Richard Butler

Robert essentially stopped the walk when the proposed Mill project was dumped in unceremoniously. It was about the time when the Premier was having his house extensions completed by Hinman Wright and Manser – a Gunns company.

Like many – Robert has put his life on hold and with others responded to a cause because there are no choices. The moral compass would not allow him to do anything else. I’m reminded of General Normal Schwarzkopf who, when asked about leadership in the 21st century bellowed “take charge, and do what’s right”. Robert and others others formed TAP – Tasmanians Against the Pulp Mill from the ashes of a previous action group that didn’t make it.
It seems to be an odd quirk of the human condition. We look backwards to those who have gone before and hold them up as beacons for the future. History has the same effect as the wind and water on Tasmanian sandstone, it slowly errodes the superfluous material leaving the stronger and less perishable material behind for all to see.

Perhaps sadly – the reality is we have little to celebrate in our current leaders. A few are doing some fine things, and many are showing promise – and all are talking up their own capacity with great conviction. A little like Thomas the Tank engine saying “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…” Only a few, not only KNOW they can – but they DO what they know.

The latter kind of person is rare. Their position and their identity is not created by public opinon, the jobs they hold, the money they earn. Its not formed by bridging and hedging the gaps, by owning the victories of others. They are who they are because something inside has been forged to make something amazingly strong. There is a word for it, and it is Integrity.

Accolades are usually delivered at the ending of things and not usually mid way through things.In this small piece, I want to recognise the remarkable Tasmanian, Robert McMahon.

There isn’t a great deal to write in chronological order – he was born here, did this and that, and is doing this now and wants to do this in the future. It seems superfluous.

Walking into his usually impeccibly neat photographic and writing studio – the creative space – sums up Robert’s life. A lyrebird that has created a bower from his own work. Thousands of slides of walks, cliffs climbed, experiences had, histories created – are in boxes and carousels that fill many many shelves. These slides are source material for his great informal lectures, and they draw hundreds of people who come to see and learn from his experience.

He has climbed thousands of vertical kilometers – here in Tasmania, in America, on the bigger island of Australia, Switzerland, Italy Alaska and in Chile and other South American countries, in Ireland and parts of Europe. It was on the faces of those sheer cliffs (some many thousands of metres high) that he forged a steely determination – the kind that can only be formed when there is no option and you are unforgiveably accountable for every move. This type of accountability freezes most of us.

Books fill other shelves – there are thousands of them and I once joked nearly as many as in the Dome Room of the State Library in Melbourne. (he thought my estimation was perhaps a tad overstated). Texts from most ancient philosophers, all of Shakespeare, medieval manuscripts, books about navies and of battles fought, of strategies that worked and those that didn’t, of obscure abstract writing and modern pulp fiction. Of Joyce and Bukowski, and Wilde to Burrows. Don’t ask him for an opinion on what is happening on CSI – he won’t know what is on television.

He has influenced hundreds of students as an arts teacher – but it was more about attitude teaching that he was best at. It was never about craft – but more about how you approach it. I once bought a picture of a park bench to him for criticism as a student, and he asked me what the bench was feeling and how I could give it personality. I thought he was a lunatic – benches didn’t feel. But decades later, I recognise that if I was to photograph that bench again, Id ask how it should feel. Bingo.

He was tough as a teacher and if you didn’t have opportunity he demanded you create one, and if you had opportunity and didn’t do anything with it – he berrated you into action. He’s an opportunity capitalist.

He has taken that wonderfully unique skill – the skill of teaching self determination in an uncomplicated way and it is now pitched to the privileged and elite at leading private schools who recognise that the benefits gained cant be found in a Corio Bay classroom or on a playing field in Hawthorn.

Robert delivers the same message – that same insistence on self determination to troubled and often damaged children from state institutions. I have seen the climbing classes in the Launceston Gorge – where Robert has spent years and knows every way of approaching the challenges on the cliffs – and I have seen him ‘enable’ people to ‘take charge, and be accountable ‘ for whom they are and where they are at that moment.

Watching a novice climbers face transform from “I cant” to “I can and will” is like watching the sun come up across a shadowed valley. For those individuals that realisation can start a journey that changes lives.

He can be irrascible and edgey. He has taken some beautiful photographs, and they justifiably important to him, (they are important both factually and creatively) because they reflect not only a time and place – but also his feelings at that time. Evidence of existence is to be treasured in a world that measures success in dollars. He is also a skilled ceramicist, a painter and above all a writer – and he has self published many books on climbing. He created and published his own magazine on climbing many years ago. Recently and during a phone call with him looking for background to this story he was cursing Australia Post as they had lost a large shipment of his books in transit to a Melbourne based store. We joked that whoever was tapping his line learned some new stuff that day !

Objective discussion about his photographs can at times be challenging. In recalling some moments where I have tried to have discussions with him I get an image of a dog trying to bite a porcupine. The dog knows what to do – but not how. Its risky business.

When confronted with Robert’s work, it should not be seen from the traditional landscape tradition. It needs to be seen in a more direct experiential concern. He isn’t about to wait for the clouds to be ‘perfectly positioned’, he isn’t about to sit for days for the dew to appear in the spiders web. He is in the moment, and that moment is to be recorded as he is inside it. There is a photo-journalistic sensibility at work and in my view his work is very autobiographical. It’s human, it’s engaged and it’s very much of the moment. The McMahon Archive in time will show a real world, in many cases lost.

Such is his passion for Tasmania that Robert decided to walk the entire coastline of the island, taking photographs of places either never/rarely seen or known and taken for granted. As a work in progress, he also is writing a journal about what he sees on the journey – much like the original explorers did. He started on the East Coast near Coles Bay, and right now is somewhere about 3 quarters of the way down the West Coast. He got to that point about 2 and a half years ago noting and photographing the birds, seals and whales – and in one place (with me and a few others) watched a flock of black swan surfing waves for (what must be) fun. They kept coming in on the waves and swimming out again for hours.

Robert essentially stopped the walk when the proposed Mill project was dumped in unceremoniously. It was about the time when the Premier was having his house extensions completed by Hinman Wright and Manser – a Gunns company.

Like many – Robert has put his life on hold and with others responded to a cause because there are no choices. The moral compass would not allow him to do anything else. Im reminded of General Norman Schwarzkopf who, when asked about leadership in the 21st century bellowed “take charge, and do what’s right”. Robert and others others formed TAP – Tasmanians Against the Pulp Mill from the ashes of a previous action group that didn’t make it.

He doesn’t suffer fools easily – if at all, and he certainly isnt about to allow the people and the state he loves be treated with the contempt that has been so freely handed out by a priveleged if not primitive few – on a concept that has its roots somewhere in the 10th century when most of Europe was clear felled. “We should all despise those who take a strategic and power based advantage based on their corporate fiscal depth and not intellectual or moral capability ” he said.

Those trying to forceps deliver the mill will know achieving change in Tasmania is painful. TAP is one of the newest organisations on the block. It has the profile and the interest of many. It is post modern in structure because of its preparedness to remain dynamic and flexible. If it had to be compared to a corporation – its more like something Riccardo Semmler created, rather than IBM. It chooses not to have heirarchies and lines of control. Its vision is a reflection of the maturity of the initial core 80 or so people that all met at the Lutheran Church in Launceston a couple of years ago. Now over a thousand people are on its books. TAP rolls on, it covers ground – it breathes. This is its great strategic advantage but also makes it at times challenging to manage. “At any time any number of people are out there, doing what they feel needs to be done, we arent about to start regulating that – people remain individually accountable – and that’s what gives it life.”

Other established organisations have great desires on the membership base, the free wheeling fund raising activities and the ‘just do it’ mantra that all TAP members seem to easily sweat. Like any competetive market, competing for share of wallet is a fact of life. The TAP meetings are brilliant – almost like the concerts John Spillane wrote about when the late guitarist Rory Gallagher played at Dublin City Hall, ..” … and the stage rolled like the deck of a ship in a storm”.

Tap is alive !!

The concept that a man can be for all seasons is fictional. No one can be all, do all and please all. Robert polarises feelings thoughts and actions. He has critics and detractors from within and without. He does not provide emotional leadership – he is purely outcome based, and he isnt about to read bed-time stories to anyone. Those that want to stay in the game do so because they make that choice. Those that sit on the fence can do that also, but they wont be noticed, and they wont be cared about. “If you’re in, you’re in and let’s make a difference in the right way”. Each TAP meeting is video recorded, and each meeting focuses on non violent activity and has done so since year dot.

“Every action is important – but there is no single silver bullet like some people seem to think. There are millions of silver bullets – the single most important thing to realise is that as people who can draw breath, walk and use our hands and hearts – we all have the capability to make a difference. We are the silver bullets..”

“We cannot rely on political process because its moribund, we cannot rely on the offices of the mighty because in many cases they are rancid. We cannot rely on intellectual argument because its seductiveness removes us from reality. We have to keep it simple.”

Robert McMahon is one of many unique and valuable Tasmanians. History is sure to reflect that. In the present – you’re better on side than off, and if you haven’t met him yet – you’re missing something special.

“What matters is that we keep the challenges outside the tent and not in, we keep consistent – and not flash in the pan and we keep asking people to help over and over again – not because we ask it – but because it is right. Even the drawings of trees from the little children are magnificent and make a difference”.