A man walks away from the camera, looking so thick with dust that the line between heaven and earth is completely lost. He’s dressed in blue, a stark contrast to the reds and grays of the world around him, and there is something about his stance that speaks of strength or perhaps resignation. It is History of drought, by photographer Joel B Pratley, winner of the 2021 National Portrait Photographic Prize.
The man in the photo is farmer David Kalisch. Pratley met him while working on a campaign for the charity Rural Aid, which aimed to donate to farmers in need by showing how different farms were trying to survive the drought.
“We were there and photographing them and their daily routines – feeding the sheep and the cattle and just trying to do household chores in a really sorry setting,” says Pratley. Then they were hit by a huge dust storm. What struck Pratley when he photographed through her was that “David the farmer was very stoic and not really shaken up, because he had gotten so used to them. It took our reaction to remind him that, hey, this isn’t a very nice new normal.
Pratley uses his photography to tell stories that might otherwise not attract attention. “I always try to look for a picture that is bigger than me, bigger than the person in it, that has a really important theme or message that a lot of people can connect with and resonate with.”
When asked what first drew him to photography, his response is modest and immediate. “It was the only thing I was good at,” he says. “I had a bit of a troubled adolescence and didn’t really get a lot of my college education. Photography was just a way for me to really treat the world. “
In his work he focuses on storytelling, in particular, telling the stories of those whose lives have been shaped by circumstances beyond their control. He traces this interest in people, in stories, back to his own childhood. “I spent part of my life growing up in social housing with my single mother and part of my life growing up with my grandparents. I have a soft spot for the elderly and people who are a little more oppressed, ”he says.
After working a string of “dead end jobs in my late teens and early twenties,” Pratley saved enough money for a nine month backpacking trip. “Big shot,” he laughs, but after his return he knew photography was what he wanted to do, and got a job as an assistant photographer and slowly worked his way up the ranks.
“When I started I did a little bit of everything, but now I really work to make sure the jobs I get are right for me – I really like working with everyday people,” he recalls. Between jobs, for the past two years he has worked on a project called “Greetings From Waterloo,” which examines the impact of gentrification in the inner city suburbs. “It’s a big social housing district,” he explains, and so for him rapid gentrification has raised a lot of questions for us as a society. “Who has the right to live there? What freedoms do they have as individuals – and what lives have people built in them? “
History of drought is linked to his philosophy of shedding light on individual lives, on individual struggles – and winning the National Photographic Portrait Prize helped bring this story to the national stage. Although Pratley is proud of the photo, he never expected to win the award. “To be a finalist is already a pretty big win – I’ve been a finalist a few times and it’s fantastic, but to win the award I was blown away. ”
He donated some of the prize money to Kalisch. “Portraits involve two people, you know, not just a photographer – there is someone who has volunteered their time and also opened up. So I think it’s important to remember that, ”he says. Recently he had the chance to go back and visit her. “I was able to go back and spend the night on their farm, have dinner with them and chat. It’s pretty cool that photography for me can do that, give me an excuse to make friends. Maybe that’s something I struggled with when I was younger, ”he says.
During the dust storm, Pratley took a lot of photos, but the one he ultimately submitted for the prize was the obvious choice for him. “What really struck me about this one was that it kind of had a real symbolic and spiritual presence,” he recalls. “I just think humans, we often walk towards the great unknown – and there’s a little silver lining there; there is a little break in the clouds. The Living Memory: National Photographic Portrait Award exhibition runs in Canberra until January 16. Buy your tickets here.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery