Q&A: Ray Martin opens new Bhutan exhibition

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Australian journalist Ray Martin and photographer Ewen Bell's new exhibition opens tomorrow at the 2019 Ballarat International Foto Biennale. We sat down for a Q&A with Ray ahead of its launch. 

Feathers of the Dragon, which runs from 23 August, offers a rare glimpse into bird conservation in the forests of Bhutan, and the Bhutanese who protect the birds' habitat. 

© Ray Martin
© Ray Martin

AP: How did the trip to Bhutan come about?

Ray Martin: I've been to about 100 countries, but I've always wanted to go to Bhutan. When Panasonic asked me if I wanted to go, and to shoot with a prototype camera (The S1R), I said I'd kill for the opportunity! Ewen Bell was there to shoot birds and I was there to shoot portraits.

AP: What was it like shooting in Bhutan?

RM: Winter in places like Europe or America can still be pretty colourful, with bright autumn leaves. But [in Bhutan] it has very subtle winter tones. It's wedged between India and China and it's just [full of] mountains and valleys.

At first glance it's a little dull to look at, but when you stop to take photos you realise the beauty of it - the soft subtle browns, blacks and whites - you don't get the stark colours which you get in say, Europe. I don't want people to think it's not beautiful, which it is, but it has a real subtlety about it. The birds are totally different, they are often small, but very brightly coloured.

© Ray Martin
© Ray Martin

Interestingly, because Bhutan has been cutoff from the rest of the world, they've jumped a few generations with IT - it means phones have better reception than they do in parts of Australia! But in the same breath, I never saw people taking selfies. 

In one of the villages I took some photos of a rice farmer and he invited me in to meet his extended family. I asked if I could take his photo, and through an interpreter he told me that he was 60 years old and the only photo he'd ever had taken in his life was for an ID card. 

In a way you're conscious that this is a place that has been closed for generations - and although it has now been opened up to the outside world, the people are still keen to protect what's there. 

© Ray Martin
© Ray Martin

AP: What was your biggest surprise from the trip?

RM: Nobody seemed phased by me taking photographs. In Asia everyone seems to take photos, and it's maybe become a bit blasé, but in Bhutan they loved it. I was also surprised by just how harmonious it is as a place to visit. It's not just in the landscape, but also in the people too. I never saw arguments or people raising their voice. 

© Ewen Bell
© Ewen Bell

AP: How did you start to collate your work for the exhibition?

RM: The curation of this exhibition has been a different process to solo exhibitions I've done in the past. My friend Ken Duncan would say that you should get someone you trust to help curate an exhibition for you, and he's right - when you get two people together it can be challenging to choose work for selection.

In the end I let Ewen lead the curation. Because the theme was 'harmony', we also paid strict attention to regional differences - for example birds from one region would only be run alongside portraits captured in the same area. Only a few Bhutanese people might ever be aware of it, but we thought it was important.

© Ray Martin
© Ray Martin

AP: What's your favourite image in the exhibition?

RM: Probably a couple that never made it! A shot that stands out is one I took of a woman who was with her pack of eight or so mules. She'd travelled into the village on a five day journey, where she would sell incence and candles and then use the money to buy supplies for the next few months, before heading back into the mountains. She was shy, but happy to be photographed. 

© Ewen Bell
© Ewen Bell

AP: What gear did you take?

RM: The main camera I used for the trip was the Panasonic S1R, with two lenses, the 24-105mm f/4 and 50mm f1.4. I also took my Panasonic FZ2500 bridge camera.

AP: What makes for a great travel image?

RM: Because I've been a journalist for 50+ years, I'm a storyteller, and I want my images to tell a story. Some photographers are opposed to the idea, but if I need to put a caption alongside an image to help tell the story, so be it. In terms of my own images, I love something that has a sense of humour.

More info

Feathers of the Dragon
Dates: 24 Aug-20 Oct (Launch: 31 August, 1pm)
Address: 38 Doveton St, Nth Ballarat
When: Mon – Wed | 11am-9pm Thurs – Sat | 11am-11pm Sun | 11am-7pm

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