An upcoming documentary, Black Summer, following Australian photojournalist, Matthew Abbott, during the catastrophic NSW South Coast bushfires is in the final stages of production and set for release in 2021.
The photojournalist, who recently cleaned up at the Walkley Awards, documented some of the leading images from last summer’s bushfires. His photos are a visual representation of the horrors as Australia burned, with some images serving as a catalyst for people around the world generously donating to support the bushfire relief fund. It’s certain that millions of people have seen the now-iconic image of the kangaroo fleeing Lake Conjola, as it went viral on social media and appeared in media.
Like many other people last summer, Melbourne-based documentary filmmaker Chris Phillips was emotionally impacted as hellish bushfires scorched the east coast. Like many others, he was thinking about how he could do something.
‘Matt’s images were everywhere. I followed his Instagram to view the photos and he was clearly everywhere around the fires,’ Chris told Inside Imaging. ‘As a documentary filmmaker, I was thinking how it would be amazing to see behind the scenes of Matt’s experience – how he does his job and follow through with the process. So we reached out to him and asked if we could join him and observationally film him for a couple of days. Luckily he said yes.’
Chris went through the ‘logistic nightmare’ of securing last-minute media accreditation to enter the fire-affected areas. With the assistance of his contacts he managed to jump through all the right accreditation hoops and was soon heading north to meet Matthew.
The production team followed Matthew for three short stints, including a few days in late January and February while the photojournalist documented the South Coast fires.
‘Initially it was around a small-ish fire south of Sydney, and Matt was drawn from there to photograph a water bomber heading further down south. It was a pretty dramatic and long day, driving from place-to-place, (with Matt) making lots of phone calls. On the second trip we followed him through the ACT State of Emergency. We met him in Canberra, and the fire was much bigger – it was close to threatening Canberra.’
For the documentary film crew, the photojournalist’s process appeared chaotic and unpredictable on the surface. ‘A lot of time is spent driving, positioning and waiting,’ Chris said. ‘Everything can appear quite calm, then suddenly things quickly become dramatic. Given we were following Matt as our subject our own process was made relatively easy, but the process for Matt is far more complicated. The nature of photojournalism is the closer you are, the more powerful your images will be. So the challenge for Matt is to predict where the fire will be and position himself in front of it safely. This also means navigating police roadblocks which pop up quickly as the fires expand into new territory. It all requires quick thinking in some quite stressful situations.’
Black Summer shows Matthew not as a derring-do thrill-seeker, but as a gentle individual who cares deeply about the job, the story, and the subjects. Matthew kept in touch with some bushfire victims, notably the Fletchers from Lake Conjola. He photographed their burning home, and met them days later when they returned to inspect the ruins. The Fletchers told their story to the New York Times, with Matthew’s images accompanying the piece and the photojournalist forged a strong relationship with the family.
Chris dove head first into the project on a whim, and had no time to secure financial assistance. Much like today’s ensemble of freelance photojournalists, he filmed the story first and ‘reverse engineered’ the crucial funding component, knowing it was an important and valuable story. Black Summer has since gained financial support from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas, as well as Screen Australia.
Black Summer is set for release in 2021.