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Hilary Wardhaugh_feature

A life photographing “the dirt in between”

Ginger Gorman

“Photography to me is more than just a business, it’s an expression,” says 54-year-old documentary photographer Hilary Wardhaugh, reflecting on a passion that’s spanned more than four decades.

For Hilary, the candid, photo journalistic moments” and the “the dirt in between” is what lures her to capture an image.

This is perhaps why Hilary has been drawn to photographing death, dying and illness over the past 10 years.

When I was confronted with a friend of mine who was dying, and he had a great interest in photography, I asked him if I could photograph his death, and he said yes. So I did. He was sick for four years, so I photographed him during that time too,” she says.

For some people this might have been tough, but Hilary threw herself into the task.

“I’m looking for the light, shape and form. I always find that if I’ve got a camera in front of me, it’s easier.

“It was very sad at the time back in 2009. The night of his death was a pretty profound experience. But as a photographer I just found that experience creatively so amazing that – I am privileged that I could actually be part of that.

“Death is just one part of life and even though I was very close to him, I was his girlfriend at one stage, we had such a connection and he was really happy with me doing this.

“When it comes to actually processing the images later, that’s when it really affects me. And I did a book and I did an exhibition about his death, and it wasn’t until afterwards that I had a sort of delayed response,” she recalls.

Another remarkable part of Hilary’s work is her role as a volunteer photographer with Heartfelt – an organisation made up of “photographers from all over Australia and New Zealand dedicated to giving the gift of photographic memories to families that have experienced stillbirths, premature births or have children with serious and terminal illnesses.”

Over the years, Hilary has photographed more than 100 deceased babies and sees this as “the most important work that I do in my photography.”

“It’s something that I can give to someone that they don’t have to pay for. They are at their most vulnerable and then I’m there to provide support in that moment [and] for the rest of their lives. After all, these photos are the only tangible thing that they’ve got of their child,” she says.

Andrew and Deb Braddock mourning the death of their son, Connor in 2012. Picture: Hilary Wardhaugh

Andrew and Deb Braddock mourning the death of their son, Connor in 2012. Picture: Hilary Wardhaugh

As a rule, Hilary says families are extremely grateful for the service Heartfelt offers.

“I did a session recently and the guy said, ‘Hey, I’ll give you my email address so you can send me an invoice’, and I said, ‘Oh no, it’s all volunteer.’ And he just burst into tears, and he said, ‘I just can’t believe that you’re doing this’.”

Even so, Hilary says sometimes the grief in these situations hits her.

“Sometimes, when the families have other children there…[and] I’ve got older kids that are holding the little baby and they’re not completely aware that the child is deceased, that’s very sad and those sessions hit me more than other ones,” she says.

Reflecting back, Hilary notes that her love of photography began when she was a child.

“My grandma gave me a Kodak Instamatic camera and I just loved it. I was the one to take all the family photos,” she says.

She also recalls one particular image, which still sticks in her mind.

“I can remember when we lived in Trangie, central west NSW, Mum and Dad used to always get Life magazine and it always had photographic essays in it. One of them was at the time of the Vietnam War and I remember seeing the Nick Ut image of the Vietnamese girl running along as her skin burned with napalm. And it had a profound effect on me.”

Much later, when Hilary was in her late twenties she was living in Sydney with a boyfriend and she purchased a book by the renowned photographer, Henry Cartier-Bresson; she was gripped by “the way that he captured decisive moments.”

Since then I’ve always had an interest in documentary photography, real photography, honest photography.

I think that that’s what attracted me to wedding photography, because it all happens in front of me – all that action that happens at a wedding is wonderful fodder,” she says.

Over the years, Hilary has won numerous prizes for her work – and she’s just added one more to the bag. And it’s a big one.

She’s been named the 2017 AIPP ACT Australian Epson Professional photographer of the year for her documentary work.

Her stunning winning images include heartbreaking photos about dementia, a composite image about the overuse of mobile phones and a boy with cerebral palsy floating in water.

“All of the images are a result of projects…that mean a lot to me,” she says, adding that: “I was actually gobsmacked to have won.”

But the rest of us aren’t so surprised. For more information about her work, check out Hilary’s new website.

Feature image: Hilary Wardhaugh shooting on location in the Snowy Mountains. Picture: Supplied


Ginger Gorman

Ginger Gorman is a fearless and multi award-winning social justice journalist. She has an innate ability to connect and communicate with some of the most interesting and marginalised people in our community. Ginger works hard to translate those untold stories into powerful and insightful journalism. She regularly writes stories, makes radio and TV for media outlets such as:, Fairfax online, The Guardian, The Big Smoke, HerCanberra and the ABC. You can follow Ginger on Twitter @GingerGorman. More about the Author

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