride.
Devi Living – You have a strong connection with the traditional owners of the East Kimberley.
Many of your photographs invoke their ancient traditional culture and also shows the modern contemporary culture that is emerging in their communities – a wonderful fusion of tradition and a modern twist that you often highlight in your Instagram posts.
What positive and promising developments do you see happening?
Sarah – In Kununurra, the Traditional Owners are the Mirriwoong Gajerrong people. I have a wonderful ongoing relationship with this mob and the Waringarri Arts Centre, a very proactive successful gallery for local artists. Prominent local artists produce traditional works and more modern art in the mediums of paintings, ceramics, photography, and textiles.
They conduct cultural tours in the tourist season and stage local Corrobborees (a First Nation dance ceremony) during the Ord Valley Muster and hold Community night Corrobborees every month.
The importance of preserving language, dance and song cannot be understated in First Nation culture. It has always been their way of teaching culture, history and of telling stories that are interwoven into the seams of all their beliefs and lore.
When the British invaded this continent, the desecration of Aboriginal culture was swift – their languages was lost, practises including hunting were banned and dances and songs were also disabled.
Knowledge and lore were not passed on due to the removal of generations of people and the murder of the people entrusted with specific ancient wisdom. This is a much bigger conversation, but the reality is that now many First Nation people live with trans-generational trauma and all the negatives that come with it. The Kimberley has the highest rate of youth suicide in the world.
I do not have all the answers to bring positive change and heal but I use my skills to support and promote anything they need. Recently that involved photographing the first garments produced from hand-made lino cut printed materials by Waringarri Arts Centre.
I photographed the local girls on country. Those photos were used to apply for the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Festival. Waringarri Arts Centre were successful in their application and l was then lucky to photograph the girls on the catwalk during the Fashion show a few months later. I was so proud of them all.
Bianca Crake would have to be my individual 2021 highlight. I worked with her fashion label Jaru Girl from the earliest days of photographing her artwork to shooting her label on her country, then proudly on the catwalk at this year’s Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair.
In the last few years l have heard and witnessed the collective voices of self-determination and pride growing louder. It is wonderful! And a positive change of which I am incredibly proud.
Devi Living – I am sure a day’s work for you is never the same and offer great variety and unexpected delights or concerns – what aspects of your work as a photographer in the Kimberley do you love and adore and what are some of the challenges you surely face?
Sarah – The greatest aspect of photographing in the Kimberley is the incredible landscape and light. I also love that l cannot plan a shoot nor do l ever know what will happen. I excel on capturing emotive moments that are completely natural, spontaneous and me being forced to think on my feet.
I love that my images are providing a pictorial history of my town and where it is right now. I am humble knowing that what I want to achieve is bigger than me and I work tirelessly to achieve it.
The challenges for me are getting enough work that I align with to stay afloat. It is a competitive industry and often bigger companies overlook local photographers for city shooters and those who have more social media followers.
Also, outback internet connectivity is terrible! I am always juggling the time required to deliver my work with little or at times no internet reception to upload and deliver my work. It can send you crazy when it takes fifty-six hours to upload twenty-five images.
Talking about Internet connection, Sarah was not able to answer the last question in this interview due to being too remote! We lost contact but the interview was ready to go. Thank you so much for showing us your world Sarah!
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Take a look at Warringarri Arts Centre and Jaru Girl website
The Kimberley, one of the last great natural places left on the planet, is under threat from fracking. Please stand for Country and with traditional owners – and offer what support you can. Environs Kimberley does amazing work and they need our help!
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5 thoughts on “Capturing the Extraordinary – Interview with Photographer Sarah Duguid”
Wow Sarah’s photography is stunning, I never knew there was so much yellow in the Kimberly, and what a fantastic story of her recovery and how she is l living an amazing life. Another great interview Eva.
Thank you so much Jenny! Yes her work is absolutely capturing and her life story is inspiring! What a great way to live.
Sarah is a truly inspirational artist with keen eye for form and exposure. Her photography of the East Kimberley region of Australia is magnificent and captures the varied landforms as you’ve never seen before. Her photographs of the mud flats at dawn at Wyndham are particularly engaging. I’m addition, her ability to bring out the character in photographs of the local people she has profiled is amazing. I look forward to continuing the visual journey with her, wherever that may take her. Go Sarah!
I agree Bruce, Sarah sure knows how to capture the extraordinary, be it land or people! Her work is truly stunning!
Thank you Bruce, Your ongoing support of my work is so lovely, and always much appreciated . 🙏♥️