On a Quiet Day, I Can Hear Her Breathing: Photography by Rae Begley
Chile’s jaw-dropping Atacama Desert is the driest non-polar desert in the world, and it is here that Australian photographer Rae Begley found herself in 2018 as part of an artist’s residency. The remote region is so otherworldly it is often used as an experimentation site for Mars expeditions, providing Rae with the conditions to consider not just the vast expanse of Earth as a living organism, but the universe. The majority of the work in Rae’s new exhibition, On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing, was captured on this trip.
This series includes photographs taken during a residency you did with La Wayaka Current in the indigenous community of Coyo in the Atacama Desert, Chile. Can you tell us about this place?
La Wayaka Current is a nomadic arts residency and research project curated in connection to remote natural environments and indigenous knowledge. They work together with indigenous groups, communities and individuals living in remote parts of our planet in order to raise awareness, listen and learn from indigenous knowledge in natural environments and develop new perspectives through creative practice and critical thought at a time of ecological and climatic crisis. This otherworldly region resembles the surface of Mars more than Earth, and it offers the most optimal conditions for astronomical observations in the world and preserves ancient archeology beneath the sands. Within the dry landscape lives an unbelievably diverse and rich ecosystem that remains due to the knowledge of indigenous groups who fight to protect the area from exploitative, water-intensive extraction and mining.
What other places do we visit and what brings them together in this exhibition?
The exhibition also includes work from other remote environments outside of Chile, photographs I refer to as taken on Earth. The works are presented as discoveries; moments in time and space. In the same way we would approach an image captured of another planet, I’m interested in the view of Earth as it exists in the vast expanse of the universe. The Earth will likely outlive us as humans and I find this a curious thing to ponder and to consider how the function of landscapes are presented with this in mind.
These places are so impressive, so strong, and yet so fragile, especially to climate change. How do you capture both these stories with your work?
The practice is instinctive and I lean into the power of nature, of the detail a landscape can hold. It’s about the exposure to locations of interest that allows me to explore these contrasting elements and a gentle observation often in extreme, remote environments. As humans, we are slow to act to protect the environment from our own destruction, to halt its decline, to care for home, our golden earth. ‘On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing’ is a meditation on time.
Can you tell us about how you landed on the name?
The namesake of this exhibition comes from a speech by Arundhati Roy ‘Come September 2002’ – it references the final line “Another world is not only possible, she’s on her way. Maybe many of us won’t be here to greet her, but on a quiet day, if I listen very carefully, I can hear her breathing.” In the context of this body of work, I’m referring to Earth breathing. It feels hopeful and poetic. The ‘quiet’ reminds us to slow down, to tune into nature and listen to the Earth, the mother Earth is the breath, the life. We are all one, we are all connected.
Your practice is a slow one — you explore your environments, you do a lot of walking, you work with film. What does this method give you?
In the words of Ansel Adams, ‘You don’t take a photograph, you make it.’ The series was developed with slow intensity of exploration through the physical act of walking and site-responsive connections to remote environments. Each photograph is happened upon, many captured during physically demanding expeditions. I love the slow, considered approach of the film process, the magic of photography, the painting with light. Every step of the process impacts on the final work with film photography; from the selection of the film, the light and conditions at the time of shooting and your energy and mood, right through to the final hand printing from the negative to make the print. There is so much information that the film negatives hold that the eye can’t see, I love that it’s recorded in that moment and when scaled up you rediscover that moment, a moment that can never be repeated.
There are so many ways to capture a place, to bear witness to an environment changing, but you go big. Entire mountains, sweeping desert plains, full sky. What story does this perspective give you?
I’m interested in the magic of the Earth, the majestic scope of its geology and experience. Going big allows me to explore the extremities of the beauty of nature, to impart a sense of wonder and awe that hopefully leads to an appreciation for what we already have and need to protect. What would it be like to see these things for the first time as an explorer would on a path of discovery? Rainbows, cloud formations, vast glaciers, sacred salt lagoons, soaring mountains, the golden earth seen in the last light of the day all feel a bit surreal; this living organism we call home does so much and presenting these moments asks the viewer to participate and reflect in its glory.
Your work takes you to all corners of the world — at home, what place grounds you?
Home for me is by the ocean in Bronte, Sydney. I walk every day and the horizon line grounds me. My healing place is the Blue Mountains, the fresh air and the bush always re-centres me to recharge after a busy time in my life.
This interview has been condensed, and was first published in Groundswell Journal.
Post cover image caption: Rae Begley, The Holy Water, 2018-2022, Handprinted C-Type Print (Framed). Printed from original negative. 1175x980mm. Edition of 5
On a Quiet Day, I can Hear Her Breathing
10 August – 4 September 2022
Woollahra Gallery at Redleaf