Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
A Fire Inside – The Power of the Human Help Reflex is the 23x30cm hard covered book which accompanies a feature-length documentary of the same name, scheduled for nationwide release on 7th October 2021. The documentary was commissioned by NRMA Insurance as a legacy and in celebration of all those who helped during the worst bushfires in our country.
The dust jacket surrounding the book depicts, on its front cover, a burning fire consuming a flight of stairs in a blackened landscape. The back cover shows a young girl feeding a rescued wombat. These are different from the pictures on the hard cover on the book.
The photos in the book are dramatic, mainly in shades of black, orange and red. They portray the devastation of the situation both to the landscape as well as to the people. At first, I thought that all the photos would be in these fiery tones but as the reader turns the pages, they discover that the photos towards the end reveal a brighter more optimistic characteristic with lighter shades of blue and green appearing. I could not help but smile at the first photo of a group of people where the woman in centre stage also had red hair. I loved the way those responsible for the layout had repeated the same family group towards the front and back of the book but sharing different emotions fitting with their journey through this experience.
Many people are involved in producing a book of this quality. They are all mentioned in the book with a portrait and words from experience. They include Ruth Hobday, Editor in Chief of originating publisher Blackwell; the photographer, Matthew Abbott, well known for his contributions in various respected newspapers as well as National Geographic Magazine; Shane Fitzsimmons long standing worker for the NSW Rural Fire Service and now Commissioner for Resilience NSW who led the state wide response to the Black Summer with his 74,000 strong crew; Ebony Gaylor, sociologist and social futurist; and Nick Worthington, professional writer who was a contributing writer for the documentary. Other contributors to this book were the multitude of people affected by this devastating occurrence – homeowners, insurance assessors, traditional owners, wildlife rescuers, fire fighters and representatives of the many other volunteers.
The layout of this book diverts from the standard set-up as its Table of Contents lies sidewards over two pages. The text from the various contributors is on a different coloured matt paper which is narrower than the other pages, which are white gloss paper. Some of the photos are full page, others are smaller on the stark white paper for contrast. Most photos carry a brief paragraph of text in white lettering which stands out from the darker colours of the photos.
In his Introduction to the book, Nick Worthington speaks of the anatomy of the human reflex comparing it with all other creatures who flee from danger while the ‘biped with binocular vision, (whose) … instinct is fight, not flight’. He says that ‘this book is about the Australian bush fires in the Black Summer, (and) it is also about the nature and resilience of the Australian people’ (22).
In her three included essays, Ebony Gaylor, who has tackled issues such as loneliness, nuclear weapons, and homelessness through the design of behaviours, systems and movements, unpacks the human help reflex to understand why humans act the way they do in a situation like the one experienced in the 2019-2020 bush fires. She tries to convince the reader that, through the power to help, we contribute towards building more resilient communities. She analyses three groups of people found in situations like this: The Warriors, The Worriers and The Connectors.
The Photographer’s Note reveals that in taking these photos Matthew Abbott ‘walked and ran inside burning infernos for weeks, trying to capture their orange-rind rims as they devoured towns, melted cars and emptied suburbs’ (217). The last photo in the book contrasts a shot taken on 31st December 2019 with another taken in the same location in February 2020 showing that after even the most horrific of disasters there is the possibility for renewal.
This is a powerful book with dramatic photos portraying the devastation of fire out of control, but it is also a book in praise of the human drive to help others. From front cover to back cover, the viewer passes from a record of destruction through endurance to hope.
Nick Worthington leaves the reader with the following message: “If the Australian collective response during the Black Summer has taught us anything, it is that humans are without doubt the most dangerous species to ever inhabit the earth, but also the only species capable of saving it. And every living thing now depends on us” (23).
A Fire Inside
Photographs by Matthew Abbott. Foreword by Shane Fitzsimmons.
Thames & Hudson