By Benita Woodley
Benita Woodley, along with her three sisters, is part of the sixth generation to grow up on her family’s sheep, cattle and cropping property in Wongarbon, New South Wales. Aged 20, Benita is currently studying a Bachelor of Communication at the University of Newcastle, New South Wales, and is on a mission to share stories about farming and rural life with the wider world. Over the past two years Benita has been photographing her family at work on the land and publishing these photographs via her growing Instagram account, @_girlbehindthecamera_. In doing so, Benita aims not only to help educate non-farming and urban populations about the current drought in New South Wales, but also to showcase the important role that her mother and sisters - and women more generally - play on the land.
This drought we’re suffering, she’s definitely not been easy – to talk about or sometimes to even think about. Regardless it never leaves my mind. I read an article somewhere that compared drought to cancer, how it sort of eats away at you. Seeing the drought unfold from Newcastle where I am studying has been hard. It has killed me not living at home – not being able to physically help and support my family. From the moment I wake up, to the moment I go to bed I’m constantly thinking about home and this damn drought. When I return home, I take every opportunity I can to document the drought and show what I think is really happening with many of our farmers.
My name is Benita Woodley. I am 20 years old and I’m currently living in Newcastle, New South Wales, where I am studying a Bachelor of Communication at the University. I grew up on a three-thousand-acre family property just east of Dubbo near a village called Wongarbon. Along with my three sisters I am a part of the sixth generation to grow up in the region. My agricultural background is something I never want to lose touch with. I am a country girl and always will be. As the saying goes ‘you can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl’. While my career aspirations don’t line up with Ag or rural industries, my photography allows me to keep a strong connection with the land. It also allows me to bring farming to people who have a limited knowledge of what agricultural life is really all about.
My childhood was spent outdoors exploring the wide-open spaces of our expansive backyard and its many beauties. We were constantly surrounded by lots of animals and a few humans and were always ready to get dusty on the back of the ute, on the bike or in the yards.
My father, a fifth-generation farmer, has lived in the region his whole life and he, like his father, grandfather and the generations before him, have farmed sheep, cattle and cropping all their lives. The land we work on has been in my family since 1887 when my great, great grandfather Henry and his wife Elizabeth, moved to the region from the Blayney area. Our family home was built by my great, great uncle Les and his wife Amy in around 1916. Prior to its construction my ancestors lived in a small mud hut not far from where our homestead now sits. My mother’s family also comes from an agricultural background. She grew up in a small village on the mid north coast of New South Wales called Eungai, where her father, my Pa, worked as a harvesting contractor and cattle farmer. Her family, the Rheinbergers, came from the Mudgee district where they too worked among rural communities and the agricultural industry since their arrival from Germany back in the 1850s.
Growing up, women were the lifeblood of our farm. As one of four girls, our home was constantly overrun by women and I often wonder how different our experiences as farm kids would have been if we’d had a brother. Six generations of women in agriculture exist in my family, although the opportunities that they have had to be involved in the physical labour of farming has differed over time. The women in my family are a real inspiration to me.
My mother plays a very important role on our farm. While she worked as a nurse in the years before she met my father, she always wanted and was destined to return to the land. She is more than just a ‘farmer’s wife’. She is a farmer with every role that comes with that. She taught us to believe that we could do and be whatever we put our minds to – no matter what it was. When I look back I realise what an incredible role model she was and still is for us girls. As you get older the relationship between mother and daughter changes and I see that now that she is more than just my mother, but is also someone I trust whole heartedly. She has become one of my best friends.
Laura, my eldest sister, works on the land along with both my parents, extending our long line of Woodley farmers to six generations within Australia. There is no doubt, my roots are dug deep in agricultural history and it’s something I will forever be proud of. There is not a moment of my childhood that isn’t etched with memories of the outdoors and wide-opens spaces. But with the memories of vast open spaces also comes memories of drought and of floods, of hardships we faced as a family. These things weren’t unusual and it became a common thing for our livestock to require hand feeding throughout much of the summer. Despite the hardships we sometimes faced, growing up on the land and experiencing everything that came with that was the best childhood we could have asked for. We were always apart of everything they did, constantly in the yards with them from a very young age. Being a country kid is something that I’ll claim forever, it’s something that I’m truly grateful for.
Despite this, I was never someone who took the greatest of interests in agriculture. I always loved helping out but as I got older I found myself drifting away. I held little enthusiasm to be a part of what my family did. My interests tended to lie in music, film, writing and photography. As a child, I was constantly listening to new music around the home and continually talking to the family about new films they hadn’t heard of or discussing film or music award shows happening around the world. We all knew from a very young age that I probably wouldn’t be a family member that stuck with agriculture. Recently, however, I find myself more connected than ever to the land.
My sister Laura always took a significant interest in agriculture and we always knew she’d be the one to become a farmer. She loved everything about the land and was always doing everything she could to be as involved as possible in what our parents did. She was made to be a farmer and when she was 17 she began to work full-time alongside both my parents.
As sisters, we are all so different, but in many ways, so similar. Laura as a farmer, Elsie as a teacher and Kate on a creative path to find her dream. As for me, I decided to pursue my own passion in a field where I could write and be a part of the creation of art and film. I began my degree in Communication at the University of Newcastle in 2017 and I’m hoping to become a film publicist and work in the advertising and promotion of films – probably not a career you would think of for a rural photographer. Yet, photography has always been a passion of mine. I have, for a long as I can remember loved the way photography and with that, film, has the ability to capture pure moments of emotion, depth and truth. Last year I was able to experience that for myself after purchasing a DSLR camera in January of 2018. I never expected it to have such a profound impact on me or for it to alter my future path.
Out of an act to gain an understanding of my camera I began taking photos of our farm and the people that worked it. After taking these photographs I realised how they showed such a true depiction of agriculture and the people within the industry. Every time I came home I would go out and take as many photos as I possibly could. I enjoy every bit of being out there with my family seeing them do what they love and allowing myself to bring my own interest to the land. When I first bought my camera I never had the intention of creating the images I have. Photography was purely a simple interest that I wanted to pursue but what it has allowed me to do is reconnect with agriculture and the land, something that I feared I may have been losing.
The idea behind my Instagram account (@girlbehindthecamera) initially came from the love and respect I had for what my family does. It also revolved around the notion of female empowerment, like my sister Laura taking on an industry that is mostly male-dominated. I wanted to showcase an area of agriculture that is sometimes neglected. Working in a male-dominated industry as a woman isn’t always easy. The words or actions of others can cause you to lose a belief in yourself. It can be very hard to hear the words ‘so you’re still living at home?’ when in fact Laura, and others like her, are in the career that they love, doing the thing they’ve always wanted to do, and in the occupation they have chosen. I wanted to demonstrate this through my photography.
While my photography started out as a way to empower women in agriculture and in many ways, still does, it soon became something much more than just that. It became a way to reflect on the drought, to bring the effects of the drought to a larger, urban audience, but ultimately it became my way of giving back to the land, of supporting my family and of trying to bridge an understanding between people throughout Australia.
For me the drought rolled in casually. She was tough this drought, unlike anything I’d ever seen before. The drought was echoed by a sense of lost hope throughout rural communities. It had gone on for too long, in some areas years, and nothing seemed to be shifting. People were suffering, the land was suffering and for the first time in my life I felt sheer dread. While the drought was going on at home I was in Newcastle listening to the continuous fall of rain on the roof and I wishing to God that he would take the rain with him, way out west where they needed it most. I cannot begin to imagine the hardships that many of our farmers faced during this time, and for some, still continue to face.
Now winter 2019, many Australian farmers still find themselves in drought. In many areas throughout the country little has improved and for those who have seen a glimpse of rain, it hasn’t lasted, the last bit of green burning off before any plead for decent rainfall was answered by the heavens. For me living away from home in a time of drought has been extremely difficult. My grandfather, an 87-year-old fourth generation farmer, who in all his years of life on the land had never seen a drought like this, reinforced for me just how bad this drought has been and continues to be. There is nothing humanly possible that can be done to change the weather. For me the drought of 2018, which continues into 2019, is the first time that I truly felt homesick. In the back of my mind I was constantly aware that I wasn’t at the farm to help and support my family. So, I gave what I could, using what I knew - photography. I decided to direct my photographic efforts at the drought, to show what I believed was really happening with many of our farmers. When I am home I take every opportunity I can to document the drought.
The drought was and still isn’t an easy topic of conversation, but through my photography I hope I can create an understanding. As we head back into what seems is going to be a similar winter to last year, I hope the media begins to once again talk about the hardships our farmers are facing yet again. My photography has become a way to show others what drought is and the impact it has on our land, and in a larger sense, the ripple on effects that it has on our people. Rural photography has quickly become one of the most important things I do and while I haven’t had much chance this year to be at home documenting the land, when I am home, my camera travels everywhere with me - whether it be feeding or moving stock, in the yards or while doing odd farm jobs. I capture the dry landscapes that our earth delivers. In sharing my photographs, I hope it allows people to see the effect of drought and maybe help change the way people think about farmers. I hope that what I have brought to the public through my camera has helped in some tiny way.
My photography has become a way to share images of the drought but I also hope it reflects Australian rural life. As much as the drought has become my main focus, at times I choose to steer away from that. There’s always little things in life that can simple bring a smile. I try to shine that through in my photography as well - a beautiful working dog, powerful women bringing their love and compassion to the land, the relationship between farming families and our beautiful backyard even at its most barrenness - there is beauty in it all.
When I had not long begun my photography, I stumbled upon a quote that read ‘If you want to learn what someone fears losing, watch what they photograph’. This struck me harder than I expected. I feared losing my connection to the land and, as I ventured off into the unknown world, I was concerned that one day I would grow less aware of those who grow the food that ends up on our tables at the end of each day. But what I have found instead is that photography allows me to be more connected then ever with the land. In many ways, it has reconnected me to my roots and made me realise that through my family and my love of photography I will never and was never going to lose my love of the land. So, I re-wrote that statement:
‘You photograph what you fear losing, so that once again it can become a part of who you are and who you were destined to be’ - @thegirlbehindthecamera
Want to know more?
Follow Benita's journeys via Instagram, @_thegirlbehindthecamera_