When I catch up with Sydney photographer, writer and publisher John Ogden via Skype, he is sitting in his Avalon kitchen weary after another 18 hour day spent working on the companion book to his 2011 release, Saltwater People of the Broken Bays: Sydney’s Northern Beaches.
Oggy, as he is known, was then close to completing the 330+ pages Saltwater People of the Fatal Shore (since published), although he wasn’t 100 percent sold on the title. We discuss the passing of art critic and writer Robert Hughes just the week before, and agree that the phrase “fatal shore” still conjures danger and excitement.
John and his wife, Louise Whelan – an award-winning portrait photographer – are used to putting in long hours. Both are representative of today’s professional photographer for whom multi-tasking has become commonplace, particularly for those working in the field of social documentary. Both work simultaneously on commissions and personal projects.
He says Saltwater People of the Fatal Shore is “…a coffee table book with a sting”, as are all the books published under his imprint, Cyclops Press. In this instance, the ‘sting’ comes in the historical commentary that was a feature of the first book and is expanded in the new edition. The waterways in Sydney are as much a social divide, as they are a physical divide. While the Northern Beaches are generally where the wealthier people settled, the shoreline that is traversed in Saltwater People of the Fatal Shore – from South Head to Port Hacking and the Royal National Park – has a much more colourful history partly influenced by the fact that right in the middle is Botany Bay.
“The new book is a cracker,” he shares, excited by the stories uncovered – he is a dogged researcher. “It is a fuller story than the one on this side [the Northern Beaches]. There are more personalities and, with Botany Bay smack bang in the middle and all the stories that go with that, the struggle was to trim it down.”
Oggy has unearthed thousands of photographs, drawings and archival records. The book also features his own photography as well as that of other professionals, and he’s had tremendous fortune to uncover photographs that span generations.
“Saltwater People of the Broken Bays was a template and a bit of a dog’s breakfast – beach culture, Aboriginal culture, its acknowledgement of Aboriginal people, its sustainability and environmental themes. And it worked, it worked a treat”. He hopes this second book will be equally well received (newspaper reviews subsequent to its publication have been positive).
As with Saltwater People of the Broken Bays, the new book promotes reconciliation without being didactic.
“That’s one of the main drivers for the book; to acknowledge the First People,” says Oggy who has a long history working with indigenous communities. In June 2012 he was the recipient of the Pauline McLeod Award for Reconciliation, presented by the Eastern Region Local Government Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Forum (of NSW). The award was in recognition of the books he has published – Australienation, Portraits from a Land Without People which raised significant funds for Indigenous health, and now the Saltwater set.
In Saltwater People of the Fatal Shore there is also an environmental thread to the story that is woven throughout, and starts with the pristine waters of Botany Bay that were quickly turned to festering pools by the English. “The First People lived here for tens of thousands of years in a sustainable manner. The Europeans were rapacious. They didn’t only take what they needed, they went on a frenzy, and what was a Garden of Eden became a toxic waste area. When I look at it in the microcosm of 200 years of our history, you can see how much we have changed the land and it hasn’t always been for the good.”
In the book he reveals a number of stories that if once known, are perhaps now forgotten. “The Aborigines in these parts were a canoe culture. They travelled as much by canoe as they did by foot, using the rivers as highways. When their land was taken, to survive some worked on whaling and sealing boats. Even on the Third Fleet, the majority of ships that brought convicts were whalers that had been converted. Later they were reconverted and crewed by indigenous people from here, Africa and other parts of the world.”
He profiles several Aborigines who were among these early fishermen and tells of one man who was dropped off on an island with his team to kill seals.
“This was a sub-Antarctic island and the ship was meant to come back for them, but they were forgotten. Two years later they were picked up by another ship. And people complain about work now,” he laughs. “You think you had a hard day? What about the day I had?”
John Ogden has had a mixed and, at times lauded, career, but photography and storytelling have always been at his core. In the 1970s he worked as a photojournalist, and also studied anthropology and history. In the 1980s he actually turned his hand to film and later went on to become an award-winning director of photography (DOP) for feature films and documentaries.
He also worked in advertising and with MTV. But “riding the gravy train” wasn’t spiritually fulfilling and, when he lost an eye to surfing and then went blind in the other due to cataracts, he took it as a sign and decided to embrace something more meaningful. Publishing seemed like a good idea for this writer/photographer and once he’d had eye surgery and regained his sight, he threw himself into Cyclops Press which is where he is today.
“Now I am doing what I want to do, I have to figure out how to sustain it,” he says acknowledging that publishing, like film and photography, is now being transformed by the digital age.
“It’s a bit like jumping out of the pan into the fire,” he laughs. “If money is a driver, you are better off working at McDonald’s than as an independent publisher.” He is patently aware that he needs sales to enable him to continue publishing “important stories”.
As we wound up our interview, Oggy revealed he was heading off to Los Angeles the following day where his short film House of Sticks was part of the line-up for the 2012 HollyShorts Film Festival. Another labour of love, House of Sticks was written, directed and largely funded by Oggy himself.
“And it’s screening in Hollywood at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.” He pauses and I can see the cogs of his brain whirring. “I also have a feature script in my back pocket and want to try and do a bit of a hustle with that too while I’m there,” he adds.
Saltwater People of the Fatal Shore by John Ogden is published by Cyclops Press and is priced at $99. Visit www.cyclopspress.com.au