By Chantel McAlister and Jane Curtis
A farmer’s hands are their resume. In Trangie, New South Wales. (Supplied: Chantel McAlister)
What does the Australian wool industry look like? “Dust and everyday sheep”, thinks former master wool classer turned photographer Chantel McAlister, and she has the photos to prove it.
Since 2015, McAlister has photographed modern, on-farm wool production processes across Queensland, New South Wales, Tasmania and Western Australia.
McAlister’s mission is to “tell the truth about wool” through her documentary photos.
She hopes to change what she says are public misconceptions, such as that shearing is cruel to lambs, or that shearers have drug problems, and restore a sense of pride in the wool industry.
The drought’s devastating effects on the wool industry in Queensland and NSW have also motivated her to give the wool industry “a little pick-me-up”.
She said that while the media did a great job at showing the heartbreaking side of drought, she wanted to show the other side — that “drought may not be easily beaten but it can be survived”.
McAlister’s photos and stories of wool growers, sheep, workers and the woolsheds across Australia are regularly shared on her Instagram account, without any “sugar-coating, Photoshopping or porky pies”.
Here is a selection of her photos and her observations of each.
An intimate process
Shearing a sheep near its neck, as the sheep looks up, almost smiling. In Stanthorpe, Queensland. (Supplied: Chantel McAlister)
Shearing is such an intimate process between the shearer and sheep.
Can you imagine if our hairdressers were to treat us the same?
“I’ll just get you to put your arm between my legs for this first bit thanks. Don’t worry, I’ll hug you with my knees the whole time, so there’s no chance of me slipping and cutting you.”
Sweaty, uncomfortable and tough
Jack Taylor shears with the shed door open and fan running, in Cunnamulla, Queensland. (Supplied: Chantel McAlister)
I have got to laugh when I look at this photo. The saying “A photo never lies” is a load of rubbish.
This scene looks so calm and inviting, but it was so hot and muggy and full of flies.
Poor Jack Taylor was giving it everything he had left in his tank on his third consecutive hour of shearing rams twice his weight.
Going in blind
Shearers go by feel when they are shearing. Inglewood, Queensland. (Supplied: Chantel McAlister)
I have always found it fascinating how much shearers go by feel when they are shearing. Sheep are shorn in the same order every time — starting with the belly wool.
It is a delicate balance between pushing through the wool and following the curves of the sheep.
A shearer’s handpiece is a very personal piece of equipment. In Bungunya, Queensland. (Supplied: Chantel McAlister)
A shearer’s handpiece is a very personal piece of equipment. It becomes an extension of themselves when shearing.
The long blow
Each movement of the shearer’s handpiece is called a blow. In Quindanning, Western Australia. (Supplied: Chantel McAlister)
Each movement of the shearer’s handpiece is called a blow. Each blow has a name.
This is the long blow and my favourite movement to photograph.
The long, sweeping arm movements, the smooth gliding of the handpiece, the light touch of the shearer.
Shearing with one arm in a sling, to take some of the weight and pressure off the shearer’s back. In Yetman, New South Wales. (Supplied: Chantel McAlister)
Workplace health and safety is taken seriously in the shearing industry.
These handy little hangers are known as slings and take some of the weight and pressure off the shearer’s back.
They are spring-loaded and lined with wool to draw away sweat. And they are fun to hang in if you are a little kid.
End of day
Lucky we all like each other.
Divine light of the woolshed
Sunlight streams through the woolshed roof in Clarkefield, Victoria. (Supplied: Chantel McAlister)
I always struggle to describe the light in a woolshed.
It does not seem right for such a tough, dirty workplace, but romantic seems to fit best.
What does a woolgrower do? A woolgrower never rests.
They are midwives/husbands, genealogists, scientists, fencers, agronomists, dietitians, handy men/women, builders, heavy machine operators, vets, researchers, analysts, thinkers, doers, dreamers, and battlers.
When I think of the Australian wool industry, this is what I see. I see compassion and empathy. I see beauty in the battered hands of shearers. I see a softness.
There are many times during my career in the wool industry when I have witnessed quiet little moments like this.
The contrast between the rough and beaten hands of the shearer and the innocence and vulnerability of the lamb speaks volumes to me.
Young women shearers
A young woman shearer walks towards the pens, in Benalla, Victoria. (Supplied: Chantel McAlister)
Faced with an ageing workforce, woolgrowers like NK Shearing, Benalla, are offering traineeships to train multi-skilled workers like this young woman, looking to make a lifelong career in the woolshed.
Look up the meaning of roustabout in the dictionary and it will say “multi-tasker”.
Sheep under the shed
Sheep inside, but mostly under, a machinery shed to get shelter from the rain in Thallon, Queensland. (Supplied: Chantel McAlister)
Our shearing team had arrived at Dunwinnie the night before for their main shearing.
It had been drizzling rain all night and that constant pitter-patter throughout the night reassured me that the call of “wet sheep” would joyfully ring through the shearing quarters the next morning.
I was snuggled right into my swag when one of the shearers interrupted my hibernation with, “Chant, grab your camera and get to the shed. You don’t want to miss this!”
This photo, Shedded Sheep, now hangs on walls across the globe and was featured on the back cover of Evan McHugh’s book The Shearers.
This team of dogs knew what to do with just a single whistle, in Brewarrina, New South Wales. (Supplied: Chantel McAlister)
It was mid-January 2014 and it was a typical outback NSW summer. Blistering.
I would watch this team of dogs in amazement, how they knew what to do with just a single whistle.
They could read the sheep and determine their next move.
I had to get amongst this and document the power, team work and dedication of this four-legged team.
The dogs found their place at the back of the mob. They barked, pushed the mob up and kicked up bulldust.
If you cannot get a wool underlay to nap on, just nap under the wool table.
Share your photos with the ABC by tagging them with #ABCmyphoto on Instagram — and don’t forget to include your location.