01.07.2013

Back from the Brink

Photographer Steve Parish has long documented the beauty of Nature - and almost succumbed to its awesome destructive power. He shares with Margaret Evans his journey to wholeness

Photographer Steve Parish has long documented the beauty of Nature - and almost succumbed to its awesome destructive power. He shares with Margaret Evans his journey to wholeness

There's something about the grandeur and sense of infinite space of the Kimberley that lends itself to epiphanies. That's the experience of acclaimed nature photographer Steve Parish who experienced his "ah ha!" moment in April 2010 at a time he was outwardly immensely successful but inwardly living "in a sea of anxiety".

Listening to an Eckhart Tolle CD in his car (a present from his wife Kate), he was moved to pull over to the side of the empty road and open his door to breathe in the majesty of the landscape. Looking back now after three years of momentous change in his life, Steve can see the moment for what it was…. "There was something about this very soft German accent that resonated with me in the space I was in," says Steve. "With my door open, Eckhart was talking to the Kimberley, this 400 million year old landscape, and then all of a sudden I noticed a scrawny dingo looking at me from 25 to 30 metres away and we shared a moment." As Steve tells the story in his extrovert, 'country bloke' way, he suddenly met his "other half", the spiritual peaceful soul that comes to the fore in his photographs of plants and animals we all know intimately from his best selling calendars and diaries. "I fell to my knees the emotion as so strong and then spent the next two weeks in the Kimberley wondering 'What have I been doing to myself?' I became a witness to what Eckhart Tolle calls 'mind stories' and I could see clearly that's where my pain was coming from."

At the time, to all outward appearances Steve had never been doing better having built up a business with an annual turnover of $350 million, staff of more than 100, and 3,500 retailers and 2,700 post office stores stocking his products. Little did people know that Steve was a turmoil of conflict, the successful businessman masking a peaceful creative core who found spiritual sustenance only when he was exploring Australia's vast expanses to take his photographs that speak to us in a very personal way. He remembers a year-long trip around the country in 1983, then in the grip of drought, where he slept under the stars most nights. "Every time I had to come into a town, Alice Springs or Darwin or somewhere else, the closer I got the more anxious I became. I'd always known there were two of me - this other person at peace inside while the other story went on outside, like looking at a movie."

Over the years, the internal conflict had taken its toll - Steve blames a "terrible bout with cancer" 12 years ago plus several broken marriages on his "sea of anxiety". "I believe it was entirely connected to stress even though in the late '80s and '90s my business absolutely boomed."

His Kimberley awakening was the prelude to an even greater challenge to come, one that might have destroyed him if not for the sense of calm acceptance he had already welcomed into his life.

Steve and many others call it "the event" - the devastating Brisbane floods in January 2012 that wiped out 11,000 businesses, thousands of homes and people's dreams, and left in its wake a billion dollar damage bill. In Steve's case, it swept away his home and vehicles and, most crucially, his business with two metres of priceless film stock he'd built up over 29 years. He sees the irony as a nature photographer of Nature itself destroying his work as "it came thundering down the hill bringing with it one hell of a mess. I was a multimillionaire on the Friday and on Monday I was free of all attachment."

With no insurance payout on his lost equipment and stock, the challenge was already massive but worse was around the corner. Exactly one year later, the collapse of bookstores Borders and Angus & Robertson, together with the Calendar Club, was the final straw forcing Steve's company into voluntary administration.

"When you get to my age of 67, you look back at all those mind stories, all that stress and anxiety and this was the ultimate test," says Steve.

When all seemed lost, Steve and his wife and business partner Kate hadn't counted on the huge reservoir of goodwill that had been built up over the years. "We had a very long history of staff, customer and retailer support and my biggest surprise after we ran up the white flag was the incredible interest in the product."

Their white knight has been independent Australian educational book publishers, Pascal Press, who have purchased all the company's publishing assets including calendars and diaries, educational and general interest books, and greeting cards so the much-loved Steve Parish images can live on.

The foundation of their collaboration is the shared passion to educate children about nature and its critical importance in all our lives, illustrated by Steve's First Facts books for young children as a starting point. The collaboration has also sparked a new direction for Steve by encouraging his deeply felt spirituality so long repressed in his years of building a business. Looking back, Steve sees the duality within him beginning in early childhood in Adelaide when he grew up in a deeply conservative Pentecostal family, which taught that a puritanical version of Christianity was the only path to happiness.

"I couldn't understand that there was no way to be happy outside the Christian faith because even as a little kid I was blissfully happy in nature," Steve remembers. And until his 18th year, he'd been encouraged to see nature as something to be fished and hunted. "I had 17 weapons at the age of 16 and was an apprentice gunsmith at 17. But in those days there was a gun shop on every corner and now we have an Australian Geographic store and David Attenborough on TV."

Steve's transformation to the artist he has become began under the mentorship of Latvian pioneer underwater photographer Igo Oak who Steve credits with teaching him empathy towards the natural world. As he typically puts it, "I got off the gun thing and on to the camera thing."

His moment of awakening in the Kimberley has heightened his awareness of the strength of his connection with nature, even to the point of sitting still for hours to capture the perfect shot.

"I find if I am still - spiritually still - wild animals become intensely curious. A lot of my imagery has come about basically by me sitting on my bum and meditating in the bush."

Steve and Kate are now reaching out to connect in a more overtly spiritual way with a series of small gift books titled "Inspired by Nature". With individual titles including Compassion, Healing, Gratitude and Consciousness, the books showcase Steve's highly individualistic photographs together with inspirational quotes and passages written by Kate. The series is available from his websites www.steveparish.com.au and www.nature-connect.com.au and, as he proudly tells me, "from post offices, cafes, roadhouses and bookstores right across the country."

It's a marketing approach that encompasses his philosophy of connection rather than exclusion by seeking out the rare and elusive. "I started out photographing seagulls and paddy melons rather than the rarest bird in Australia. I find that if you give people the familiar it brings back wonderful memories for them." So expect to see more of Steve's signature unheralded animals and plants - "the numbats of the world, the spectacled hair wallaby, all those that don't get a gong but are quietly disappearing" - as he embarks on his new journey to show us the beauty of the natural world and what we stand to lose if we all don't wake up.

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