The Desert Sessions

Every picture tells a story: every moment is a window into the soul of the world. Some moments, captured, are like lightning in a bottle. These are the stories of those rare strikes.

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The Light

The sea is as flat as a saucer of milk if you’re far enough away from it. I’m camped here above the Indian Ocean, looking down on the midnight reflecting pool it has
become. Sometimes when the sun goes down I unpack my camera and try to find new ways to balance all of the light that is bouncing around that we can barely see: firelight, moonlight, starlight.
I love the ability of the camera to capture what lies just beyond our senses, to augment the edges of the Aurora Australis, to paint the moon as yellow as the sun, to show the milky way as shimmering as it is when you are standing there beneath it far from everything else in the world. In the end, the camera always tells the truth, even if the truth is hidden.
– Carlisle Rogers

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The Offshore

I live on the edge of the Great Australian Bight, where long period swells sweep through from thousands of kilometres away. Chasing swells becomes a way of life. Anticipation is everything. Will the four-hour pre-dawn drive through roo country yield waves or disappointment?
Three hours into an odyssey and the sky begins to colour. The desert wind picks up early here as warm dry air from the still night is swept off the peninsula. Sunrise is still an hour away, and the ocean is breathing in.
We turn down one dusty track, then another, edging our way toward the coast. The sky slowly ignites, one glowing ember at a time. The surf is nudging eight feet, ruler sharp. The cliff overlooks lines stacked to the horizon, groomed by a stiff offshore. The dull thudding sound of wax on boards breaks the dawn silence. Everything gives way to pure colour. Today is going to be a good day.
– Shane ‘Freddo’ Smith

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The Clock

Our lives are bombarded with artificial lights and glowing screens. Day and night begin to lose their meaning.
It doesn’t take long for our bodies to separate from the natural circadian rhythms that recharge us each day. But camping in the desert changes all that.
Waking to the rising sun re-synchronises the body clock. The body becomes more alert, clearing the mind and regenerating the soul.
Whenever I camp I face the rising sun. There are not many better views than slowly peeling back the zipper to see the day come to life.
– James Carey

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The Astronaut

The name Scott Kelly won’t mean much to most of us who’ve spent time in the
Australian desert. And when you look into his background there aren’t a lot of clues
as to his future impact.
Kelly was like any other Irish American kid who grew up in the backblocks of New Jersey, only he was also a kid who was obsessed with flight.
When they were old enough, Scott and his brother Mark joined the US Navy and pursued their dream of flying fighter jets, with both of them becoming such ace aviators in their missions over the deserts of the Persian Gulf that NASA fast-tracked them into the space program.
Over the following decades, there were fewer astronauts more decorated than the
Kelly brothers, and in 2012, Scott was selected in to live on the international space station for a full year.
And that’s when he got to see the Australian desert for the first time. Kelly documented what he saw out the window as the world spun beneath him.
The more he looked, the more he was hypnotised by the saturated colours, and the more he photographed.
Kelly’s work revealed our desert in a way we never knew existed – a foreign look at the familiar – and it was beautiful, a sci-fi world of tiger-striped mountain ranges, corrugated scarps and crimson stippled dunes.
– Jimmy O’Keefe, Image: NASA

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The Flats

This was in the deep Northwest, and we found this backtrack leading off the old King River Rd and onto the Karunjie Track.
As soon as we found ourselves out on the salt flats we just knew we had to bring the swags back and spend a night out here.
This image was taken just after sunrise the morning after. The only problem was trying to find somewhere a bit private to try and go to the loo, haha.
The flats go for as far as you can see and spending a night camped out here was nothing short of breathtaking.
– Sean Scott

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The Crater

A kilometer-wide dent out on the old Tanami Track, a couple of hours out of Halls Creek, is another one of the jaw-dropping things you forget about until you’re in the vicinity.
Our deserts are home to a bunch of impact craters, a reminder that we’re hurtling through space and occasionally other things are hurtling towards us.
The Wolfe Creek Crater, in particular, being the result of a steaming pile of space-rock ‘coming in hot’ over 300,000 years ago, destroying everything in its path.
An extra air of spookiness is added to the region, not by the fictitious horror movie named after the crater, but by the very real historical fact that nearby Sturt Creek was the scene of a massacre of the local Djaru inhabitants in 1922.
– Jimmy O’Keefe, Image Halls Creek Archive.

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The End

Trent Mitchell is a man with a strange way of seeing the world. He told me he didn’t even know this was a photo of a cross when he took it. To me, this is such a flashback of too many outback miles where I’ve pushed the boundary that little bit too far, and it seemed like death was waiting there on the edge of the road to take my hand, as gentle as falling asleep, as the road blurred by.
– Carlisle Rogers, Photo: Trent Mitchell

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The Island

These dunes on Dirk Hartog Island are about 10 kilometres away from the homestead where I live, and being only 13-years-old, I wasn’t allowed to drive a nice comfy car with big headlights and smooth suspension, instead, I would have to take my motorbike.
My younger brother Ollie wanted to come along too. So the two of us got our bikes fuelled up and rode them about 100m away from the homestead so we wouldn’t wake up all the tourists staying at the lodge when we left the next morning.
It was halfway through the summer holidays, meaning the sun would be rising at about 5:30, so we would have to get there by 5:15.
The road is full of corrugations, soft sand and rocks, so I set my alarm to 4:40, hoping there would be enough light to enable us to ride our bikes safely. In the morning I woke to my brother yelling in my ear “Wake up Will! Its time to go.”
I looked through my window and it was pitch black with the stars out. I looked at my watch, it was only 4:20!
We decided to just leave anyway. It was freezing cold. I had three layers on, my camera bag strapped to the front of my Honda 150cc and a small light stuck to the front mudguard. On the way there we passed a massive snake, at the time we thought it was a pipe but it was gone on the trip back.
We arrived just as the stars were starting to fade and the sun was about 15 minutes away. Still half asleep, we went for a ride around the dunes, Ollie got bogged twice and I almost rode down a 15m high sand dune.
After 10 minutes I could see the sun was about to rise so we went to ride to the top of the nearest dune. I got lost and ended up at the bottom of it but Ollie made it to the top. He stopped and waited for me and I took this photo of him on the sand dune before trying to get up it myself.
– Will Wardle

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The Elements

I was heading for Innamincka on the Old Strzelecki Track when the weather began to change. You get that smell in the air, the barometer drops quick enough you can feel it in your sinuses. I ran up to the top of a sand dune near the track and turned my camera on. I had a few precious moments where the storm, the light and the windblown dust all came together in an ethereal dance of the elements: earth, wind, fire and water. Capturing the magic of the moment, for me, was like putting that time in a bottle.
– Dan Proud

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The Laser

This is nighttime in Uluru… Red Centre, rainbow skies.
My little boy Sam was as transfixed as I was when I went off to shoot the heavens each night.
Though he’s frightened of the dark, he’s always the first to jump into the Cruiser and go scouting for some new angles. I had been eyeing off these sandhills for a few days and the pair of us were trying to find some that faced the Milky Way.
On our first attempt I actually got a puncture from one of the dreaded mulga sticks and had to change the tyre in the dark with a 40kt wind blowing.
All dramas were forgotten as soon as we found this spot and the next night we returned and got the shot.
– Sean Scott

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The Dawn

Western Australia has some of the strangest colours – it is unrealistic, even when you know you are standing there, as real as you’ve ever been, and the sky is washing over you in denim hues you’ve never seen before, pure washes of virgin colours.
The day I took this would be one of the heaviest sessions in the surf I’ve ever had. I took a beating that would render my winter wetsuit pointless, as a barrel slammed me into reef as sharp as the silhouettes here. I ended up as purple as the sky.
But in this moment, before we could see the waves, before we knew what was in store, there was only the sound of the water moving and the purple dawn. As pure a moment as I’ve ever lived.
– Carlisle Rogers

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The Meeting

Each year as the oppressive heat releases its hold on the desert and the caravans once again line the Stuart Highway, sports carnivals kick off all around the desert.
Football for the men and softball for the women are the main events, while basketball and a battle of the bands round out the weekends’ proceedings.
Yet it is as much about the social life
as it is about the sports. Catching up
with old friends, meeting new arrivals, finding new love and mourning the loss of loved ones is what makes these sports carnivals special.
This photo was taken on a cold winter day in Warakurna, WA. We had travelled 100km from Docker River. While I played football, Jess caught up with some old friends from Blackstone where we had lived six years prior.
– Brett Toll

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The Alien

This is in a place called Lower Light. I don’t know if you’d call it a town and I don’t really know much else about it.
The only thing I do know is it’s home to a series of sculptures that were built sporadically along the side of the highway to protest plans for a landfill in the area.
The spaceship is my personal favourite but I can also recall a cockroach statue, a giant dog-poo fly, and Ned Kelly. To me the area marks the spot where the sparsely built outer suburbs get drier and drier and really start to give way to the desert. It’s like a sign that things aren’t going to get any more normal if you keep going in this direction.
On this trip, SA was sweltering through record high temperatures and I’m sure it was every bit of 45°C when I shot this.
The other guys weren’t at all keen on letting me jump out and let the hot air into the air-conditioned car… but c’mon, look at the little alien lost in space here, just as we would be as we kept driving into the ether.
– Andrew Shield

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The Edge

This massive lemon shark could smell all our fish frames and decided to come and check out what was happening. I tried to feed it a big cod we had caught, but it was too afraid of me and swam back out to sea.
I left the fish and ran up to my house to get the drone and see where it had gone. In the meantime my cousin Sheldon had got a rod and caught it. I don’t know how he managed to reel it in but he did, by the time it was on the beach he had drawn quite a crowd.
This is a shot of the poor shark slowly swimming back out to sea. I followed it out with the drone and it met up with a big hammerhead shark that was coming in to shore.
“Don’t go in there, mate! Or you’ll end up with a hook in your mouth just like me,” the lemon shark must have said as they circled each other.
The hammerhead immediately turned, back out to the deep, with the lemon shark trailing slowly behind.
– Will Wardle

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The Dune

With eyes as tired as our windscreen was dirty, we got it into our head to climb Big Red and watch the sunset, then retreat back into the Simpson to set up camp, before continuing on to Birdsville the following day.
Storm clouds had been rolling throughout the day, so the chance of capturing the famed sunset was pretty much a write off.
We climbed to the top anyway and were joined by three other vehicles we had crossed paths with earlier in the day.
Despite all of us being on the verge of exhaustion, for the next hour we swapped stories about our desert adventures, enjoyed a beer or two, were part of an impromptu birthday celebration, and watched other vehicles trying to conquer the tallest dune in the Simpson.
To all of our absolute surprise, in the final seconds of the day, the sun made a brief appearance and sprayed oranges and pinks across the sky, before collapsing in a heap on the other side of the horizon. Just as we would be doing very shortly.
– Matt Williams

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The Farm

I can’t remember exactly how far north we went, but if you drove for that many hours in Europe you would have passed through at least three different countries.
Not in this part of WA though, just flat desert scrub, hour after hour.
When you drive through a new region on a calm and peaceful day like this, you can easily assume this sort of weather is the rule rather than the exception.
Yet clues are always visible from the drivers’ seat, clues that speak of a far more volatile weather pattern.
Like the trees that look healthy enough except for the fact that after a few months of normal growth, the rest of their lives are spent growing parallel to the ground. They levitate like arboreal Houdinis, never touching the sky, never touching the ground.
You don’t build wind farms just anywhere either. These things don’t really get cranking until the wind speed hits fifty clicks. And they get that here. A lot.
– Andrew Shield

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The Boneyard

An unforgiving sun bakes the earth, sapping any microscopic droplet of dew that has formed in the cool of the night.
In the desert, life clings to the edge, relying on the rare liquid gold falling from the sky. While rains can turn the desert into a green oasis, most times the rains simply don’t come at all.
Pioneers of the past came here in search of the inland sea but only found salt and hardship. Carcory Homestead echoes this suffering, abandoned after drought and the loss of 4000 bullocks.
Amazingly, modern day cattlemen still continue to eke out a living here but even the best grazier can’t compete against a year of fickle inland rain.
The fate of a lone cow slowly petrifies in the dry air, no different to the bullocks of the past.
– James Carey

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The Crossing

The Sturt Stony Desert epitomises the interior of Australia…
It’s endless, remote, and is a place that leaves a mark on both the suspension of the rig and the psyche of the driver.
Walkers Crossing is a track that scalpels into the very heart of this isolated desert, and it does so in spectacular fashion.
Perhaps because of its flat and repetitive dimension, the unbroken landscape is mesmerising – a collision of brilliant blue and burnt orange.
The occasional emu may shimmer in the distance appearing to swim in the mirage but there is little more to distract the senses.
It’s a dirt road that leads straight into the horizon, seemingly reaching a cliff-like finale at the edge of the world.
– James Carey

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The Trail

The whole idea of exploration…the idea that you can go somewhere no human has gone before…is for all intents and purposes dead. Every square inch of planet (and moon) not already territorially pissed on by the beginning of the last century was well and truly marked by the end of it.
These days, we humans are very lucky indeed if we can go where few humans have ever been, and even better, where there are none currently, where you can share the horizon with yourself, your own breath, and little else.
This is Camp 6 on the Madigan Line. I’m running east to west, so I’m more than halfway across the desert at this point. I’m floating. I meshed with the red days ago, ceased to expect anything more than what I saw and felt. I’m riding high, at this point, on what can only be called freedom, but which is so much less than that.
– Carlisle Rogers

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The Birds

I love the desert coastal scapes of South Oz. Nothing like the lush green playgrounds you find on the east coast.
Down here, the arid scrub endures extended periods of heat mixed with a regular sandblasting of saltwater courtesy of giant seas and galeforce winds.
This is the Bight, where high cliffs knife down into the ocean, making beach access pretty tricky.
The zombie emu presence along the Bight would give Hitchcock a heart attack if he wasn’t already dead. And these birds aren’t stupid. They don’t cross the road here, they walk the entire length of it!
Pretty sensible really when you take into account the Death Adder infested terrain on one side, and an ocean boiling with Great Whites on the other.
– Andrew Shield

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The Spirit

Brett Toll travels around Central Australia, many times on his own, trying to capture something of the land that he has fallen in love with. Occasionally he comes back to the office with a photo or two that just blows me away. This is one of them. On the one hand, it is excellently exposed for the subject, something that even modern cameras aren’t going to do without a bit of help. The timing is everything that Bresson was talking about when he coined the term,
the decisive moment.
But there’s something else here, too, something you can’t quite put your finger on, something emergent.
Her world is nothing but that moment right now…and Toll has managed to show us this girl from the inside out…beyond any politics, beyond anything technical, he has done the impossible with a camera: he has captured the invisible.
– Carlisle Rogers, Photo: Brett Toll

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The Kitchen

The desert means lots of things to different people. One of the things that I love about this part of the world, one of the things I sincerely miss as soon as the red begins to fade out of my jeans is the sense of absolute freedom you feel out here.
It’s dinnertime at some point between a couple of dunes on the Madigan Line. I don’t feel like pulling over yet. I’m drawn into the rhythm of the dunes. But I have to eat. So I stop Ghost and make a quick meal without bothering to leave the track or unpack anything unnecessary.
Home, after all, is wherever you hang your hat.
– Carlisle Rogers

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The Reality

We blew a tyre heading to yet another carnival. It was the second blown tyre of the trip.
It was getting late, the kids wanted dinner and I wanted nothing more than  a shower, sleep, and certainty that I was going to get home.
We were trying to cover 1400km of unsealed desert roads in two days.
The kids were tired from a massive weekend at the Kalkarindji Freedom Festival, I was tired from running a sports carnival, and Mum was tired from looking after all of us. It’s not all campfires and sunsets, the desert will steal your sleep, the desert will test you, right down to your bones.
– Brett Toll

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The Boab

I hunted this old girl down for hours. Despite being an enduring symbol for the Kimberley, boabs are surprisingly rare, only appearing at either end of the Gibb River Road along lower lying land where they can drink enough to fill their fat bellies.
I had been dreaming of, or imagining, this shot for a long time – a lone boab surrounded by termite mounds in the setting sun. I got a full rising moon at the same time by accident, which had be running back and forth around this tree, capturing it backlit and frontlit, trying to make sure I didn’t miss a single glimmer of this light.
I walked back to the car a couple of kilometres away through grass as tall as my chest, carrying my cameras and tripods, feeling no pain, floating on that peculiar high you only get when a dream comes true.
– Carlisle Rogers

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The Pituri

The Aborigines used it as a currency, trading it from coast to coast. It almost never appears in classical aboriginal art. For years I had been reading, and finding out whatever I could about aboriginal entheogens in Australia. What I could find, was desperately little. I was told that there simply were no psychoactive plants utilised by this people aside from some ‘bush tobacco’. But Pituri, or Duboisia hopwoodii, is more than just another tobacco plant. While wild tobacco is endemic to Australia, Pituri has alkaloids like hyoscene and scopolamine in small amounts alongside nicotine. The best way to explain taking it, is to look at the photo above, taken while experimenting with Pituri. Everything is subtly different.
– Carlisle Rogers

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The Ringer

This guy lived in the little wooden hut across the road from the pub in Windorah. He might still live there. It was one of the simplest existences I’ve ever come across in this country. Across the hut from him was a Maori man with long white hair, stonewashed jeans and sandals.
It took about an hour to talk him into letting me turn on the camera. I heard most of his life story in snatched facts, half-remembered stories. A lot of sun. Even more fences. Plenty of beer along the way.
His face is a topograph of his life, and of the land he still lives on, lives in. He’s about as Australian as you can get.
– Carlisle Rogers

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The Flower

You really have to look close if you want to understand the richness of the flora and fauna in the desert. She never gives up anything easily. At first, you’re blowing past the dunes in third gear, trying to find your pace through the sand, over the rippled corrugations. Inevitably, though, you go for a walk. You stop somewhere long enough to focus on another scale. All of a sudden the ground is alive. And species come and go. One pair of dunes protects a group of flowers you haven’t seen before. You drive another three hundred metres and see new flowers, and you won’t see the old ones again.
Like a flower in the desert, this one called to me, a million flowers in one, missing the desert rain.
– Carlisle Rogers

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The Rainbow

There are places you wait forever to try to capture. It makes it that much more challenging when it is a place that has been photographed by hundreds of other talented people. How to find your own voice among so many, how to capture something that has not been captured before.
Rainbow Valley was, for me, an exercise in patience. I remember lying in the dry mud of the thin lake bed that yawns out in front of the rock, waiting for the setting sun to light up its face, waiting for the dying light behind it to shift from blue to green.
Here, opposites clash: red and blue, the weight of the mountain and the lightness of the blue ether, between that moment when all of the light is balanced, seconds after the saturation hits, seconds before the sun fades.
– Carlisle Rogers

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