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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Facing the inferno

by Tara James, 15 April 2020

Hell's mouth, 2019 Cam Neville
Hell's mouth, 2019 Cam Neville

COVID-19’s surreal emergence is not just a direct existential threat, but also a morbid monopoliser of the news flow. It’s become the only crisis in town, so to speak, which is quite the trick in this information age. It’s also been a brutal follow-up blow for an Australia still reeling from the recent bushfires. The word ‘unprecedented’ was in full deployment well before the current viral cataclysm, of course; it was applied repeatedly to characterise the relentless flames that scorched and shocked the nation from September 2019 through to March 2020. It’s right, then, to take a breath – to take stock. With the requisite time for fire-traumatised people to grieve, process, and begin to reconcile suddenly stolen away by the urgent realities of the coronavirus, pausing to absorb the striking bushfire-related practice of Queensland-based photographer Cam Neville is almost an exercise in mindfulness – a civilised reversion to the proper order of ceremonies.

Neville, an award-winning photographer and Rural Fire Service Queensland volunteer fire-fighter, has recently created a series of stark black and white portraits, titled Firefighters. The series is a contrasting adjunct to his ongoing photojournalism-style project, Into the Fire, which has spanned seven years thus far, documenting the fierce realities of fire-fighting and its extraordinarily brave people. I spoke to Neville by phone about Firefighters, and subsequently in person at the launch of the NPG’s 2020 National Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition, which features one of his Into the Fire images.

It is certainly true that the heroes created during a crisis provide us with faces of hope – yet so many of our actual heroes are rendered as a faceless collective in the media. Through Firefighters, Neville aims to look beneath the helmets and yellow jackets to reveal the true face of the men and women who volunteer to protect Australian lives and property. He shot the series of 21 portraits – all firefighters from his local brigade – largely outside his garage door, using a black backdrop and daylight.

The series started in somewhat organic fashion, with Neville first capturing Terry Whitehead, a mentor and firefighter of over 40 years’ experience who fights fires alongside his son, Troy. He photographed Terry at the station as the veteran was talking about fighting fires in the Snowy Mountains years ago, and describing a dangerous situation he was caught in at the time. Neville explained, ‘I shot his portrait; it was just his face. He’s got one of these tell-all faces and is just an honest man, and I didn’t need to complicate that with props or anything. You know these are people who have given everything over and over and will continue to give, and I just didn’t want to dishonour that by creating unrelated portraits of them.‘

The ongoing series grew from that original photo, with the seed of Neville’s inspiration taking root around questions such as what motivates the people behind the yellow trucks and masks, and who they really are: ‘I was intrigued to know what drives these kinds of people to go and do these incredibly heroic and dangerous things.‘

It’s plain that Neville is an active participant in what he is capturing; he’s revealing a reality that he knows all too well, a story that is also his. It’s a fact that is amplified through close inspection of the portraits, with his silhouette as photographer reflected in all of the subjects’ eyes in the series – a ‘blurring’ between photographer and sitter, firefighter and photographer.

1 . 2 . From the series Firefighters Cam Neville.

There is a stark vulnerability and awareness in the stoic forward gaze of the subjects; it’s unwavering and real. The bond of trust that is forged working under intense pressure together for extended periods, and facing life-threatening situations, is evident in the way his fellow firefighters have opened themselves up to Neville – they’ve allowed him to capture them stripped back, bare and real. The photographer’s response is to present his subjects through portraiture in its purest sense: literally just heads and faces – no backgrounds, no physical bodies, hands or clothing, yet with each person occupying the same amount of space in the composition. Although role identifiers such as uniforms have been removed, there remains commonality – a collective identity that is palpable. Even though they are individuals, they are treated with an even hand.

1 . 2 . 3 . From the series Firefighters Cam Neville.

Viewed as a horizontal grouping, Neville’s firefighters’ eyes form a gleaming line. As Neville pointed out, ‘I wanted to make sure I captured largely the eyes in the shots. To me, having that natural light in the eyes of the subjects, I think it really draws them out and in a sense is almost like reflecting their souls.’ In Firefighters, then, the eyes have it, providing the viewer with a powerful connection to the subjects and their stoicism. It echoes the thoughts of one of Neville’s major artistic influences, British photojournalist Don McCullin, who stated ‘Photography isn’t looking; it’s feeling’. In this portrait series, Neville is intimately connected to the people and emotions he has captured. Fascinated, as he noted, by the ‘personal stories of ordinary people doing incredible, extraordinary things’, he is drawn again and again to tell these truths.

Tara James is Exhibition Coordinator at the National Portrait Gallery.

See more of Firefighters on Cam's website.

Related people

Cam Neville

Related information

The mahi-mahi, 2019 Rob Palmer
The mahi-mahi, 2019 Rob Palmer
The mahi-mahi, 2019 Rob Palmer
The mahi-mahi, 2019 Rob Palmer

National Photographic Portrait Prize 2020

Previous exhibition, 2020

The exhibition is selected from a national field of entries, reflecting the distinctive vision of Australia's aspiring and professional portrait photographers and the unique nature of their subjects.

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.