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Capturing Community Stories: 'Portraits for a Cuppa' Explores Life Stories in Lightning Ridge

Updated: Nov 21, 2023

A miner laughs at another's joke about healthy and safety hazards.
Many feet under, deep in the Garwin mines.

In this post, I delve into the origins of my inspiration and the initial stages of creating something akin to Talking Stories.

It all started with an idea inspired by the traveling photographers of the past.

Being a documentary photographer, inspiration came from the approaches of daguerreotypists, like the duo David R. Sherman and Alfred S. McHugh, who traversed the United States in the 1840s-50s, equipped with portable darkrooms and studios.

The daguerreotype process, developed in 1839 by Louis Daguerre, involved producing a direct positive image on a silver-plated copper sheet.

In subsequent years, itinerant photographers, equipped with their mobile darkrooms, pioneered the introduction of photography directly into households and communities.

These wandering artisans would traverse vast expanses, setting up makeshift studios in town squares and rural hamlets. With their portable darkrooms in tow, they pioneered a unique and tangible experience, capturing the essence of individuals and families, one exposure at a time.

These roving storytellers not only froze moments in time but also facilitated a personal and immediate connection between the obscure art of photography and the diverse tapestry of everyday life across communities.

Their work, capturing the essence of different communities and eras, has long been a source of fascination for me.

An early daguerreotype of Paris by Charles Chevalier, Source: British Library.
An early daguerreotype by Charles Chevalier, Source: British Library -

In a more contemporary context, I constantly draw inspiration from StoryCorps' MobileBooth, a traveling recording studio that crisscrosses American cities to capture candid conversations between ordinary people.

Founded in 2003, StoryCorps is a non-profit organization dedicated to recording and preserving inter-generational interviews. Their MobileBooth, archiving these conversations at the Library of Congress, in Washington, D.C, stood out for its accessibility and community-focused mission.

The concept of preserving identities and voices through storytelling resonates deeply with me as both a photographer and an audio storyteller. This inspiration reached its culmination in the inception of the experiment at the core of this blog post - "Portraits for a Cuppa."

Teaming up with my good friend and fellow journalist Maxwell Rowley, we planned a road trip to remote Australian towns, offering free portraits in exchange for a cup of tea and good conversation. This initiative aimed not only to document but to genuinely connect with the locals of the places we planned to visit.

A hat on the dshboard of a car.
On the road.

We tailored our approach to align with the methods employed by historical traveling studios, daguerreotypists, and travel photographers.

The goal was to briefly immerse ourselves in these towns, experiencing them beyond the lens of transient tourists.

We created a flyer—a wishlist of towns we wanted to visit—and sent the 'Portrait for a Cuppa' offer.

In response to our outreach, we received an enthusiastic response from just one town. Lightning Ridge, situated in northern New South Wales, known for its mysterious aura, eccentric characters, and opal mines.

The town center had posted our flyer on the post office notice board, and we received word from Franka and Borko of Outback Opal Tours, extending an invitation to explore their town.

Black Opal Motel, Lightning Ridge.
Black Opal Motel, Lightning Ridge.

Lightning Ridge, beckoned us with tales of black opals, ancient fossils, and a population that plays hide-and-seek during census time. The town's name itself carries a tragic legacy.

According to legend, in the 1870s, a farmer, his loyal dog and his flock of 600 sheep, seeking refuge from nature's fury on a ridge, fell victim to a lightning strike that etched the town's name into the annals of the peculiar. That eerie incident cast a mystical aura over the place, drawing adventurous souls into its earthly embrace.

Venturing into the opal-laden history, we encountered the pioneers. Jack Murray, Lightning Ridge's first opal miner, staked his claim in 1901. Then there was Charlie Nettleton, the opal visionary who walked 700 km from White Cliffs, peddling the first parcel of stones in 1903.

His journey birthed the black opal industry, immortalizing him in a life-sized bronze statue, the "Spirit of Lightning Ridge."

Beyond opals, the town's underground holds treasures from the Cretaceous period— opalised fossils of ancient mammals, reptiles, fish, and plants. Eric the Pliosaur, with its colossal three-meter skull, and the Lightning Claw, a 2.5-meter theropod dinosaur boasting massive claws, stand testament to a prehistoric drama preserved in stunning colors and patterns.

A miner fossicking through rock for opal.
Inspecting the rock for a glimpse of special color.

Despite a vague population sign that says “Population ?” greeting visitors into town, Lightning Ridge thrives as a multicultural community, luring 80,000 visitors annually.

When census time rolls around, a portion of the population, we were told by Nat, our spirited tour guide and Borko’s sister, has a knack for vanishing underground until government officials move on.

A Signpost on the outskirts of town.
A sign saying "Population ?" welcomes visitors into town.

Our hosts, Franka and Borko, embodied the soul of Lightning Ridge — a duo seemingly worlds apart, yet united by an unyielding passion for this peculiar place.

Franka, the worldly German migrant turned Ridge enthusiast, and Borko, the ever-smiling opal miner with Serbian-ancestry rarely seen without his signature hat, welcomed us into a world where tales are as precious as the opals they sought.

Portrait of a miner
Pete is a miner, musician, antiques collector, leather worker, and tour guide.

What followed was a portrait adventure beyond our imagination. We met colorful locals like Pete, a compulsive nudist turned tour guide who regaled us with his exploits in the mines. We were in awe of the poems by Bush Poets – Mel & Susie.

Visited historic sites like the Sheepyard Inn interwoven with tales taller than their towering schnitzels and sly grog in the days before liquor licenses.

Captured photos and stories from proud residents unconcerned with anyone’s pasts, freely sharing Lightning Ridge lore. All living by the local code—“Don’t be a ratter or a shit cunt.”

By trip’s end, we’d sipped copious cups of metaphorical tea, filled our cameras with stories and scenes, and swapped yarns with artists, immigrants, hermits, and fugitives drawn to this dusty outpost. Lightning Ridge residents exuded eccentricity, resilience, authenticity, and above all—community.

We found openness, humor, wisdom, loss, pride, and purpose in these community stories. The shared narrative of people bonded by choosing this unusual and often harsh place to build a life and identity around the black opal.

As we said farewell, I knew this was just the first adventure of many for two traveling storytellers seeking connection through portraits and stories.

A sign post for the Glengarry Hilton
A sign post for the Glengarry Hilton

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