Good Humans: Sam Thies

The Good Humans Series is a space where we celebrate the interesting, the real, the good, and the beauty of humanity in its many shapes and forms. A series sharing unique stories of like-minded, impact focused individuals. The humanitarian, the environmentalist, the activist, creator, designer, the dreamers and the rebels. The stories that make humankind great.

Welcome to the first instalment of Good Humans, where we talk to Sam Thies, Queensland based storyteller, filmmaker and photographer. But those aren’t the only titles Sam holds, he is also a husband and father. In honour of Father’s day, Lachlan Stumer captured Sam and his beautiful family in their home of Brookfield, QLD.

The lens in which Sam sees the world is truly a beautiful one, his work illustrating place, people, and the relationship between the two. His passion for humanity radiates through each image, and through his voice as he talks of the people he has met along the way.

Though he grew up in the suburbs, Sam is always drawn back to Outback Australia. Here, he is fascinated by shifts in culture, places, small towns, communities and businesses.

In one of his most recent projects, BUSH, Sam explores 2020 through the eye of communities in the Australian outback. In his own words, a  ‘study of those who maintain a strong sense of community connection, mutual respect and shared purpose.’

As part of the Good Humans series, we spoke to Sam about his adventures and the lessons we, and the next generation, can learn from regional life.

Q. Coming from Brisbane what sparked the passion to explore communities in the outback, Queensland.

I've always been drawn to the bush, I'm not sure what that is. I grew up in suburban Brisbane. So there's no real sort of family heritage. I think generally speaking, though, most people can find a spiritual connection with outback Australia. So much of our history, whether it's traditional or modern, is embedded in the bush. 

Early last year, I started an online course in anthropology, which, you know, during lockdown, I was just looking for something to keep me occupied. In between that and having close friends out there that were already impacted by bushfires and droughts, when COVID hit, it sort of sparked a bit of a desire to see if there were any social or cultural impacts these events were having on outback communities.

What's interesting is that initially, the project started off as a bit of a check-in to see how everyone out there was coping and it quickly turned into a study on how city communities could possibly learn from the the attitudes and you know, the stoicism and resilience of our bush cousins to better equip us in times of adversity. Things that they're naturally faced with every season or every day.

Q. As a father, what lessons Do you think the next generation can learn from spending time in rural communities?

Where do I start? Look for me, and my two boys, I really want them to just be grateful and to contribute to their community in a positive way, I guess. And how that sort of relates to these communities, I think, to understand the cost of, you know, the energy and the hard work that goes into the meals they eat- I think that's a really important lesson for them to wrap their heads around. You know with rural communities, I think they understand this, which is what makes them so humble. Probably more importantly, though, most of these communities have a really deep connection to the environment. And I think if I can expose my kids to the benefits of balance and the benefits of sustainability as much as possible. Ideally, it'll play a part in their own choices moving forward. It's yeah, look, there's a noticeable change in their behaviour, when we spend more time in the bush, we talk more, they observe more. And any of those sort of agitations or anxieties of the city, you know, city life seems to just wash off them when we're out there.

Q. In capturing the BUSH project, you documented and captured countless Outback characters. Can you tell us about one that really stood out to you and why that was?

Look, there were so many great people we met throughout the project, all unique in their own way. But also most of them shared quite common values around community, and stoicism and resilience which seem to be central to survival in the bush. However, there was definitely one person that stood out.

It was suggested that I get in touch with a lady called Cheryl Thompson, who's an indigenous lady running cultural tours in a coffee shop in Barcaldine. Initially, I was drawn to her work maintaining traditional culture in her hometown and surrounding areas. However, Cheryl had a new project to share that wasn't revealed until we met her in person.

So, we met at a coffee shop and, quite excitedly, she asked us to follow her a couple of blocks away. We pulled up at the Silver Linings School, which is an all indigenous school that she'd set up earlier that year, in 2020. There we were met by a couple of very confident young indigenous kids, who then proudly showed us around their campus.

There are open-plan classrooms with kids of varying ages working away. And some of them, you know, playing with Lego for the first time, others diving into the latest software on laptops, or creating music and art. And, you know, it was just really cool to see them all interacting, and in being educated so, so sort of happily, something a lot of us just take for granted.

Then Cheryl explains that they've all come from troubled backgrounds, where attendance rates at their local school was less than 20%. You can start to see the enormity of her impact on the young kids. We arrived there in September. And at that point, the attendance rate from when they opened the doors earlier that year was at 100%. So, you know, a really good indication that whatever she was doing, it was, was having a very positive effect.

We originally were just looking at staying in Barcaldine for lunch to catch up with Cheryl for an hour and ask a few questions. But that quickly turned into five hours. And at the end of the day, you know, myself and the crew were just so taken by her and the program - it had a really lasting impact on us. And because of that we've decided for every BUSH Project book that I sell, $25 will go to the school, which is really exciting.

Q. We saw this year take you back to Winton - one of your favourite country towns in Queensland. What is it about Winton that you fell in love with? Did you see much change in the town on your return?

I think Winston has the perfect mix of old-world town and contemporary art and culture, in a timeless sort of natural history. It has something for everyone. Personally, some of the natural landscapes surrounding the town is what draws me there. It's reminiscent of, you know, the Monument Valley in Utah or some quite sort of Jurassic desert landscapes that tend to just photograph really beautifully. And it's probably why there's a really thriving photography and film industry out there. There's just always a really good vibe when we're there. So I think that mix of different interests and different people that it draws. It's quite an eclectic little town and from opals to film festivals to the Banjo Paterson museum to the dinosaur museum, it's really quite unique.

As far as change, the amount of tourists there this year was just... we couldn't get any accommodation. So it was just extraordinary. The growth that it's starting to see with you know a lot of [Australians] being forced to explore their own backyards and it's really good to see because you know, there's a lot better off so it's great for people to, to learn about all the past everything that's happening there that's quite contemporary as well.

Q. During the BUSH project you were exposed to many different farms and agricultural practices, could you see a movement in sustainable practices being applied in the farming industry.

There were definitely a lot of conversations around sustainability and innovation for most of the primary producers and sort of Ag-based businesses we met, or people from Ag businesses. The majority were letting go of traditional or European methods that were introduced through colonialism. A lot of people were doing this to meet not only the sort of consumer demand for greener operations, but just to essentially to future proof their businesses and livelihoods by working closer with the needs of the environment.

I guess regenerative farming was probably the most exciting of these were the pastoralists essentially, improving the landscape to encourage a greater level of biodiversity, which then provides them with a more productive pasture - more eco friendly operation, and then in turn, a more sustainable business.

Yeah, so historically, that sort of blanket clearing of the landscape for grazing is much less drought tolerant. So restoring that ecological balance with more trees and more foliage and, and you know, varieties of grasses has seen a huge improvement in things like water retention, the native animal regeneration and, and even carbon capture.

Q.  What gives you hope?

Okay, well, what I've learned is that there's great people in these regions that are smart, and in tune with providing a sustainable and healthy future for our country. There's also a wave of young changemakers, relocating to rural areas, bringing with them new ideas, more energy and plenty of positivity, that's starting to gentrify the regional townships. And, I guess, if Cheryl Thompson has her way, there'll be a generation of keen, young, indigenous kids all trained up as cultural tour guides and eager to share their traditional customs with the rest of the world. So there's, yeah, there's plenty to look forward to.

Q. What's on the horizon? 

Well, at the end of this year, I'm beginning work on a whole new project, which is in line with BUSH, it's almost to the next chapter, I guess. It's not in the bush, it's in a different region. And it's probably looking like it's gonna be a much bigger project, which is a bit scary, but it's following a very similar kind of social, more socio-cultural study on post COVID life in these regional communities. Hopefully, hopefully, it's just as rewarding as this one has been so yeah, really excited to start rolling that out.

To follow Sam’s story, dive into his work, or purchase a copy of BUSH for yourself visit ​​

Then, we invite you to explore more of the Outland Freedom Journal, for more stories of humans doing good things.

Images by Harrison Mark, Lachlan Sumer, and Sam Thies.

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