This is the Most Iconic Image of the Australian Wildfires

As bushfires consume nearly 20 million acres in Australia, killing 24 people and an estimated one billion animals, it seems somewhat trivial to contemplate which image will end up defining and representing this apocalyptic event – especially considering the dry season will continue for a few more months. The scope of the fires has been difficult to comprehend, and indeed, the world largely ignored the first two months of the conflagration.

Infographics have been helpful in providing scale to the fires, but like most infographics, there’s a certain sterility that doesn’t provide an emotional connection to the tragedy. Other infographics are downright misleading.

That is precisely why Matthew Abbott’s photo of a kangaroo jumping in front of a burning house in Lake Conjola, NSW has become so iconic. The New York Times assigned Sydney-based Abbott (@mattabbottphoto) to cover the fires, and his work has been both extraordinary and heart-breaking.

A kangaroo rushes past a burning house in Lake Conjola, New South Wales, Australia. Matthew Abbott for The New York Times

Abbott’s image appeared on Dec 31, 2019, and immediately went viral – mostly without attribution. The image contains a number of elements that make it instantly iconic:

  • The presence of the kangaroo makes the location immediately clear.
  • The animal is mid-hop (i.e. peak action) which gives dynamism to the image.
  • The blazing building and soot make it clear that while only one building is visible, the conflagration is much bigger.
  • The burning ground in the lower right of the frame makes it clear that there are no lines of containment.
  • The mailbox gives us context to this suburban neighborhood.
  • The photographer’s close proximity to the fire immerses the viewer. We can almost feel the heat.
  • The juxtaposition of a wild animal fleeing a massive fire in a suburban setting is a perfect metaphor for man’s encroachment onto the land, and human-induced climate change, which has exacerbated the fires.

Iconic images from the past like John Moore’s “Crying Girl”, Jonathan Bachman’s image of Iesha Evans, or Julia Le Duc’s border drowning of Oscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter Valeria captured the public’s attention and outrage. But I’m hard-pressed to think of an image in the past decade that has both gone viral and spurred tangible action (in the form of fundraisers).

Teen climate activist Greta Thunberg posted the image.

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Australia is on fire. And the summer there has only just begun. 2019 was a year of record heat and record drought. Today the temperature outside Sydney was 48,9°C. 500 million (!!) animals are estimated dead because of the bushfires. Over 20 people have died and thousands of homes have burned to ground. The fires have spewed 2/3 of the nations national annual CO2 emissions, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. The smoke has covered glaciers in distant New Zealand (!) making them warm and melt faster because of the albedo effect. And yet. All of this still has not resulted in any political action. Because we still fail to make the connection between the climate crisis and increased extreme weather events and nature disasters like the #AustraliaFires That has to change. And it has to change now. My thoughts are with the people of Australia and those affected by these devastating fires. (Photo: Matthew Abbott for The New York Times)

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Numerous celebrities and other large social media accounts have posted the image:

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Wow this fireworks display is crazy! Earth has the best parties. Everyone's turning up the heat and the dancefloor is on fire 🔥🌎🎆⁣ ⁣ Welcome to 2020, Donate to the heros that help save animals (click my bio link) for the Australian Fire Service.⁣ ⁣ We HAVE TO ACT. Mount political pressure to hold corporations accountable for the future they've stole from you.⁣ Or we'll have no future. Click my bio link to help wildlife, and below are some organizations that urgently need your help! 🐨💛⁣ ⁣ To Help Wildlife: 🦘🐨⠀⁣ @portstephenskoalas⁣⁣ ⁣ @wildliferescue.sunshinecoast -⁣⁣⁣⁣ ⁣ @kiwildlifepark⁣⠀⁣ ⁣ @currumbinwildlifehospital⁣⁣ ⁣ @wireswildliferescue ⁣⁣⁣ ⁣ ⁣@wildtofree⁣⁣⁣ ⁣ ⁣@portmacquariekoalahospital ⁣⁣⁣ ⁣ ⁣@friends_of_the_koala ⁣⁣⁣ ⁣ ⁣Northern Rivers Wildlife Carers⁣⁣⁣ ⁣ ⁣Koalas In Care Inc.⁣⁣⁣ ⁣ ⁣FAWNA NSW INC,⁣⁣⁣⁣ ⁣ ⁣@therescuecollective⁣⁣⁣⁣ ⁣ To Help Firefighters: 🔥⠀⁣ @nswrfs – New South Wales Fire Service⁣⠀⁣ ⁣ @cfavic – Victoria Fire Service⠀⁣⠀⁣ ⁣ South Australian Country Fire Service⠀⁣⠀⁣ ⁣ Queensland Fire Service⠀⁣ ⠀⁣ ⁣ To Help Relief & Recovery Orgs 👨‍👩‍👧‍👧⁣ @redcrossau ⁣⁣ ⁣ @salvosau⁣⁣ To Provide Food in Need 🥗⁣⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⁣ @foodbankaus ⁣⁣ ⁣ Photo by @mattabbottphoto⁣ ⁣ #australia #australianbushfires #bushfire #sydney #perth #melbourne #goldcoast #nsw #nswfires #happynewyear #newyear #kangaroo #koala #quokka #wallabees #brisbane #darwin #australiafires #victoria #melbourne #adelaide #alicesprings #queensland #thisisqueensland #earth #bushfiresaustralia #wildfires #climatechange #climateaction

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Please share with your followers right away: Huge wildfires in Australia are growing steadily bigger, causing tens of thousands of people to evacuate while also killing hundreds of millions of animals in their wake! The state of New South Wales just declared a state of emergency, with the authorities warning that the fires heading their way this weekend might be the worst yet in an already catastrophic season. The devastation is immense. At least 15 people have died, with 8 deaths confirmed in the past week. Fires raged across forest and scrubland along Australia’s Pacific coast, choking cities with thick smoke, charring more than 1,800 houses and killing countless wild animals. This is the worst fire season in Australia’s recorded history and what we can do to help is share these powerful images to make this go viral like the fires in Brazil did a few months ago as only then will international aid truly happen. Please join us in praying for Australia and also let’s all use our social media platforms for good and share this post with your followers and tag people, influencers, celebrities and news media that need to see this as we MUST get the word out about this urgent crisis and get international help for these communities! Photos (in order of appearance) by the great photographers @mattabbottphoto @david.caird and @nampix. Video by @frnswmedia and some of the local charities we support are @wireswildliferescue @1300koalaz @deeppeacetrust @balubluefoundation @adelaidekoalahospital @nswrfs @redcrossau and every donation, great and small, are appreciated as we must come together to help Australia ASAP! #sendhelp #wildfires #karmagawa Caption via @karmagawa

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Retailers are using the image to raise awareness and funds:

And of course, a number of scams have emerged using the image to build audiences.

What makes an image iconic is subjective, but Abbott’s image will almost certainly stand the test of time – a totem for this disaster, and a harbinger of terrible climate-related tragedies to come.

About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter, which regularly publishes resources for photographers. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Allen is a graduate of Yale University, and flosses daily. This article was also published here.