Robert Brooking. Picture: Annet van der Voort

You might not expect a photographer who was born in The Netherlands, lives in Germany and has exhibited her work across the globe to describe humble Hedland as "international".

Then again, with people of 52 different nationalities living in the relatively small town, perhaps it isn't so surprising.

Annet van der Voort was invited to Hedland as one of several leading international photographers to participate in cultural organisation FORM's Pilbara Stories project, sponsored by BHP Billiton, and had the chance to meet numerous local people to hear their tales of life in the remote region.

Van der Voort turned her lens on the Pilbara's people along with photographers Martin Parr, Bharat Sikka, Ketaki Sheth and John Elliot.

She described the stories of the people she met as "exceptional".

"The diversity of people I met and talked to put me in a position to learn a lot about WA and especially the Pilbara and its inhabitants," she said.

"(It was) a chance to learn a lot - diverse people from many, many different cultures told me about their lives, their country, their history and their connection with this red-soil Pilbara.

"I found the people extremely friendly, open, helpful, hard-working and very international.

"I got the impression that something of the pioneer mentality is still in the air in the Pilbara."

For van der Voort, the series was the first time she put the models in their own surroundings.

"I wanted a frame that had something to do with the person in the photograph," she said.

"Either their working situation or their home, a leisure situation or a personal link with a special place.

"Sometimes it was not so easy to find a good surrounding, but in that case we 'brainstormed' together what a good location could be and in the end we almost always found a suitable spot."

Van der Voort's time in the Pilbara wasn't all easy - even with her long experience as a photographer, she said the harsh light of the Pilbara forced her to constantly improvise with her shooting.

"I found myself looking for shade all the time to be able to make a good portrait . . . but shade is a lot rarer than in Europe," she said.

"Back home I mostly know what is expected (of) me, if I do shooting.

"But the Pilbara made me inventive and more spontaneous. A pity it is such a long journey, otherwise I would be more often in the amazing Pilbara."

The Pilbara Stories exhibition opens at the FORM Gallery, 357 Murray Street, Perth, on February 8.

The West Australian

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