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A Summertime Christmas Down Under: Trent Parke’s Family Photo Album

Parke's latest book capture an ideal of Christmas somehow familiar and foreign -- BBQ and sunburns and tinsel and pine trees.

Whether in the real world, the movies or in great works of fiction, most people experience Christmas as a winter holiday. We are surrounded with season-appropriate images of Santa donning a heavy coat and boots, pine trees flourishing in the cold and, whether it be natural or machine-made, lots and lots of snow. It’s a time of the year that is understood, and remembered, as bitterly cold.

In another part of the world, however, lies Australia—a place where fewer people live than in the northern climes and where Christmas is spent not sledding but grilling, often on the beach. Because Down Under’s in the southern hemisphere, Christmas falls in the summer.

Born and raised in Newcastle, Australia, Trent Parke, a World Press Photo-award winning photographer and a member of Magnum, began photographing at age 12. “When I was younger,” he recalls, “I was actually a Santa Claus photographer while working at a Kodak store after school, and shot pictures of people with Santa at the mall.”

In 2004, Parke had just completed a two-year road trip with his partner and fellow photographer, Narelle Autio, documenting the full spectrum of life around Australia. The photographs taken during this road trip resulted in his acclaimed series, Minutes to Midnight.

The Christmas Tree Bucket, his next work, started at the close of this journey, when Parke and Autio had their first son, Jem. “Wanting more space, family support and a change of scenery, we moved from Sydney to Adelaide, where Narelle grew up,” Parke tells TIME.

“One afternoon, I decided to venture to the local mega mall — specifically to the hairdresser. After removing all of my very long hair, the very young hairdresser said: ‘There you go, a new hair cut for a new start’.

On returning to the in-laws that evening, I started to feel very odd and a little queasy. I started vomiting violently and uncontrollably and grabbed the nearest thing I could throw up into.

“And it was there, while staring into that bright red bucket,” says Parke, referring to red buckets which act as the base of Christmas trees (slide 1), “vomiting every hour on the hour for fifteen hours straight, that I started to think how strange families, suburbia, life, vomit and in particular, Christmas really was.”

At this exact moment (captured on film in slide 12 above), Parke decided to continue photographing the holidays as they unfolded in his home.

parke_coverThe Christmas Tree Bucket: Trent Parke’s Family Album, recently published by Steidl, captures the uncanny and surreal air of the holiday season. Perhaps amplified by the oddness of seeing sunburned Aussies barbequing next to tinsel and pine, Parke’s images capture an ideal of Christmas somehow familiar and foreign.

“I’m always documenting life in the moment, but I try to photograph and compile it so that the pictures can be looked and felt by different people. At the time, my children became my life 24/7, just as photography had been. I became a sort of alien, where everything was new and I saw the kids as something totally new. It’s a whole new experience and I totally immersed myself and my photography in the moment — because that’s the closest point you can get to something. That’s where this project came about.”

Alexander Ho is the Digital Art Director of TIME.com. Follow him on Twitter @alexandermanho.

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