Written by By Matthew Alexander, CNN
It’s rare to find anything older than one thousand years in the wild, let alone in the Australian highlands where fire has been burning for 4,000 years. But to create the new photo series “The Team Fire” a team from The Newseum in Washington, DC, traveled to the hills of South Australia to experience its unique ecology firsthand.
Having visited Australia for the first time since childhood, Nicole Schmitt, senior producer for photography at The Newseum, wanted to capture a side of the country she had never seen before.
“I knew right away that this place was like nothing I’d ever seen in my life,” Schmitt said in a statement. “A desert of ash, scorched trees and shrubs, isolated people and their astounding culture. I knew, regardless of the difficulty of the assignment, we had to document this place as honestly as possible.”
From the beginning, Kristen McCloskey, head of educational content at The Newseum, made it clear that The Newseum wanted Schmitt and company to tackle a delicate subject — fire.
“We’re pushing the audience a little bit on the subject of fire and documenting fires,” McCloskey said in a video released on the museum’s website. “This is the fourth millennium since human beings have been lighting fires in the Australian outback.”
“The people, the culture, everything you see in that photo you can see all over Australia,” she added. “And there are no places in Australia where you can access that culture.”
‘Elusive and merciless’
When the mission was first outlined to McCloskey, the photographer was concerned at the thought of documenting what was essentially a living ember — one that hadn’t been lit in centuries.
“It’s a bit of a hard thing for me because I do think a person without fire is a person without life, without love, without hobbies, without anything,” McCloskey said. “But you have to keep doing it because time will get you around to documenting it.”
The team of photographers undertook the “Team Fire” photographic series between October and November.
Fire consumes the earth in remote parts of Australia. Credit: Getty Images
Photographer Rani Gail was the team’s principal photographer. “The Newseum has really built their reputation around telling interesting stories, and this was one of those,” she said. “The Team Fire” offered her and the team a rare opportunity to work with local fire experts to fully embrace the environment in which they were operating.
“They are all very passionate about what they do and I was just excited to work with these incredibly talented people,” Gail said. “There was a whole community of people who were such good guides who were teaching us, were coaching us and were helping us communicate what we were shooting.”
But the difficulties of being in the wild are also part of the series’ appeal. “There’s something about the beauty of it and the danger of it that’s really difficult to capture in a gallery context,” Gail said. “There’s something almost mythical about looking at these burned-out landscapes and you can’t really capture it in terms of a gallery show but at the same time it’s just so powerful to be able to be there to experience it.”