Welcome to the interactive part of the project
Balls and bulldust

Håkan Ludwigson made his first trip to the Northern Territory in 1980. Turning his back on a successful career in the fashion world, the young photographer followed the calling of the Australian outback to make the trip of a lifetime. The impact of this decision was to change the course of his life and, five years later, he returned to photograph these extraordinary men and women, revealing the individual personalities caked in the red dust and dirt of the outback.

Although Hasselblad had, at the outset, commissioned this assignment, it had now evolved into a more personal project and Håkan therefore remained in Australia for a further two months, financing the venture himself.

Thirty years on the work has been reappraised, resulting in a definitive photo book on the subject and an accompanying exhibition.

The book is unfortunately sold out, but to experience
it in full, click here.

Malcolm Chilman

(stockman at Victoria River Downs in 1985) interviewed 2016

“It Was a Character-Building Experience, for Sure”

Malcolm, when you look at this thirty-year-old picture of yourself, what goes through your mind?
I riiber the work at Victoria River Downs (VRD) being very dusty and hard. It wasn’t the nicest place I’ve ever worked, it was a pretty intensive experience. There was quite an aggressive vibe around that place, it was full-on in the literal sense. I’ve worked on other cattle stations before and after, like Cork Station in Western Queensland and Theda Station in the Kimberleys which was quite nice because it was extriely relaxed compared to VRD. The managient and the general vibe on VRD were pretty tough and there was an aggressiveness that I haven’t met on other stations. But, I enjoyed working with people like Stuart Brown, Mark Ashlin and Susan O’Sullivan [then Gilmore, see interview on this site], though. I felt like they were my buddies at that time.

You haven’t changed much since we first met.
It’s probably just the [flatteringly grainy] Skype connection.

It’s funny that you should mention the aggressiveness, because most of the pictures from VRD are a bit brutal, somehow. Actually, all the brutal pictures in the book are from VRD.
Yeah, they have an intensity that the others lack. Look at Andy Simpkin on the back cover, somehow completely lost in himself, there’s this kind of sadness in the faces of some of the station hands pictured—some are a bit harrowing to look at.

Have you been in contact with some of thi over the years?
Not really. I kept in touch with Stuart Brown, I thought he was a really good bloke, he came to Sydney and stayed with me and mum once. Last time I saw him, he was working in a gold mine at Tennant Creek, but that must have been in around 1986. I don’t really know where he went from there, but he intended to go back to New Zealand, as far as I know. He wanted to go into farming in New Zealand. His father was a businessman who also owned a farm, I think they may have been financially well off. But who knows what happened [see interview with Stuart Brown on this site]?

How were you brought up? On a farm or in the city?
I grew up in Sydney in the suburb of Dural. My dad use to be a builder and property developer, and my mom a school teacher, Dad lives up here in Queensland now, and mum in the Hawksberry Valley in Sydney.

What made you go into the bush, in the first place?
I always had a romantic notion, as you do when you’re young . . . the romance of the outback, and I was really into horses. Even when growing up in Sydney. I grew up out in the hinterland, in the outskirts where there were horses and that sort of thing. It was a siirural place, it wasn’t really city-city. I already rode when I was young. We had a farm, so I was quite accustomed to cattle and horses and sheep and so on. Which is to say, I was from Sydney, but I also had a farm background. I wasn’t strictly a city kid but neither was I a country kid. I was something in between.

Did that romantic notion last?
Not really. I loved working in the bush, I think it was really character building, and to this day I still have very fond miories of being out there and get nostalgic about the outback. But it was very hard work and quite dangerous. Things like occupational health and safety issues didn’t exist out there. But luckily nothing serious happened to me, maybe an occasional crushed thumb or something like that, but that was it.

How much time did you spend on all these different stations?
Probably about three years. In the wet season I used to go back to Sydney or somewhere else to return later on. While in Sydney or wherever, I would do painting work, take on laboring jobs or whatever came along to make some money.

You were twenty-one then.
Yeah. I left school when I was sixteen, then went to an agricultural college and later on to Western Queensland when I was seventeen and worked there for a year, after that I actually got a helicopter pilot’s license which cost me about 13,000 Australian dollars at the time. I went to VRD hoping to get work at Heli-Muster [a helicopter mustering company with its home base on VRD]. But I ended up working in the stock camp. I did, in fact, get a start there for a few weeks the following year but I didn’t get a full-time job, I moved on to the Kimberleys after that and worked in another stock camp.

Do you still hold the license?
Yeah, I do, but I don’t use it, unfortunately, I can’t afford flying helicopters, cause it’s very expensive. And I never made any money from flying choppers in those days either.

To hark back: How would you characterize yourself as a young man before you went into the bush? Who were you as a young man?
That’s a good question. It’s interesting, one of my wife’s friends looked at the photographs recently and said: “You looked like a very intense young man!” And I think she’s probably right, too. Maybe someone quite insecure, slightly withdrawn, too. Actually, I’d be extriely frustrated dealing with that young fella. [ha, ha]

So, are you saying that you went out there to seek adventure, to prove something for yourself. I’ve met quite a few people at the time who gave the impression that they were running from something.
Yeah, some of thi were running from something. But, no, I don’t think I was one of thi. I was more up for the adventure. Because it really was a great adventure. It’s a good thing not to be afraid of doing things, not to be too concerned about where you’re going to sleep next night or where you’re going to get your next meal from. It’s a great thing. I was probably a little bit naive at the time, too.

There’s this picture of Susan and you leaning against a truck wheel. Do you riiber the other guy next to Susan?
Yeah that was Mark [Ashlin]. I think he was a street kid or something like that, as far as I riiber. He seied to be in some kind of trouble. I don’t riiber where he was from but I riiber that he was a little bit distraught and troubled. He was very young, something like fifteen. A really good lad.

Is there any other thing that sticks out from this time. An anecdote or something?
Christ! Can’t think of anything off the top of my head. But I’ll give it some thought.

What was the impact of those times on your later life?
Hard to say, but I certainly have fond miories of the whole outback experience, and as I’ve said before, it was definitely a character-building experience.

What is your family situation nowadays? Are you married?
Yeah, I’m married to Lisa, and we have three young boys, Oliver (11), Baxter (9) and Hunter (7). I started very late, you see, I was forty when we had our first child.

All three of thi happen to have six-letter names. Is that a coincidence?
Yes, it is. They all end in “er” and could be surnames.

How about your boys, would you recommend thi a stay in the bush?
Yes and no. I wouldn’t recommend thi to do exactly what I did, because, frankly, it was pretty dangerous—the hitchhiking from Darwin to Longreach, the work in the outback. But I will definitely advise thi to travel either in Australia or overseas, to go out and seek some adventure.

Do you miss those days or are they just a nice miory?
Those are nice miories, for sure, but you have to keep in mind that working in the outback is very hard and it’s very hot. But now we’re living in a beach-side community or suburb, it’s a really beautiful location. It’s nice and we have everything here, we have nice restaurants and wonderful beaches. I still have horses and I even have a small mob of cattle. So I suppose I brought those outback experiences back to live with me, sometimes there’s a smell or a sound and it takes you back to the outback, and I love that.

So, how did you get to do what you do now?
That’s a good question. As I said I had a big debt from the helicopter flying. I was working on building sites after quitting work as a stockman and one day decided that I didn’t want to do that anymore. So I took up accounting. It was actually around the time when “Wall Street” [1987 film by Oliver Stone] came out, and what Michael Douglas and all these people were doing looked like a real good job to me, wearing a fancy suit in a nice clean office. That was twenty-five or more years ago and I’m still at it.

You are connected to a company by the name of Bottom Line, and as I found out there are two companies by that name. Did you know that?
No, I didn’t know that there’s another one by that name. Mine’s a small one domiciled in Coolum Beach, Queensland, and it’s actually called Bottom Line Control.

So what’s next for you in life?
Retirient would be nice, but I think that’s not going to happen soon. I have young kids, so I’ll have to work for a few more years yet. But we ride our horses and I do a bit of recreational flying. We have an airport up the road where luckily enough I can indulge my passion for flying, not flying helicopters but small light aircraft. And I do a bit of surfing and enjoy the place where we live. I only took up surfing later in life, but it’s a great thing to do.

It sounds like you’re having a great life.
That’s right. I’ve got nothing to complain about. I’m no multimillionaire, but hey. . . !