Stepping through the glass doors into the Ken Duncan Gallery on the Central Coast of New South Wales, I was immediately embraced by cool air-conditioned air. It was a relief from the humid summer heat outside, and the dust and noise of the construction work on the main road. The Ken Duncan shop and gallery, with its adjoining café called The Sanctuary, offered an atmosphere promised by the name of its restaurant.
I walk past an unassuming older man sitting in the café, enjoying a meal and reading the news-paper. Little did I realise that, while browsing through the gallery a few minutes later, this man was Ken Duncan—the very person I’d come to interview.
Ken Duncan has a Medal of the Order of Australia for his services to the arts through his landscape photography and publishing. Business leaders, national rulers, royalty, the stars of entertainment and spiritual leaders collect his prints. And yet nothing about Duncan suggests he inhabits such a stratospheric world.
The customers in his gallery—today mostly young adults dressed in casual tourist garb—are testament to that. Duncan’s majestic and awe-inspiring landscape photos are appreciated by everyone, regardless of social or economic background.
Dressed in an orange polo shirt and jeans, Duncan could easily have passed as any other customer in the shop. He has an easy and warm manner, and the corners of his eyes crinkle whenever he smiles. Duncan comes across as that friendly person you might meet at your church, not a world-renowned photographer. As Duncan reminds people (and perhaps himself), “I’m an average photographer with a great God.”
His latest publications are a hardcover coffee table book called Australia: Our Island Paradise, which Duncan says took him a couple of years to complete, and two smaller books that mark his new “Inspirational Books” series. The series features his photographs coupled with inspirational quotes, including many from the Bible.
Duncan isn’t one to hide his Christianity despite marketing primarily to a secular audience, in a country with strong anti-religious sentiment. “I dedicate my books to God because it’s the truth. If I don’t do that, what’s the point of my life?” he says. “God is my Provider. If I lift Him up, He will provide for me, He will look after me.
“If I just wanted to sell pictures of Australia forever and ever, then it’ll be fine. I can have an easy life, don’t talk about Jesus, don’t create any waves, especially if it’s going to affect your sales. But you know what? You’re just another boring life. You need to stand for something.”
Getting into nature, surrounded by God’s created beauty, taking those photos, is Duncan’s way of connecting with the God he came to know personally some 25 years ago.
“I love spending time out in nature, because that’s where I talk to God more,” he says.
Maybe it has something to do with his childhood. Duncan was born to missionaries serving in the Kimberley region of north-west Australia, where his dad taught indigenous people to muster cattle. As a rebellious youngster, Duncan rejected the “simple” message of Christianity, but through his mum’s continued prayers and God’s love, eventually came to accept Christ.
“Normally if I go photographing, I really get in the zone. . . . I’ll go and really try and sense what is happening and say, ‘God, what am I meant to be shooting?’ and I get very focused. I believe that you can get into that place where you get so close to God and you can sense the way the clouds are moving, you can sense the way the waves are moving; it’s quite amazing, really.”
Duncan’s photo-taking expeditions normally last for two to three weeks (“. . . and then I have to stop because it’s too intensive”). He is quick to point out that while he enjoys photography, he also recognises the need to spend time with his family, to enjoy looking at life other than through the camera lens.
The photo-taking experience of the vast outdoors isn’t always as lonely or solitary as his photos sometimes suggest. In Australia: Our Island Paradise, Duncan recounts an experience where he had to wait an entire day at a waterfall because tourists kept wandering into his shot. But Duncan prefers to take photos of landscapes devoid of humankind because, as he asks with a laugh, “Do you really want a photograph of someone else on your wall?”
“Occasionally I’ll put a person in a photo just to give scale, but one reason I love shooting landscapes is because I’m trying to let people come to terms with who they are,” he says. “People avoid going into nature because they’re scared to face who they are. There’s something about a beautiful landscape or a pristine area that challenges you to put yourself in that scene, in scale with everything that’s around you.
“As a Christian, when I stand in the beauty of God’s creation, I’m not afraid, because I think, ‘How great is my God, how big is my God and how small am I, and yet He loves me.’ Whereas a person who doesn’t know God, it begins to show them how small they are and how imprisoning fear can be.
“My job is to bring peace into people’s lives. If you put one of these landscapes in your house, the one that speaks to you, it’s amazing how over the years you’ll just go ‘wow.’ It’s not because it’s about me, it’s because you’re looking at a slice of God’s creation, a moment in time. It has the ability to touch you.”
in God he trusts
On September 7, 2001, America Wide: In God We Trust, Duncan’s photo-book, which featured the 50 states of America, was launched. It was given to former president George W Bush on September 10 by then Australian prime minister John Howard.
Mr Howard asked Duncan to accompany the gift with a letter explaining why he decided to publish the book.
In the letter, Duncan wrote: “Mr Bush, the reason why I’d done this book is to remind America that the only thing which would keep them strong for troubled times ahead is their faith in God, and that is under attack. Trust in God.“
The next day, the September 11 terrorist attacks occurred.
Later, president Bush would write Duncan a letter saying, “Ken, at a time when I had to make some very heavy decisions over my nation, I’d like to thank you for this book, because I’m reminded how blessed our nation is by God. Thank you so much on behalf of myself and my wife Laura.”
According to Duncan, he started the America project because of a burden laid upon him by God. Duncan went ahead with the project never understanding why, until the day the jetliners flew into the World Trade Center.
Duncan’s ministry doesn’t stop with his photography. He is also heavily involved in Christian outreach programs, and has established a not-for-profit organisation called Walk a While. On his website he has an option for visitors to send him a prayer request.
A dedicated team prays for every request and, according to Duncan, they have seen miracles result. Duncan also plans a few outreach programs a year, drawing people in with his photos. These programs are usually held in Melbourne, in conjunction with local churches. “We just show [people] the beauty of God’s creation, tell them funny stories and have fun.”
At the end of the programs, they ask people if they would like to accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour and, says Duncan, they’ve seen hundreds come to know Him.
“When I see someone come forward to give their life to Christ, with tears in their eyes, I get so excited that I start crying with them, because I’m taken back to that time when I first gave my life to Jesus. I cried then, but it was with tears of joy, because I’d finally found what I’d been searching for, and that is peace.”
It was a little over seven years ago that Duncan established his Walk a While Foundation, aimed at reconciliation and sharing Christ with the indigenous communities of central Australia. Photography, cinematography and music projects helped build connections and relationships, and he has plans underway for the building of a dedicated arts centre in one of the remote communities.
Duncan, supported by a number of Christians churches, also aims to create a haven for indigenous people, cultivating their talent “so that they can earn an income doing what they want to do . . . where they are not dependent on the social welfare system and it also gives them pride.”
Walk a While’s most ambitious project to date has been to build a 20-metre cross on top of a mountain in Central Australia. Duncan is in the midst of organising an exhibition in the gallery featuring artwork from the indigenous people in the area, in order to raise funds for the project.
“People tend to think, ‘Oh, he must have a lot of money,’ but I’ve never had enough money to do what God has told me to do,” Duncan says. “My journey is by faith. He always gives me enough to start [a project] and it builds faith, because you have to believe in Him. He sometimes leaves it right to the last minute [to provide], but He’s never let me down.”
So after seeing so many beautiful things and experiencing such a rich life, does anything in the great outdoors still impress this talented photographer?
“Yeah!” he says without hesitation. “I’m always overwhelmed. When people ask what my favourite photo is, my response is ‘the next one.’ ”
For someone whose photographic masterpieces hang on walls of the rich and famous, there is nevertheless something simple and humble about Ken Duncan.