Photographer profile: Colleen Petch

She has been to three Olympic Games, two Commonwealth Games, an Ashes tour, a Cricket World Cup, and Melbourne Cups, rugby league grand finals and AFL grand finals aplenty.

Today, she is living and working in Melbourne for the Herald Sun as one of the newspaper’s sports photographers. She has forged a name for herself as not only one of Australia’s top sports action photographers, but also capturing sporting moments in creative, witty ways.

“Photographers need to have a vision, and they need to follow up on it,” she says. “You can’t sit around and wait for a photo to happen.”

It was a lesson she learned in Perth in the lead-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, taking photos of the World Swimming Championships. Each photographer had been assigned a spot, but Petch had drawn the short straw; she had been given a spot at the wrong end of the pool where it was difficult to get a good, conventional photo.

“I was getting a little demoralised and feeling a bit sorry for myself,” she says. “I went and sat myself by the warm down pool, and next thing I know, this duck landed in the pool and a swimmer bobbed up behind it, and the duck took off again.

“That was one of the photos people remember me for and it taught me a valuable lesson: you’re not going to get the photo every time, but turn up and you’ll get it eventually.”

Since then she’s captured unforgettable images, both staged and spur-of-the-moment. But for Petch, it all began as a teenager, running up and down icy sidelines on cold Canberra days, covering local junior rugby league matches.

“I just loved any kind of sport,” Petch says. “One day I was at a rugby league game with mum and dad, and I saw these photographers running up and down the sideline and I thought, ‘gee, that’s a good way to get close to the action.’

“That Christmas, mum bought me a camera and I trotted off to the local Raiders’ games in Canberra.”

Towards the tail-end of her high school education, Petch offered herself to the Canberra Times for work experience with the photographic department. They obliged, and after a few weeks with the newspaper, the paper offered her casual work covering the Canberra Raiders’ junior games on the weekend. She kept in touch with the newspaper, covering the occasional rugby league game.

In her final weeks of high school, The Canberra Times came calling; they offered her a job as a darkroom technician. Petch worked as a darkroom technician until the local paper, the Canberra Chronicle, offered her a job as a general photographer.

Within six months, The Canberra Times wanted its prodigy back. She stayed in Canberra for another four years until she turned 21 when the Herald Sun called, wanting to see her portfolio. Soon enough, Petch received an offer she could not refuse and was on her way to Melbourne.

Petch says the Herald Sun’s incredible sporting coverage was the main factor that lured her south, but admitted the state’s game was new to her.

“AFL was a foreign game to me when I first started down here, but now it’s second nature,” she laughs. She learned AFL, and even covered the legendary Mick Malthouse’s final game in charge of Collingwood, a­ 34-point loss to Geelong in the 2011 AFL grand final.

Her task that day was to follow Malthouse, win or lose, and cover his reaction. What she produced was a photo that highlighted the other side of the euphoria; the dejection and misery that comes with a defeat.

Capturing raw emotion was something Petch was becoming all too familiar with, having worked on the Melbourne Storm’s close loss to the Brisbane Broncos in 2006. When the siren sounded after 80 minutes, Storm forward Ryan Hoffman collapsed on the halfway line, crying, defeated. Petch took the photo.

Prior to the 2007 Grand Final, she invited Hoffman into the Herald Sun’s photographic studio and projected the iconic image onto his bare chest. “I wanted to show the fire in the belly still burned and he hadn’t forgotten what it felt like to be a loser the year before,” Petch says.

“To be able to get that kind of cooperation from elite sports stars is second to none.”

The memorable image was a driving force and motivation for the team as they defeated Manly in 2007. “I sit down sometimes and just think of everything I’ve covered, and I’m just blown away by it,” Petch says.

“None of it would have happened if I had stayed in Canberra.”

Leave a comment