Photo essay on Lismore’s flood survivors is Sydney bound

Janelle Saffin MP has arranged for some of photojournalist Jacklyn Wagner's stunning portraits of Lismore's flood survivors to be exhibited in Parliament House in November 2022.

LISMORE MP Janelle Saffin has arranged for some of award-winning photojournalist   Jacklyn Wagner’s stunning portraits of the city’s flood survivors to be displayed at NSW Parliament House next month.

The exhibition, ‘Through the heart … a flood of fears and tears’, which could be described as Wagner’s love letter to Lismore and its resilient spirit, will be opened by Ms Saffin in Sydney on 8 November and runs until 24 November.

Ms Saffin said she is thrilled that 25 portraits from a much larger body of work – 100 images taken in local homes during the mud army’s post-flood clean-up – will be showcased in the halls of Parliament.

“This exhibition will keep the issue of flood recovery in the spotlight because there is still so much to do in ‘building back better’ and it documents a tragic event in our history with great empathy and sensitivity,” Ms Saffin said.

Ms Saffin thanked NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet and NSW Minister for the Arts Ben Franklin MLC for taking a personal interest in the community-led project and supporting the exhibition.

Jacklyn Wagner, a former chief photographer at The Northern Star and photographer for the Our Kids calendar (now in its 21st year), described her photo essay as an organic project which grew out of the adrenalin-filled weeks following the February 28 flood.

“I carried just one camera, one lens, a notepad and pen, and I thank all the people who welcomed me into their homes, 90 per cent of which had never flooded, and who shared their personal stories,” Wagner said.

“It’s been a labour of love for me and local writer Jennie Dell, who is helping me with editing the captions for the photographs and penning an introduction for the exhibition itself.

“I’m grateful to Janelle Saffin; she really is a pocket rocket when you want to get something done, and to the Premier for responding so genuinely to the photographs; I could tell by reading his letter to me that he’d really looked at them.

“It is hoped that sometime next year we will be able to exhibit all 100 images at Parliament House.”

Local businesses assisting Wagner mount the upcoming exhibition include Jon Paterson owner of The New Camera House (printing); Rhonda Armistead of Armistead’s Quality Framing (framing); Soren Hjorth of Grafiti Design Studio (graphic design); and Chas Glover (art installer). All were slammed by the floods but are rebuilding their businesses.

SIMON Robinson lives in South Lismore. A collector of fine art and vintage wares specialising in fine paper, books and fabric, Simon lost ninety percent of his collection.

“I thought we were doomed, and I rang a friend to say goodbye. I dropped my phone in the water after my last goodbye phone call”.

Simon remembered a gable at the front of the house and from there hours later was rescue by two civilians in a boat. Photo: Jacklyn Wagner.

About the collection by Jacklyn Wagner

I was not at home when disaster struck Lismore on February 28, 2022.

My daughter was expecting a baby. We were needed on the Gold Coast and had left town a few days before. We watched the catastrophic rain event in horror from afar. Our beautiful grandson Tommy was born days after the flood came up. Then we went home.

We listened to the stories of close relatives and friends, who had themselves been impacted by the dangerous, dirty waters now surrounding our town. Some told us of how they had joined the “mud army” – civilian rescuers, in any watercraft they could use, saving hundreds of townsfolk who had been at risk of their lives.

Walking and driving around the streets, I soon had a feel for what was unfolding. There was an adrenalin-like energy; hundreds of people were helping each other in countless ways.

In the back of my mind were the first stirrings of what I might do photographically. I decided I would just let it come to me. A fortnight later, I woke up one morning and knew exactly what I needed to do.

I would document the actuality of residents in their ruined surroundings, if they would let me, exactly as I found them. 

I would simply ask them – people who had lost everything or saved something; people who now needed to start reclaiming their homes and lives – if I may take a picture of them. No lights, no paraphernalia – just a picture.

I knew it was important to document these moments in time, but had no thought or even concern about what might become of my work.

I didn’t know how I would be received, but many years’ professional experience as a photojournalist in this town has given me confidence. Armed with my camera and notepad, I felt fearless.

I drove to South Lismore and stopped at the first house where there was a car parked outside.

There was a woman at home. I introduced myself and told her what I was doing. I explained I had no idea what would become of this work, but that I felt it was important and would end up somewhere significant.

She welcomed me into her unliveable, flood-devastated home. She thanked me for my interest and foresight. 

(That first person I photographed for the project was Suzanne Johnson, who features in the collection. Her family had lost everything, including their dogs).

From that day I drove most days to the flood-affected areas in Lismore and knocked on doors. Only once was I rejected. Between three and sixteen weeks post-flood, I covered just shy of 100 homes.

The time I spent with people was around twenty minutes. They were photographed in their home and I took notes as they talked about whatever was in their heart that day.

The words I will use to accompany the images in the exhibition will be simple, succinct and often something said by the subject of the image; a heartfelt quote. 

I photographed people as I found them. Many cried, most were hurting deeply – and six months later, most still are. 

I stopped photographing, 16 weeks post-flood, for two reasons: to limit the proposed exhibition to 100 images, and to capture it in a distinct bubble of time.

Those initial post-flood months now have passed. Though little has improved in our landscape, it has changed. New days are dawning, bringing new waves of hope and hopelessness.

Six weeks after the disaster I was once again having a screw removed from my tyre. I had been so often in the flood-affected areas, parking near piles of debris where there was an abundance of screws and nails from the clean-up. Along with others I became a regular at the tyre shop.

While waiting there, I received a catch-up call from my friend, Dr Chris Ingall.  I told him of my project.

Dr Ingall just happened to be hosting newly elected Lismore mayor Steve Krieg and his family at his home. Mayor Krieg had lost his family home and two businesses to the flood.

It was suggested I put some images together and give them to the Mayor, who was travelling to meet with the NSW Premier, and with the Prime Minister, to discuss the disaster.

Unable to have anything printed, or copies made, in Lismore and surrounds, because so many businesses had been destroyed, I went to Sydney.

Officeworks in Mittagong promptly printed a collection of some of the images I had done. I had three copies made: one for the Premier, one for the Prime Minister, and one for me.

I hurriedly brought them back, met with the Mayor and gave him the two copies to deliver….which he did.

The first was presented to the NSW Premier, Dominic Perrottet. Some days later I received a letter from him. I knew by the wording he had really looked at the images and I could feel he was moved. He understood their importance.

I am so grateful for that letter; it gave me the determination to push ahead.

Later I also had a copy of a selection of images made for our State MP for Lismore, Janelle Saffin. We spoke at length, which helped with my vision to take the collection of images forward.

This 100-image body of work is just one aspect of the disaster that has confronted our community. I believe it is highly significant now and into the future. 

It comprises a comprehensive representation of the Lismore community – long-term residents, even some third and fourth generations, homeowners, newcomers, renters, young families, artists, people with disabilities.  One thing they share is their deep love of community. The decisions that lay ahead are difficult for them, on many fronts.

I have made a group email of all the people I photographed and as promised kept everyone up to date with anything related to the images. I have full records of individual subjects with their addresses and contact details.

This data will become vital and fascinating information that will allow for future follow-ups, to see what has become of those one hundred individuals, their homes, streets and communities.

The project was gentle, the participants have shown such courage and for that I really thank them.

I hope this can be an exhibition that makes them realise that through my images they will never be forgotten.

Jacklyn Wagner

August 2022