As bushfires consume nearly 20 million acres in Australia, killing 24 people and an estimated one billion animals, it seems somewhat trivial to contemplate which image will end up defining and representing this apocalyptic event – especially considering the dry season will continue for a few more months. The scope of the fires has been difficult to comprehend, and indeed, the world largely ignored the first two months of the conflagration.
Infographics have been helpful in providing scale to the fires, but like most infographics, there’s a certain sterility that doesn’t provide an emotional connection to the tragedy. Other infographics are downright misleading.
That is precisely why Matthew Abbott’s photo of a kangaroo jumping in front of a burning house in Lake Conjola, NSW has become so iconic. The New York Times assigned Sydney-based Abbott to cover the fires, and his work has been both extraordinary and heart-breaking.
Abbott’s image appeared on Dec 31, 2019, and immediately went viral – mostly without attribution. The image contains a number of elements that make it instantly iconic:
- The presence of the kangaroo makes the location immediately clear.
- The animal is mid-hop (i.e. peak action) which gives dynamism to the image
- The blazing building and soot make it clear that while only one building is visible, the conflagration is much bigger.
- The burning ground in the lower right of the frame makes it clear that there are no lines of containment.
- The mailbox gives us context to this suburban neighborhood.
- The photographer’s close proximity to the fire immerses the viewer. We can almost feel the heat.
- The juxtaposition of a wild animal fleeing a massive fire in a suburban setting is a perfect metaphor for man’s encroachment onto the land, and human-induced climate change, which has exacerbated the fires.
Iconic images from the past like John Moore’s “Crying Girl”, Jonathan Bachman’s image of Iesha Evans, or Julia Le Duc’s border drowning of Oscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter Valeria captured the public’s attention and outrage. But I’m hard pressed to think of an image in the past decade that has both gone viral and spurred tangible action (in the form of fundraisers).
Teen climate activist Greta Thunberg posted the image.
Numerous celebrities and other large social media accounts have posted the image:
Retailers are using the image to raise awareness and funds
And of course, a number of scams have emerged using the image to build audiences.
What makes an image iconic is subjective, but Abbott’s image will almost certainly stand the test of time – a totem for this disaster, and a harbinger of terrible climate-related tragedies to come.