Tom O’Dea takes remarkable photographs. Stunning close-ups of birds and animals, and landscapes of his hometown of Yass that look like the sort of still lifes that famous Australian artist Fred McCubbin had in his focus at the end of the 19th century.
But recently, Tom focused his camera on a scene he later described as not far removed from 2003 British post-apocalyptic film 28 Days Later.
“It was so eerie,” he says. “I’m not the sort of person who is easily spooked, but on that night, I wouldn’t have been surprised to have seen the undead coming towards me.”
It was 10:00 pm on one of the first nights NSW went into COVID-19 lockdown. In the one hour Tom was taking photos in the main street of Yass, he saw four cars and a truck go through.
“At least it showed that people were listening to the lockdown orders, but I really had never seen anything like it,” he says.
But Tom also saw something else: the real picture of a town in lockdown, a picture painted thousands of times across the nation.
“I was taking pictures of the buildings and it struck me that, by default almost, I’ve been taking pictures of strange happenings and seeing situations that are rare, and have been able to capture them on film,” he says.
This ability to capture the real picture in the most extraordinary of times began earlier this year when the Yass Valley started to dry off after a prolonged wet spell.
“People started asking me if they could use my pictures to document what had been happening,” says Tom. “So of course I said yes.”
Tom and his family moved to Yass about three years ago in search of a better quality of life and a shorter commute into Canberra, where he works for the NBN.
“We’d lived in Sydney briefly and also in China where my wife is from,” he says. “We were looking for somewhere about an hour’s commute from Canberra – a place with decent schools – and because we just wanted to get out of the Sydney hellhole.
“I’d always been into photography, but I took it up a notch when we moved to Yass. I was struck by the raw beauty of the place and the wildlife. Now I just can’t imagine living anywhere else. You have the birds here at night and the frogs in the morning. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Tom thanks his “very creative” mother for his early interest in photography.
“My mother taught me how to take photos probably before I could even write,” he says. “That’s what I love about Yass. Here, you can get out, go exploring, take pictures and not spend hours commuting to work in the car.”
Up until recently, Tom was using his iPhone to take many of his images. But when the popularity of his work increased, and people wanted higher resolution shots so they could be enlarged and framed to hang on walls, he knew the next digital step was imminent.
His wife bought him a Nikon D5600 with what he describes as a “massive” telephoto lens that “weighs about half a kilo”.
“I just love it,” says Tom. “I was a bit apprehensive at first, but now I can take the pictures I’ve always wanted to. I’m even kicking myself that I didn’t do it sooner. Now I can do more pictures of animals, which I love, instead of just doing landscapes.
“I’ve basically turned into an ornithologist – without this lens, I could never get close enough before.”
Tom reckons part of his passion for photography has developed from the reaction it garners from people.
He selected 70 of his favourite images and developed them as postcards of Yass. He posted them on his Facebook page and asked his followers which ones they liked best, and to vote for first, second and third.
“In two weeks, more than 3000 votes came in – it was incredible,” says Tom. “I was in a bit of a shock. I certainly wasn’t expecting that sort of reaction.”
He has since chosen 10 of the most popular postcards and had the first batch printed locally. His Facebook friends have helped him choose the prints and decide – apparently quite robustly – what colour border best suits.
“Then I got a call from the Yass Valley Visitors Information Centre saying they wanted to stock them,” says Tom. “I couldn’t believe it.”
He will donate 20 per cent of the recommended retail price of his postcard packs to local not-for-profit organisation Landcare because of its obvious connection to his other passion, the environment.
Tom has engaged local printer Designs by Joe to print the postcards, and the next step is a 2022 calendar, then perhaps photography as his new day job.
“It would be better than winning the lottery if I could do this full-time,” he says.