How a single photograph saved a river: Rock Island Bend, Tasmania

July 15, 2010 § 3 Comments

How much impact can a single image really have? Can it, for example, save an entire landscape?

Last weekend, I went to Tasmania! Oh man, that place is so cool. Talk about beautiful—whew! Ryan and I stayed in the guest-hut of a family that lives in a valley near Cygnet, south of Hobart. It was very tiny, made of sticks and stones, and surrounded by thumping wallabies at night. The milky way was so bright we barely recognized the sky at all.

Tasmania is a place that has been embroiled in socio-environmental controversies throughout the last few decades. I’ve mentioned Matthew Newton’s photographs of old-growth logging there, as well as Ricky Maynard’s gorgeous images about indigenous people, culture and conflicts in Tasmania.

During the weekend’s visit, my host, Peat, told me about another photographer who has had a major impact on the Tasmanian landscape, Peter Dombrovskis. I want to tell you the story that Peat told to me.

In the late 70’s, there was a movement to dam Australia’s last remaining wild river, the Franklin River, which runs through Tasmania. Now, if you aren’t already aware of these stats, Australia is a continent the size of the USA, with radically less water falling onto it or running through it. It has a population of 22 million, as opposed to the U.S.’s 300 million. Despite currently having the most water per person of any continent, that water is over-allocated (literally, more water has been allocated to different human uses than is available), leaving many of its aquatic ecosystems in distress—birds, fish, plants, trees and other animals that live in or around the rivers are dying off at a terrifying pace.

So the idea that the last remaining wild river on the entire continent (or near it, since Tasmania is an island off the southeastern coast of Australia) was about to be dammed inspired a huge backlash among the population.

A senator named Bob Brown began a campaign against the damn. And he asked a Tasmanian landscape photographer named Peter Dombrovskis to take a trip up the Franklin, and see if he could make some pictures. In the end, the campaign centered around a single photograph.

This image by Peter Dombrovskis became the cornerstone of a conservation movement in Australia. That movement gave rise to the Green Party, which has grown to become a major political force here. This picture galvanized protesters and public opinion, which eventually helped stop the dam from being built. How amazing is that?!


For some more info, I recommend watching this clip from “Wildness,” a film made about the campaign in 2002. There’s also a good summary on wikipedia, and an article in the Sydney Morning Herald.

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§ 3 Responses to How a single photograph saved a river: Rock Island Bend, Tasmania

  • David Campbell says:

    Eliza, great to see the iconic Dombrovskis photo being discussed. But I think your post overplays the power of a photograph, any photograph, and also contains a couple of errors about the politics of the campaign to save the Franklin.

    (Because of the character limit on comments on your site, I will post my response in two parts…here is the first part).

    I have a deep personal attachment to this story, something which fueled my current work on photography. After traveling in Tasmania in the 1970s my parents gave me the Dombrovskis and Oleagas Truchanas photo books as a high school graduation present. And the first article I had published in 1980 was a passionate critique for the journal Social Alternatives about the stupidity of damming the Franklin. So this story and these images have been with me for a long time.

    The campaign to save the Tasmanian wilderness and the Franklin was one of the most significant and successful social movements in Australia. Bob Brown was a pivotal figure – but he wasn’t a Senator until 1996, more than a decade after the battle had been won. Bob was the head of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society in the 1970s, and after the struggle to save Lake Pedder was lost in 1972, opposition to the proposed destruction of the Franklin (first made in 1978) was effectively promoted by the TWS (the Wikipedia page on The Franklin Dam gives a good overview of this).

    (To be continued…)

  • David Campbell says:

    (Here is the second part of my comments)…

    I had a small role to play in this campaign, because at the time I was principal private secretary to Senator Don Chipp, the leader of the Australian Democrats. For Chipp and the Democrats, especially their then Tasmanian senator Norm Sanders, the Franklin as a defining cause. We worked closely with all those involved in the campaign, and I had the pleasure of coordinating our efforts in the Parliament with Bob Brown and many other activists.

    Like any social movement, it is the work of hundreds of dedicated people at the grass roots that is most important. What the Democrats did was, along with the Labor Party and even some Liberal Senators, was compliment the environmental movement with significant political resources. In particular, Chipp led the way in establishing a Senate inquiry into the proposals to dam the river, and the Democrats introduced a private members bill to prevent it. When the Hawke Labor government won office in 1983, they built on those initiatives and introduced new legislation to save the wilderness.

    It was in that 1983 electoral campaign that the River Bend photo rose to national prominence, becoming an icon for the struggle. That was because the Wilderness Society very smartly used the photo as its major campaign image, and newspaper advertisements featuring it appeared in the national press. So the photograph condensed a political movement into an image, and made it available for an even wider public. Given this, it’s too strong to say the campaign revolved around the photo, and we certainly can’t claim the photo saved the river by itself.

    This case is significant for thinking about the power of photography. Photographs have great political significance in certain cases, and this is one of them. But the image doesn’t change the world by itself. The power of the image comes from the way it is located in a wider political struggle. River Bend was important in crystallizing much of the long running campaign to save the Franklin, but in many ways the power of that image was made possible by the conservation movement to which Peter Dombrovskis and others contributed for many years before success was achieved.

  • Eliza says:

    David,

    Thank you so much for these wonderful comments. I am so glad to be learning more about this. And you are quite right–as I reread the post, I took a very vapid and uninformed angle on this. This is a wonderful story and it deserves better–thank you for adding another voice (and some more accurate facts) to this post!

    Cheers,
    eliza

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