My name is Michael Thompson. I started my career with a degree in botany and microbiology, worked as a park ranger, moved into land tax and then customs for the government, ending up in defence doing IT. And today, after decades taking photos, I am officially a photographer.
While working for defence I returned to school for a master’s in IT-related subjects and worked in that field for 25 years. However, I’d always had an interest in photography, so upon Ieaving the army I enrolled for a semester at the Photography Studies College but stayed four years for the full course. When PSC finished a factory came up in West Heidelberg which I could turn into a studio, and one year later here I am.
I’ve lived around here most of my life. I was born in Austin Hospital in 1958 and grew up in West Heidelberg. My parents bought land and built their house in the early 50s when it was mostly farmland. They saw the building of Olympic Village for the 1956 Olympics, and I saw Northland and LaTrobe University being built. The area had some interesting growth because it developed in pockets, and there were some really rough parts you wouldn’t walk through at night. The Colosseum Hotel was where the Aldi is now, and it was rough as guts till it got burnt down. Sections of West Heidelberg got really run down, but it’s sort of starting to turn around now.
When I was young I’d take the train all the way to Hurtsbridge or Eltham for the Moon Dances. These dances were held whenever there was a full moon near a weekend; someone would hire a hall, get a band like the Bushwackers, and we’d dance till we couldn’t walk. The Bushwackers played a sort of Australian country, not Hillbilly nor Bluegrass, but close, and you could square dance or dance it.
In the 70s Hurtsbridge was country; people would dance in overalls and country gear, and you couldn’t sit around because they’d drag you onto the floor. It was exhausting to dance all night, but if you were a bit shy you’d lose that. I was shy, but girls I didn’t even know would push me to dance. I lived on the train line then, with friends at every station.
In high school I was pretty average; it was all a bit daunting and I wasn’t that confident. When I went to university it was different, as I slowly got better and better, realising I had to work a bit harder. I think the change came when I understood it was all up to me, and because I liked what I was doing. Latrobe was fantastic back then; it was like a big party. You’d come out of class and there would be someone playing the flute as the sun set, people sitting around really relaxed, and in the air the odd smell of certain substances. We had no sense of urgency in those days.
At age 20 I moved out to a shared house in Ivanhoe where we paid $30 a week for the place. Later living in Greensborough and Prahran before going to London and Europe, and starting to travel every chance I got for ten years. I wanted to see the world. I was unsure what I was looking for till the day I saw my wife at a library in Toorak, and knew I had found it.
My wife was from China and her parents were back home. They couldn’t get visas to attend our wedding as they were considered unacceptable risks because they might want to stay. During the honeymoon in China, I visited our embassy to ask what I could do and was told my in-laws couldn’t get tourist visas, yet they could apply for permanent residency. “Yeah right!” I said “What are the chances they’ll be approved?!” 95% apparently, and three months later they were living here as residents.
After my son was born we found a block in Ivanhoe and built on it, so both his older sister and he grew up and went to school here. As a boy I spent a lot of time in Ivanhoe and always thought it had a strong village feel; the man who served me pizza then was still there when I returned with my kids, and older buildings remained. Development was controlled for a long time but now, if they aren’t careful, that feeling will be lost.
When I started travelling I was interested in what made people tick and learned that despite the different foods and lifestyles, we are all similar. Most people are good, and they just want to look after their families. It’s important to see how the rest of the world lives, and how privileged we are. We have an absolutely fantastic life here that we take for granted.