Alice Mabin’s books and photos document agriculture industries

SARAH HUDSON, The Weekly Times
February 5, 2020 9:53am

Line them up: Alice Mabin has travelled Australia photographing agricultural industries. Picture: Alice Mabin

THERE aren’t too many 33-year-olds who can fill a 300-page autobiography.

But in her three decades on the planet, New Zealand-born Alice Mabin has experienced more than most people do in a lifetime.

For that matter, the author and photographer of five books has seen more of Australia than most Australians, and more of this country’s agricultural industry than the average cockie.

“People always ask me why I’m so self-driven,” says Al, as she prefers to be known.

“I just think I was born that way.”

Sipping a latte, while flicking the pages of her beautifully illustrated coffee table books, Al — who lives in Ballarat — is dwarfed by the books’ physical size.

At the top of the pile is her latest, an autobiography, The Winding Road: Secrets of an Outback Entrepreneur, published at the end of last year, which details her remarkable life journey.

“A book seller told me it’s a hard one to categorise, because it’s not just an autobiography, but a coffee-table book, Australiana, self-help and business.”

Next under the giant pile are her two coffee table books, published in 2018 and dedicated to Australian agriculture.

The Grower: Heartbeat of Australia is a 540-page book dedicated to livestock, while The Grower: The Roots of Australia focuses its 480 pages on horticulture.

“I started out thinking it would be one book but it became so big it turned into two,” Al says.

“I visited 551 properties in 331 days, which is more than one a day, aiming to incorporate all breeds, industries, geographic locations, the whole snap-shot, but never repeating the same story.

“So, for instance, the day after I did this shoot in the wheatbelt of WA, I flew to Cairns to drive to a crocodile farm before the wet season closed the roads, at the same time getting that region’s pomegranate and mango season. Then, 10 days later, I went to Tasmania to get the tulip bloom.

“The books help people appreciate food, fibre and be proud of the diversity of our agricultural industry.”

Al picks another one of her giant tomes. This one, titled The Driver, was released in 2016 and is a snapshot of the trucking industry.

For this book Al largely hitchhiked around Australia with truck drivers, featuring 110 different truck companies (“there are 42,000 transport countries in this nation”), and travelling 132,000km in total (“to put it in context, Australia’s coastline measures about 25,000km”).

“I never felt in danger and conversely some drivers were cautious about having me because how it could be perceived, but they all quickly became my transport dads,” she says.

“We all take food, goods, clothes, fuel, everything for granted and we look at truck drivers and think it’s not a great career, but we couldn’t exist without the industry.”

At the bottom of the pile of Al’s books is the one that started it all — The Drover.

For nine months in 2013, Al took part in the historic 2000km muster of 18,000 head of cattle from central Queensland to central NSW.

Having only just bought her first camera at the time, and completed a few photography courses, she initially thought she’d join for a weekend. She ended up becoming one of the drovers, and also took more than 10,000 photos, of which 220 appear in the book.

It was during the muster she had the idea for The Drover, dedicating every penny to self-publish. And when booksellers refused to stock the book, she gave away the first print run of 2000 copies.

“I was book-less, moneyless, jobless, homeless and car-less,” Al recalls.

But word spread and now she has self-published 71,000 copies of The Drover, which is in its eighth print run.

While Al unquestionably has a fearless, adventurous streak, a common thread across all the books — and indeed her life — is a determination to show how triumph can emerge from adversity.

Or, as she writes in her autobiography, “belief creates reality.”

Al grew up on a sheep, cattle and deer farm, but from the age of 12 she started earning money racing horses so she could leave home.

She was also a competitive event rider and showjumper. In 2002 at the age of 15, while competing in a cross-country race, her horse flipped and landed on Al’s head.

“I was in a coma for three weeks. My family were considering turning off life support, but I woke up 24 hours later. I had three months of rehabilitation when I had to learn to function again,” she says.

Al went on to complete a Bachelor of Science, became a jillaroo in New Zealand then Australia, before working for six years in the animal health section of Pfizer.

But throughout, the coma experience underscored her world view. So when she walked past a camera shop and decided then and there she wanted to become a photographer, she went with her intuition.

Initially, she thought she would take photos for sheep and cattle studs for their sales’ catalogues and marketing, but then she joined the historic muster.

Having published the books, she’s now contemplating taking on TV. But for the moment lives with her partner, Heath, in Ballarat (she also runs a 2ha property in Toowoomba), and is constantly requested as a motivational speaker at events around the country.

“It was luck my family didn’t turn off my life support but my life has been about choice,” Al says.

“Life is too short not to have a crack at it.

“I don’t take it for granted.

“You go through terrible times but you rebuild and come back stronger.”