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Globe-trotting photographer tells cane farmers' story

SNAPPED: Photographer Roff Smith visited Mackay to document the ways Project Catalsyt was improving outcomes for the reef and cane growers.
SNAPPED: Photographer Roff Smith visited Mackay to document the ways Project Catalsyt was improving outcomes for the reef and cane growers. Emily Smith

THE frame of Roff Smith's camera saw Norwegian whalers, Portuguese treasure ships and cheetahs "on loan from the Cincinnati zoo" before it was filled by Mackay's most sustainable cane farmers.

The photographer and journalist- who has worked for Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Time Magazine and National Geographic- arrived in the region to capture the efforts behind Project Catalyst last week.

The project, which has run since 2008, pushes for cane farming practises that benefit both a farmer's bottom line and environmental credentials, which sees it unite a group of organisations that would otherwise have little in common.

This includes The Coca-Cola Foundation, the World Wildlife Fund, Reef Catchments, government and cane growers.

Between Mackay and Cairns 78 cane farming families have now signed up.

While Mr Smith has long been aware of Coca-Cola's flair for building business models- proven in the fact he could buy a Coke when filing from "the most remote African communities"- it impressed him the company was now using that knowledge base to create social change.

He'd also been tasked to cover Coca-Cola's efforts in Africa and Mexico, where programs geared at providing easier access to water and reducing deforestation were delivered through a 'self-perpetuating model'.

This sustainability also increased self-esteem and empowerment for those involved.

"What I'm seeing here is the same sort of thing in that they're not just pouring money into cleaning up (waterways)," he said.

"It's putting money into making a viable business model that works for everybody, that works for cane growers, works for the reef and is self-perpetuating."

After growing up in New England, in the USA, Mr Smith moved to Sydney when he was about 20 years old.

He studied photography and geology, before landing a job at the Sydney Morning Herald.

That started off a career that eventually saw him become a core contributor to National Geographic and travel to "more than 100 countries" on assignments.

In Namibia he told the story of a Portuguese treasure ship discovered in a diamond mine, he travelled to Norway to write about whaling and a couple of years ago was involved in National Geographic's most expensive photo shoot: capturing the real-time acceleration of a cheetah.

Five cheetahs were hired out for the Cincinnati zoo, and a camera set up so it could roll right alongside the sprinting animal.

"I was the guy who got to sit in the track with a radar gun. It's the most amazing thing, this cheetah is coming at you at 60 miles an hour," Mr Smith said.

Although he likened his career to a "paid education of the world" he had little to do with the sugar industry before arriving in the region.

"It's a wonderful education in the sugar industry. Even if you don't remember all the details over the years you remember enough of them to shape your viewpoint and see how it all fits together," he said.

The shots taken of growers between Mackay and the Burdekin would eventually be used by Coca-Cola, to tell the story of their changing methods of farm management could help preserve the Great Barrier Reef.


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