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Earthquakes. Extreme fires. Covid-19. So what next?

Winning the TPA/RPS Environmental Awareness Bursary set Alan McFetridge on a five-year exploration of fire. He explains its impact on his life and work

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The public imagination is fuelled by images of fire – from the blaze at Notre Dame in Paris to devastating wildfires in Australia. Why does fire inspire your work?

“Fire is complex and often misunderstood. I was born and raised as a Pākehā in rural Aotearoa, New Zealand. I experienced the dual capacity of fire during this time – firstly, as fire was frequently used to clean up on the farm and then the loss of our family home to fire from an electrical fault. Although we were on a dairy farm, we grew up surrounded by the animistic philosophy of the Maori people, where the plants, air, water and mountains have spirit force. It was our responsibility to know what that meant and how to act within that law.

“When I moved to London to learn photography at 19, my direct connection to my lands and waters changed and I met many people that spoke of nature as something other than us. My pictures come from somewhere between these worlds to look at how we, as a species, live and die on our lands.”

What impact did receiving the TPA/RPS Environmental Awareness Bursary in 2016 have on you?

“The funding meant I had more time to improve the quality of the project’s research. Setting up meetings was simpler because of the TPA/RPS history and reputation of excellence. The bursary became the catalyst that shifted my work focus from commercial outputs to being involved with a subject I am deeply connected to and responsible for. 

“It’s interesting to see that, while the impact of fire is studied, statues are falling around the world. I see this as common ground since the connections between slavery, colonialism, industry and capitalism are made clear by such actions. I see the same destructive ideology manifested on the lands, either as geography or fire-ravaged landscapes. By looking back it’s possible to see the history of governance responsible for today’s environmental issues, and finding ways to install a different ecological philosophy is one of the main impacts of the bursary.

“The project’s premise continues to develop. Achievements such as receiving five Prix Pictet nominations and being on the ‘Climates of Colonialism’ panel at the Association for Art History Annual Conference in 2021 are a result of the foundation from the 2016 award.”

Your projects, including Fire in Australia, rely on travelling and being out in the field. How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your life and work?

“The pandemic's timing was strange and good. Good for ecosystems and strange because I was completely exhausted and it enforced a period of studio time. I am grateful for this. The time has provided space to reflect and absorb the enormity of the 2019-2020 megafires and how the last 200 years have been for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia. 

“There has been more time for friends, neighbours, the local community here and I am happy to see the parks full of people having fun, cleaner canals, clearer skies, better air and more birdsong.”

Tell us about your latest project.

Territory is the working title for an upcoming monograph. It is an elegiac field document that reflects on dangerous megafires fuelled by global industry’s severe impact on the environment. The specific fire depicted is one example of how a fringe event that occurred in a remote region should be recognised globally. It illuminates the cause of contemporary anthropogenic fire, the social impact on individuals affected, and the rapid degradation of the world’s largest woodland ecosystem, the Boreal Forest. 

“It is a question of values, and recognising that technology has a surrogate effect.”


All images by Alan McFetridge.

Image credits, top to bottom: 'Timbillica, New South Wales, Australia, 2020'; 'Wadbilliga, New South Wales, Australia, 2020'; final three images all 'Mallacoota, Victoria, Australia, 2020'.

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The RPS in partnership with The Photographic Angle is offering a one-year bursary to support a photographic project that will promote environmental awareness. Applications are invited from anyone living or studying in the UK with a talent for taking photographs and an interest in environmental concerns.

The bursary provides £3,000 to help with travel expenses, photographic equipment and other project-related costs. Please apply by 8 June 2021.