The Feds and me

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Through the viewfinder I see flashing lights moving through the airport grounds, a plume of dust in its wake.I say to my subject, Navid, ‘I wonder if that’s for us?’

Navid’s sitting on a wooden fence on the boundary of Melbourne airport. He squints over his shoulder and shrugs. He’s from Afghanistan. He’s seen worse. He points to the sky – another plane is coming in to land – and settles back into his pose.

I click the shutter and moments later the vehicle – in the image you can see it approaching in the treeline – skids to a halt and a stocky security guard bundles out, halfway through a sentence, ‘What are you doing? They’re moments away from calling the feds!’

‘The feds?’ I say, incredulous, ‘What have we done? Are we on airport land?’

‘Well, technically you’re doing nothing wrong but someone has looked out a tower with a pair of binoculars and seen a black SUV and two guys setting up tripods under a flight path.’

I talk quickly, explaining that I’m taking photos for an exhibition at the Immigration Museum.

‘An exhibition?’ He stands a little taller, ‘What about?’

‘Asylum seekers,’ I say, watching to gauge his reaction. It’s a subject that splits opinion, and a few times during this project I’ve held my breath.

He stands with hands on hips, ‘I see.’

I tell him Navid’s story, about how he won Afghanistan’s version of Australian Idol in 2009 and became so popular that the Taliban saw him as a threat and shot him.

‘Wow!’

I tell him how Navid fled to Pakistan, but the Taliban tracked him down and he narrowly escaped by fleeing over rooftops.

‘Far out!’ He shakes his head, looking at Navid, then back to me.

Another plane roars overhead. ‘Well, hold on,’ he says, ‘I’ll shift the ute out of your way so you can get another shot.’

Freedom shows at the Immigration Museum until June 15, 2015.

 

 

First assignment

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This image was from my first assignment at the Colac Herald, which gave me a start as a press photographer.

I’d just started work there as a journalist but my heart was with photography – I’d been trying to get my foot in the door for two years. So I began taking my camera everywhere – including the races where we were having our work Xmas party. The Herald’s regular photographer didn’t want to cover it – he just wanted to have a few drinks and wind down.

After the races I went back to the office to scan in my pictures and my editor was there too, so I showed him and he ran a double page spread in the next edition. In his office a few days later he said that the staff photographer was stretched for time and that I should take my camera to all my interviews and start doing my own photographs.
I got my start.

The Spectators

 

Hey Bozo

(Story and pictures published in The Big Issue, June 24, 2014)

I’m lying on the boundary line at a community football match, my camera turned to the crowd, when someone yells to me, ‘Hey bozo, the game’s that way!’

Moments later I’m trampled by a herd of muddy footballers and a guy leans over the fence with an empathetic look, ‘Mate, there has to be an easier way.’

In the two years I’d been working on this series I’d been asking myself why I’d been spending my Saturday afternoons at mud-level, risking health and dignity.

I didn’t even like football.

My family wasn’t into sport, so I grew up with little knowledge of its importance. The only footy match I’d seen as a kid was when dad – influenced by 1970s work politics – herded the family into the car to glumly watch his boss play community football. The highlight was when dad honked the horn as someone kicked a goal, before realising it wasn’t his boss’ team.

Through primary school I faked interest in football by learning faces and names from swap cards, so I could nod with conviction if someone mentioned Jacko or Dipper.

I kept up the facade through my teenage years, but in my early twenties I was bothered by how football dominated culture, wondering how a footy player embroiled in an affair could make front-page news for a fortnight.

I made a stand: footy was dead to me.

But a few years later fate and irony conspired and I married into a family of football fanatics.

My father-in-law took me to an AFL match and I sat with my arms folded. Towards half time the scores tightened and the crowd became raucous. Curious, I turned to see their faces as they yelled praise or abuse – often in the same sentence – and discovered rage, joy, anguish, hope, frustration, celebration, and even grief.

For the rest of the match I spent more time looking back at the crowd, the faces reflecting everything that was happening on the field.

And that’s when I had the idea for this project.

The next Saturday I went to a community football match at Bayswater oval and asked a spectator if I could take his picture. He shrugged consent and we shared an awkward moment as I stood in front of him and he tried to see past me. I took some shots and was disappointed: my subject looked embarrassed. I tried lying down out of his field of vision and after a few minutes he forgot about me and focussed on the match, grimacing and gesturing like a symphonic conductor. I clicked the shutter.

After a few matches I sat at my computer frowning at the portraits, doubting if I was on the right track: there was nothing to indicate they were even watching football – it could have been anything.

And then it clicked. It didn’t matter. The pictures on the screen showed the gamut of human emotion – ecstasy to tears – and that was the point.

I was no closer to understanding what was happening on the field, but I now understood the importance of the game: it made people feel something.

The language barrier

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I don’t notice the Russian policemen in my viewfinder until I take the shot.

And they aren’t happy.

The guidebook advised against taking pictures of officials, but I hadn’t seen them in the Moscow Metro crowd.

They walk toward me, Kremlin-faced.

As they approach I begin preparing my watertight defence, should things turn nasty. ‘I didn’t see you,’ that’s what I’ll tell them.

They’re standing in front of me, dressed in black with the hems of their pants tucked into their boots, which are also black. One stands with his thumbs hooked in his belt. He says something in Russian but I only understand five Russian words, and he’s using none of them. I shrug and pat myself on the chest. ‘Australian,’ I say, as though this fact should dispel their concerns.

But his face doesn’t change. He looks at me sideways. He wags his finger. ‘No photos’, he says, his voice low and rumbly as a tank entering Red Square.

I’ve forgotten my watertight defence, so I just say, ‘Sorry.’

And then they’re gone, their uniforms blending back into the stream of eight million commuters that ride the Metro daily.

But then I think, did he mean no photos of police, or no photos altogether in the Metro?

A photographer’s dilemma: I’m in one of the most beautiful rail systems in the world, a picture opportunity at every angle – ornate plasterwork, wall murals, mosaics, chandeliers – and I have a camera in my hands.

I decide not to risk my friends in black boots, so wait for a train to take me up the line. And it doesn’t take long – trains are only two minutes apart.

At the next station I find a woman sleeping in a platform booth. I want to take her picture, but I hesitate. Her booth looks official, but she doesn’t. After all, would an official be sleeping?

I decide to risk it, raising the camera and clicking the shutter at the exact moment she wakes. It turns out that she is an official, or perhaps just officially infuriated. I raise my palms in apology, but it has no effect. She raises hers in rage.

She signals me closer to abuse me more thoroughly. She vibrates with anger then shoos me away.

But there is an upside to this exchange. The language barrier has been smashed: I don’t even need my five Russian words to understand her.

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Hobbies of Asylum Seekers

I was a fat kid at school so I didn’t fit in.

I hung around with a bunch of other misfits: a guy with acne, two nerds, and a refugee from Vietnam. His name was Phu Trinh and he was a boat person who escaped the communists with his mum and nine siblings.

The Trinhs lived just around the corner from where I grew up, and were the first Asians to settle in Lilydale. 
They had a tough gig, breaking the ice.

Days when I was feeling persecuted at school I just had to hang out with Phu. The names people came up with made me wonder how cruelty and creativity could go so easily hand in hand.
 It didn’t seem to worry him though, he just grinned and went back to our year-long downball tournament.

Some days after school I went to his house and his family, which had opened a bakery, fed me cakes and pastries. When it was time to go home, his mum – who didn’t speak English – loaded my arms with bags of pies and pasties, nodding and smiling goodbye.
 I didn’t really think about it much as a kid, but they had the knack of making me feel welcome at a time when they wouldn’t have felt it themselves.

I recently thought of Phu because I’ve started a new photography project on refugees in Australia.
 The working title is Hobbies of Asylum Seekers and it will be an exhibition documenting what people do in their leisure time when they’re no longer being persecuted, or shot at, or tortured. The reason I chose hobbies is that it’s perhaps one of greatest indicators of someone settling into a community, when their focus shifts from surviving to thriving.

I hadn’t seen Phu since high school, but last week I looked him up and found out his family ran the same bakery at Wantirna South.
 I drove over and the guy operating the till made me feel old by telling me he was Phu’s nephew. He said Phu lived out the back and we knocked on his door and sure enough, there he was, smiley as ever. We caught up on the last 25 years and he told me he was married with two kids, and that he played baseball. I told him about my project and he was keen to be involved – and this is the picture.

Standing in his lounge room he showed me a photo of his baseball team, the Croydon Rams. They’re all standing on the edge of the diamond, arms folded, backs straight. Most of his team mates are smiling, except Phu. He’s standing with his feet planted squarely, looking straight into the camera, his chin raised slightly. 
It takes me a moment to figure out his expression.

Proud.

That’s it, he looks proud.

PS I need some help: Does anyone know anybody who’d be happy to be photographed for the exhibition? They might be refugees or asylum seekers – the only criteria is that they’ve come to Australia seeking refuge. Please get in touch via the contact form.

No smiling

As I was heading off to photograph Melbourne socialite Lillian Frank the picture editor put in a special order. ‘No smiling,’ he said, ‘she’s smiling in every shot we’ve got, and it’d be good to get something different.’

I knew what he meant, every picture of Lillian boasted her trademark smile, head to one side, eyes locked on the camera.

I knocked on Lillian’s door and she answered wearing a breezy leopard skin gown. Well this could be different – I hadn’t seen any pictures of her dressed quite like that.

She put the kettle on and I wandered around her apartment looking for a place to take the picture.  I saw her bed and imagined a shot of her reclining like a goddess. That could be different, but how do you ask a woman wearing leopard skin to hop onto a bed for a few pictures without sounding like a different sort of photographer?

Back in the kitchen she handed me a cup of tea and said, ‘How about I hop onto the bed for some pictures?’

Problem solved. But how do you ask a good-natured person to stop smiling without sounding like Stalin?

I set up my lights and she climbed barefoot onto the covers. But when I picked up my camera she grinned and posed.

‘Don’t worry about me,’ I said, deliberately turning dials this way and that, ‘I’ll just do a few test shots.’

Now ‘test shot’ is photographer-speak for ‘everything’s perfect – I’m just trying for a candid look’.

‘No hurry, darling,’ she said, relaxing her grin and looking down the lens.

Then I clicked the button.

The day John Howard looked at me

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I’m wallowing through the archives selecting images for my website when I stumble across this picture.

I hadn’t long been in the job as press photographer at Knox Leader when Australian Prime Minister John Howard came to town. He was visiting a family at Rowville, Melbourne’s mortgage-belt, to spook voters with what a Labor Government would do to interest rates.

I arrive early and claim my space beside the driveway. Other media show up, eyeing off my prime real estate. I check my settings, prefocussing on the space where the PM will stride towards the house. It begins drizzling, so I pop my lens cap on.

And he’s here: a white bus pulls up and he’s off before the door fully opens. Three strides and he’s up the drive like a man who always chooses wholemeal. Jeanette follows in his wake. I lift the camera to my eye and he looks right at me, sees me with my lens cap still on, and does that smile – that wide tight-lipped grin – like a frog. And he makes a noise, ‘Mmmmph’, translated to mean, ‘That old chestnut.’ Cameras click around me. And he’s up the drive, greeting the family and patting their baby while I’m fumbling with my lens cap.

Redemption can only come through a World Press Photo award, and I prowl around the press huddle.

Mrs Howard feeds yoghurt to the baby. It’s the only thing resembling action and I beeline towards it. My backpack scrapes against the aluminium garage and anyone holding a microphone turns and glares at me. I edge my way behind Jeanette and the baby looks at me, wearing yoghurt in the corner of his mouth. He licks his lips, points to his tongue, and I click the button.

I don’t win any awards, but I learn a lesson and throw away my lens caps.

Now ten years later I’m looking at that picture and I still can’t work out that kid’s expression. It’s not quite tongue in cheek, but its close. And was it for me, or Johnny?