Australian photographer Hugh Brown’s stunning images show the world at its most extreme, but he’s propelled by more than a desire to take beautiful photos. His favorite subjects are the world’s manual laborers and the harsh conditions that they face in their day-to-day lives — which are far removed from the corporate offices of his former lifestyle.
His fascination with people and their resolve has driven him to create a documentary project called “the Cruellest Earth.” It has already taken him around the globe, telling the stories of the miners that work in some of the planet’s most dangerous environments. The project will comprise a coffee table photo book, a feature film, and international exhibitions. We reached out to ask Hugh about this project, his photography, and his experience with adventure travel.
How did you become a photographer?
It happened by accident. When I was a management consultant, I had a meeting in Perth one day and decided to take some time off. I hitchhiked up the West Coast to a town called Broome, which is one of Australia’s most remote, and I loved it. I decided to throw in the job and relocate there, but even afterward I couldn’t shake this worry that the vortex of my old life would suck me back in.
As a result, I resolved to see as much as I could while living there. Some weekends I would drive 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) — just to see new places. At that point, life was all about the adventure, which sustained me more than anything. The camera came along with me, but almost as an afterthought. I’d only used about 20 rolls of film in my life, and had never considered making a living with the camera. So, naturally, when it was first suggested, I was very uncertain. It took maybe four or five years to get past this uncertainty, but I finally decided to go for it.
When did you decide you were a “documentary photographer?”
I can pinpoint the exact moment. Prior to 2012, I was focused on taking the best and most beautiful photographs that I could. Then, after a time, that became meaningless to me. I wanted more — to make a contribution, to make a difference.
My passion for documentary photography evolved over time, starting with landscapes. It came to be about photographing areas that were being subjected to rapid change, both by man and by industry. I wanted to capture those landscapes before they were altered irretrievably. I figured we owed that, at least, to the landscape that took more than two billion years to create.
Then, that focus on change flowed through into my commercial work, as I began looking to capture what I was seeing in ways that would be interesting in 50 years time. Who knows how the activities of those miners, the subjects of the Cruellest Earth project, will evolve over the next 50 years? I am certain the change will be massive, and I feel fortunate to witness our relationship with the earth as it is now.
How does photography shape your relationship with your world?
It’s everything. I don’t love photography for its own sake, but I can’t be without my cameras. They allow me to become intimate with the world, very deeply and rapidly —that’s what I love. I love that I’m no longer an outsider looking in; I am an active participant in far-away worlds, and the people I encounter and capture quickly become friends for a lifetime. We talk about the same stuff we’d talk about at home: relationships, houses, and wealth. Then we laugh, and the laughing is the best part.
Photography has provided me with the privilege to share these experiences with others, and through them, I’ve ultimately realized that all people are the same, fundamentally. We all want happiness, and most of us confuse material wealth and things with happiness. That happens everywhere.
What stories do you hope to tell through your photos?
Ultimately, the photos and aspects I capture are reality, as I see it. People will interpret these as they will — there will be those who take a cursory look at an image and then use it as a basis to shape the beliefs of others, and there will be those who will look more deeply and think. I hope that more people will be driven to think, not to respond emotively.
The longer I work on projects like this, and the more I see in life, generally, the more I realize that there is no good and bad. Bad is good, and good is good. In the context of “the Cruellest Earth” project, it’s my life view that there is only good. I struggled with that for a long time, because many had a negative view of the lives of the people I photograph. Some had a positive view, but I was always in the middle and have stayed there. I see that as a strength, because humans are all on the same journey. Just in different forms.
The stories of these miners are particularly important to me because the world needs to see what is happening on the other side. A lot of people see my Instagram page and are shocked that the miners work in the conditions they do. They feel as if it is a parallel universe, but this is their reality — and they are no less fulfilled than we are in our developed world.
What kind of adversity have you faced to tell these stories?
I wanted to do this project because I was driven by something deep down inside. In many ways, I’d crawl over broken glass to do it. It took me years to find purpose like that, fighting my way through corporate jobs and such. Eventually, that purpose came, and maybe it was because I stopped searching so hard. I let go and things came to me, which is why I don’t take any of it for granted. The adversity and challenges that now come out of doing this project are my life’s training.
Fear has always been a big teacher, too — whether I’m hanging off a 30-meter cliff while working on my rope, or setting off for a new location, knowing full well that I may not return. Sometimes that thought in particular scares me enormously. But, I do everything that I can to prevent that from happening.
What are your hopes for “the Cruellest Earth?”
I hope that the project is seen by as large a global audience as possible. That would mean that as many people were seeing this reality as possible, particularly in the most developed parts of the world. Here, our reality is not the reality of most of the world. As for what people will take away from the project, ultimately I won’t have any control over that, and it wouldn’t matter if I did. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
I have self-published seven photographic art books so far, but this project is my most ambitious between the book, a documentary, and exhibitions. The idea is to demonstrate every way in which our world is profoundly changing.
Finally, what was your best experience of the project so far?
There’s been plenty. While riding an elephant in Northern India, looking for tigers and rhinos, I saw the most stunning white rainbow (which is incredibly rare) — and only four hours later I was facing one of the most challenging situations in my life. It was a classic yin and yang situation.
Then, there are always the friendships I’ve built. In Northern Pakistan, I spent my first night amongst the thrones of the mountain gods, petrified that I’d be killed when torches arrived at my tent around midnight. But they were only miners who had come to say hello. Another time, I was hiking in the same region when a lady asked me to help her shift some straw in the fields she was working. In return, she gave me some fresh apricots. She couldn’t have known it was my birthday. It was possibly the best birthday I’ve ever had.
Another amazing gift consisted of some guinea fowl eggs and a handmade place-mat, given to me by a couple in the north of Burkina Faso. They — and their baby son — sheltered me from a huge dust storm in their mud hut. Little did I know, my team was worried as to where I had gone because we were in a dangerous part of the country. In short, the work I do can be hard-core and intense, but experiences such as these give me the greatest pleasure. And it’s an interesting note that none of them involved a camera…