In this entry of The Power of the Image series, Tasmanian photographer Paul Hoelen shares his beliefs on the therapeutic power of images, the connection he sees between portraiture and landscape, and the importance of community.
How do you balance the demands of the photography as a business and photography as an artistic calling?
Essentially I’m an artist, conservationist and a humanitarian at heart so one of the more consistent challenges for me being a full-time working photographer has been placing a solid emphasis on the business side of things. It doesn’t always make my soul sing, but it also needs to be addressed in terms of long term sustainability. It’s an interesting balance! One way of approaching this balance has been to choose my clients quite thoughtfully, looking for those whose values align well with mine, and who ideally support me creatively and allow me some room to bring my creative side into the process. By being up front, building relationship and trust and explaining the potential benefits of some room to breathe artistically, I often find myself being able to meet them nicely in the middle.
From a strategic point of view, I’ve positioned myself in Tasmania so I can keep my overheads low, have less financial pressure and to enable me to lead a beautiful, healthy lifestyle. It’s an incredible place to call home and have as a base to engage with the world. Recognising that there’s a less broad client base here, and also with an innate love for travel and adventure, I have built up a lot of clients nationally and internationally. Typically, I spend 6 months on the road in a busy year, and much of my work has been based outside of Tasmania. Photography is such a universal and transportable skill-set and I see my photography as a vehicle and a means to travel. It can connect with people across cultures, language, beliefs and different ways of being and almost anyone has some sort of use for it.
For example, if I get a significant commercial job overseas, then I tend to open a wider window around it to engage in personal and fine art work (such as my aerial landscapes) and then put the feelers out to pick up other work on the trip through connections from the main client or on the ground research in the area. This approach allows me to support the trip commercially up front, and also gives room for my artistic pursuits and to keep building my fine art portfolio.
I have worked to cultivate relationships with several fine art representatives over the past 8-10 years, which tends to work beautifully in terms of that commercial/artistic balance. They give me full autonomy to focus on my own vision and craft artistically, then use their own business skills, contacts and industry knowledge to get my work out there and make sales. A win-win in my books! Part of me wishes that was enough to make a living from full time, as I could then leave the business side to others (lol), but to be honest I thrive on variety and working in different genres and helping clients achieve their goals.
In any given month at home, I would usually mix in some commercial, portrait or event work with a few landscape-based trips for pursuing fine artwork. I find working in different genres keeps me fresh, interested and constantly growing with a cross pollination of techniques and ideas all feeding into each other over time in a positive way. Not every one’s approach obviously, but it works for me in terms of keeping my interest, passion and energy alive in the long term.
What’s your first memory of photography?
My whole process towards taking images initially was very fluid, unconscious in a way, spontaneous and natural. I didn’t know anything about photography, never looked at anyone’s work, hadn’t been taught, and in fact I didn’t even own a camera – I borrowed cameras for three to four years before owning one of my own.
Photography became an extension of my interaction with the places I visited and the experiences I had. I did a lot of solo adventures into amazing landscapes and felt incredibly privileged and moved by the depth and richness of the experiences I had out there. Taking photographs enabled me to anchor the experience deeper by being able to relive it through the imagery and also share the story of it and inspire others visually.
I started off with a little Olympus point-and-shoot, stuck in the top pocket of my shirt. It went everywhere with me. I didn’t necessarily have any specific agenda in mind, I just loved having a camera ever-present and ready for the opportunity of the moment. To this day, I have always had a camera of some kind in my pocket.
Thinking back, my father passed away when I was quite young, but I did see him take a lot of images with an old film Minolta. I don’t think I ever used it and he didn’t teach me anything specifically, but I did witness him making an effort to record special moments of our family’s life. I now realise that he’s left us a rich body of work documenting the life of our family – the special moments, places and people that were woven through our childhood – which I have come to treasure greatly and have recognised the significance of.
Those photos are an embodiment of our childhood, of our relationships, our love and our stories. So if I think about it on reflection, my first memory of photography was witnessing this process, yet its meaning and impact has taken a longer time to sink into something more conscious and real to me. There was a big gap between when he passed and when I picked up a camera myself – perhaps eight or nine years – but I recognise a level of influence from this; my motivation to document my own life, to share, and to tell the stories of places, people and experiences that I love and hold meaning to me. It’s become like a visual diary of my life. When friends catch up with me and ask what I’ve been up to, they sometimes just say, wait a minute, just pass me your camera and we’ll know!
I’ve become much more aware and thoughtful around the value of documenting our stories and doing so for others too, and much of my image making revolves around this these days.
In what ways does photography allow you to express yourself?
Some people journal or write, some people paint to express themselves and engage with the world and tell their stories. What I was drawn to very early on was the immediacy and the visceral aspect of image making. These aspects were so appealing! The immediacy of the medium, and the capacity to engage and share stories so readily in this form continues to hold a huge attraction for me.
While writing may take months, I can create a cohesive body of work in a short period of time with images – and no more so have I found this than with aerial photography. The calibre and range of content I can create in one flight can sometimes have me editing images for up to a year afterwards, and the productivity of it can be incredible. I just feel expressed!
I was taught that when you have a gift (no matter what it is), then there’s an invitation, and almost an element of responsibility, to use that to better the world we all share together. This has definitely guided and influenced my ultimate motivation with my image making as I’ve developed and grown more capable. There are many ways and levels that image making can serve this purpose. From capturing the tiniest smile on a grandma’s face, to shifting the way that people can engage with landscape, to inspiring people to conserve what’s left of the natural world, to altering the way people can see themselves and each other in a deeper, therapeutic sort of way – this has all been part of what has driven my career and what motivates me moving forward. There is a huge capacity for images to educate, inspire and challenge people to face the major issues that are happening in the world today and shift the way they see themselves and their place in this life. I’m finding myself more and more aligned to these aspects as my key motivation and purpose.
This sounds a little idealistic, but it’s actually quite practicable and actionable in many ways. In a portrait shoot for instance, you can use the opportunity to bring people closer, become more aware of each other’s gifts and special qualities, heal and get to know each other better though the way you frame and run the process – in addition to the influence of the images themselves. It can be potentially transformative (Jesh de Rox reminded me of this).
It can even apply to a commercial shoot in a workplace, where you can find the lighter side of people, or perhaps bridge the gap between a boss and his workers in a photograph – break the ice and create openings that weren’t there before.
Your choice of clients is another. I tend to align with businesses that have similar positive and sustainable values. For instance, I worked as the head photographer for Wanderlust Australasia for three years. Their intention is the betterment of people’s lives through yoga and mindfulness, and all the businesses they partnered with and events they ran were extremely eco-conscious and green in their practices.
I have also volunteered regularly for conservation projects with the Bob Brown Foundation, Tasmanian Land Conservancy, Tarkine in Motion Project and Make a Wish Foundation.
I guess my point is, my photography allows me to express my values and the qualities I strive to celebrate and encourage into being, through the choices I make around what, who and why. And as much as possible I work to keep them aligned as the satisfaction and self-expression I gain from doing so is deeply enriching on so many levels.
Is there a difference in your approach to landscapes and portraiture? Or are they organically connected?
I have spent time being present with and engaging with indigenous people, practises and philosophies throughout my life. In all of them, people and ‘country’ are completely intertwined. The well-being of both are deeply interconnected and intertwined. This is something I believe our society has begun to lose sight of, with significant consequence. So yes, I believe they are organically connected for sure.
There are two major photographic projects in my career that I have worked on in that premise which I hope reflect that somehow. I had a career in Wilderness Adventure therapy, where I worked with recovering addicts, street kids, families, single mums, truant teens, and people from very disadvantaged areas of society. We used quality time in nature and wild places as a therapeutic medium to work on areas of personal development. I recognized early on that thoughtful and sensitive photography could play a powerful role in the therapeutic process and both people and the landscape held equal importance in the imagery to this effect.
Images could anchor people back into the authenticity, rich memory and positivity of the experiences they had, experiences that could easily get washed away when they got back to the often significant challenges of their everyday lives. It allowed them the time and opportunity to reflect and recognise that their often life-changing experiences were tangible, real and undeniable.
Through the imagery they could return to a moment where they found the courage to move past a huge fear and overcome a challenge, the willingness to trust others or be trusted themselves (often for the first time), or be brough back to an incredibly deep and intimate connection with a landscape that brought them great peace and internal calm. Essentially it had the capacity to support a change in the way they saw themselves, and the way others saw them too – and in doing so, engendered a long-lasting positive change. In short, imagery became a huge part of the culture of the organisation, and one of the main tools we used therapeutically.
Another major photographic project that continues along this vein has been the Men with Heart Project: a 20 year body of work exploring what defines healthy masculinity in Australian culture today. Essentially it’s a very intimate body of portrait work shot in remote nature-based locations in Tasmania. TasMen (Tasmanian Men’s Health and Well-being Association) facilitated and ran yearly gatherings where they drew on different cultural techniques to create a space for men where they are away from everything, can drop their walls, feel safe, let their guard down, and be welcome and accepted for who they are and whatever is going on for them. They could explore ways to heal, express themselves, connect with others and grow into better men. Being remote and connecting to nature was a huge part of the experience and context in allowing this to happen.
I found myself in a very intimate and unique position in that I was the only one allowed to photograph in this space – a place where men had very deep, life-changing and cathartic experiences out on country. The images I managed to capture offered a vulnerability and intimacy rarely seen openly in men in Australian culture and offered a powerful window into a paradigm of hope, healing and openness in men’s well-being – an important shift from seeing vulnerability as weakness to vulnerability as strength.
Vulnerability can be a great strength because it can enable people to be okay to not be okay, and allow people to ask for support, which then gives other people the same permission to ask in reciprocity. This creates the possibility for growth, healing and connection. And with 7-8 men a day taking their lives in this country through not bring able to cope or deal with their internal and emotional world, there’s a lot to look at as to how we can shift this frightening statistic, starting with opening a window to witnessing the possibility and beauty of deep, authentic emotional engagement between men.
Men (and women) have been doing this for thousands of years, putting time aside to come together out in nature to develop themselves, even be challenged at times to grow and strengthen with the support of others.
It’s been a real privilege to see this body of work awarded with several national awards for community health and well-being in Tasmania in recognition for its impact on the health and well-being of men and boys. If you can influence people’s wellbeing and shift them into a place that is more loving, open or transformative, then you’ve done something worthwhile, and to document this has been one of the greatest privileges of my life so far.
To tie these two bodies of work together, I would say the rich thread I have been able to express through my imagery of photographing people in landscapes is ‘connection’: to themselves, each other and the land we walk upon, and I genuinely and passionately feel this is utterly essential to our well-being.
What role does nature play in your photography?
Nature is where we come from and where we go back to. It supports us as a species and guides those who slow down and listen to its voice. As a landscape photographer it gives me an incredible playground to explore and express myself in and around it. Nature is such a great balancing force for us all and is such an equaliser. It doesn’t care how much money you have, how big your stock portfolio or your house is, or what car you drive. All that means nothing out there. Your value system gets realigned when you spend quality time in a wild place and your core values move back towards their healthiest position. It inspires you towards being present, looking after each other when you’re out there and ultimately to look after her. It’s the ultimate teacher.
Nature is at the beating heart of my life. I live surrounded by it on a wild island with the cleanest air on earth, I work in it on an almost daily basis and it’s what inspires me and teaches me more than anything else I know of.
My career in Wilderness Therapy also helped me build a much deeper, more authentic, and more conscious understanding of the genuine positive influence of wild places on our well-being. I have also realised early on that many wild areas are losing their crucial place in the world at a rapid and alarming rate, and as such I have been involved on many levels in using my image making skills for the conservation of high value wilderness areas – and will do for the rest of my days. We don’t have a Planet B!
What role does the photography community and the AIPP play in your image making?
Before joining the AIPP I was pretty much operating in a solo bubble and knew virtually no one taking images for a living. Suddenly I had the opportunity to engage in a rich visual community of like-minded people, and another world opened up. It’s exposed me to a lot of people’s work and invited me to think outside of the box of what I had been doing and how and why I took and created images. It paved the way to exploring new techniques and styles, facilitated new friendships with photographers all around the country and got me thinking about how we can use our gifts and skills as a wider community.
I now have places to stay and people to share with, lean on for mentorship, visit for fun, refer work to and from, experiment with and push me to grow – all over the country.
I couldn’t put a value on the connections, support and camaraderie that has emerged from it. It’s also added credibility to my business, connected me with industry players and companies, improved my business skills and widened the scope of my photographic life. They say you tend to only get out what you put in as a principle in life, and though I have put a lot in at times, what I’ve received from it far exceeds what I would have expected. I don’t think I could put a value on the richness of community and sense of belonging it has created in my life.
Being a member of the AIPP also facilitated the creation of The Light Collective, which has become a significant and very meaningful part of my life. I teamed up Ricardo da Cunha, Adam Williams, Ignacio Palacios and Luke Austin, some of the best up-and-coming landscape photographers in the country, to challenge each other to grow and dedicate our combined abilities and resources to support high conservation value projects in Australia. Collectively we have more skills, contacts, resources and energy to put into larger scale projects than we ever could have pursued on our own.
Being a part of such a group, where I’m being pushed by some of the best to refine how to use visual narrative and a collective voice to speak for highly threatened places and powerful issues such as global warming, well it’s hard to top that as a motivator in keeping the passion alive and as a vehicle for growing into a more meaningful and effective image maker.
How do you maintain your passion?
I have a deep personal motivation towards growth, and it’s one of the reasons I like working in so many different photographic genres. International destination weddings, environmental portraiture, fine art nudes, aerial landscapes, international rock and yoga festivals, commercial projects, action sports – they all hold appeal to me in different ways and I’ve applied myself with gusto to them all. As I’ve alluded to before, variety is definitely one of the spices of life for me. It keeps things interesting and also constantly challenges me to grow.
Entering at least a competition or two yearly keeps me reflecting more critically on my work and drives me to keep developing and pushing myself each year to improve. APPA in particular has formed a significant reflection point each year. How have I grown or evolved in the last year, what do I want to learn to do by next year, how can I keep pushing myself, where do I want to go and what do I want to communicate through my image-making?
Judging has also opened up so many doors for me and surprised me with how passionate I felt about it and how much I felt I had to offer back. It has offered me no end of personal inspiration, has challenged me to grow in visual literacy and look deeper into the communication behind and within the images themselves, and to learn more about the homage that may be being offered. I spend more time going to art exhibitions and reading art history as a result of judging; looking in, around and behind the craft and working to make sure I keep an open mind, so I don’t get caught up or blinkered in a particular culture or style of imagery. It’s been a huge part of my progression as an image maker, and remains very special to me. Doing so much judging during Covid, when I wasn’t out shooting much myself really helped keep my inspiration levels up and cope with the increased levels of isolation.
In essence variety, connection, growth and community are all key aspects to maintaining my excitement and vitality in the visual world.
How has the last year changed the way you see your practice?
Over the last year, most of us have been given the opportunity to slow down, reflect and even stop for a while (a rare experience for many!). This has facilitated a focus back on the bigger picture of what’s important to us in our lives and less about the details that we so often get caught up in.
I guess if anything it has firmed my intentionality to be engaged in more meaningful avenues of practice, as it’s helped me take things less for granted and challenged me to refine what is most important in both my life and this world. Community and sustainability are just two of the qualities and values that have risen further to the surface. The other aspect of change has been to focus much more locally. As I’ve discussed above, travel has been a huge part of my business and my lifestyle up until now, and the restrictions on wider travel have had a significant impact on that particular path.
Consequently it’s brought an acute focus back on the qualities of where I have chosen to live – the magnificent, wild island of Tasmania – and reminded me just how remarkable a part of the world it really is. I have made a number of trips to places I have never been and always wanted to go (such as Flinders Island), revisited a number of spots I haven’t been to in years and re-engaged with several ongoing conservation projects locally as well.
With the added time I’ve also focused more on my social media and digital footprint, engaged in more online training and education, co-written some eBooks on photography that I never would have given the time to doing before, taken up the invitation to judge 8-9 national and international photographic awards and most fun of all – I’ve started a live-streamed show on landscape photography with my good friends Luke Tscharke and Nick Monk.
Talking Landscape Photography was born out of a recognition that so much of the community couldn’t travel and do what they loved and were perhaps a bit lost and struggling. We thought, why not create something that brought people together to celebrate our craft and the community around it, something that allowed us to travel virtually, and provided a platform to educate and build our skills as well as inspire ourselves and each other to a level where we couldn’t wait to re-engage with our practice with a fresh new energy and vitality.
Originally intended for just 6 weeks during the heart of lockdown, the show has now been going weekly for almost 9 months and we’ve presented 36 two-hour episodes so far and we feel like we are just gathering momentum. I’ve learnt so much more than I expected from our superb range of guest speakers, established new relationships with image makers around the world, reached out to some of my heroes to join us on the show and generally just had a ball. I like to see it as a bit of a gift back to the community that I am part of, but it’s also given so much back to me already.
So in summary, I guess the last year has seen an increase in the intentionality of my work, extra breathing room for creativity and innovation and an adjustment to acting and thinking more locally and with greater community focus.
Originally born in New Zealand to a Dutch Sailor and an American Nun, Paul has managed to put his wanderlust and four passports to excellent use before eventually settling on the beautiful, wild island of Tasmania. Self taught, travel hungry and with a healthy thirst for adventure he thrives on the challenge and freshness of shooting a wide diversity of genres ranging from fine art nudes, landscapes, and large-scale event photography through to fashion, travel, documentary and environmental portraiture – though he’s most renowned for his exquisite landscape imagery, particularly from an aerial perspective.
Paul is a Grand Master of Photography in the NZIPP, Master of Photography in the AIPP II, two times International Photographer of the Year in NZ, three times Tasmanian Professional Photographer of the Year, and a remarkable seven times Tasmanian Landscape Photographer of the Year. He judges regularly at a state, national and international level, runs photography workshops worldwide and writes for numerous magazines and publications. He is a member of the progressive modern landscape photography collaborative The Light Collective and is an Ambassador for Asukabook, fine art bookmaking specialists. His work is represented by One Fine Print in Australia and Source Photographica in Australia and the USA.