Life & Culture

Capturing a ‘Brotherhood’ of Local Boys in Australia’s Northern Rivers

Photographic duo Lola & Pani took to Northern Rivers, New South Wales, for their new series which hones in on young men raised an the area known for its inhabitants’ alternative lifestyles

No one can say definitively where the region of Northern Rivers begins or ends. Certainly it’s within New South Wales, Australia, but it’s easier to describe it by what is found there: placid rivers leading to sweeping ivory white beaches that divide the rolling surf of the Coral Sea from the subtropical forests inland which used to be home to the Bundjalung people, but are now sparsely occupied by those seeking out alternative lifestyles.

In their new photographic series, Northern Rivers, image-making duo Lola Paprocka and Pani Paul (Lola also runs the London-based photography publishers Palm* Studios) capture this landscape while closing their lens in on a group of local boys known as ‘Our Strong Brotherhood’. For all their posturing, they’re images of the tenderness and wistfulness that come with growing up in this landscape.

It was back in 2017 when Pani was visiting his parents’ place in Northern Rivers that he came across the ‘Brotherhood‘, who appeared to be eschewing the lifestyle of the hippies and bleached-blond surfers that typically roam the area. “I noticed them swimming and jumping off a bridge into the Brunswick river that runs out into the ocean,” he remembers. “It was overcast and lightly raining but this group of guys were not fazed by it. It’s normally very busy when it’s sunny so I guess they were taking advantage of the emptiness.”

Caught by their casual confidence, he took a few snaps. Back in London, Lola and Pani stayed in touch with the boys, chatting via Instagram for almost a year while they planned their next trip. “It was very easygoing when we came back to photograph them,” Lola recalls. They captured brief, moving moments of the boys sharing cigarettes, spread languidly on their beds, climbing over one another at the beach. “Sure, they were acting like a typical group of young guys at times, and we did try to highlight this too. But those quieter moments come when the energy of the group mellows out a bit, and when they are comfortable with you being there you can capture them.”

The tight-knit bond of the group grew from the nature of Northern Rivers, as Pani explains. “A lot of them grew up in the same neighbourhoods, but there are several small towns around the Northern Rivers and they are not very densely populated. It’s a pretty popular tourist destination and there are only a few places that young local people can really hang out; skateparks, swimming holes, sports grounds. If you’re of a certain age group you’ll get to know your peers pretty quickly and form friendships from there.”

Pani speaks from personal experience, having grown up there with “very alternative” parents. “I loved being there as a kid but I could not wait to leave when I turned 18. I wanted the city, I wanted structure. Nowadays, with globalisation and the internet young people are connected with what’s happening and have access to everything online. When I grew up there you really felt the isolation. I think it’s only natural for young people to rebel.”

Pani, his mind perhaps clouded by memories of that isolation, admits that before taking on this project he had never really thought of photographing this area of the world; you get the sense that perhaps an act of reconciliation has taken place in these pictures. “Since revisiting with Lola it’s brought a fresh perspective,” he explains. “Working as a duo is really inspiring, you feed off each other’s new vision of a place and what seems too familiar can become exciting again.”

Northern Rivers is at Hempstead May Gallery, London, from February 6 – March 6, 2020. 

Palm* Studios is running a print sale with all profits going to relevant charities helping bush fire relief, and to date has raised and donated over $2,000 AUD.