Andrew Quilty was surrounded at St Aloysius College in Kirribilli, on Sydney’s north shore, by friends who entered careers in commerce, law and medicine, taking what he describes as “a sensible path.”
Andrew took a different direction.
After dabbling in a design degree, he found himself on the road with two mates and a Nikon F3 handed down by an uncle – a gift which sent him on a path to career in which his photos have been published across the world, including The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, The Times, Le Monde, GEO (France), Guardian Weekend Magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, as well as Fairfax publications in Australia.
By the end of that six month road trip, a young Quilty realised there might be something in photography. He enrolled in TAFE “and went from there.”
He found work experience at The Australian Financial Review, where he soaked up the wisdom of more experienced photographers from both the Review and The Sydney Morning Herald, two floors up.
“This was about 2004, and at the time everyone was still shooting film, so they had a processing room and everyone would go out to their job and come back and process their film,” he explains.
“You’d have this tiny room where all of these amazing photographers would congregate. I would stand there nervously and listen in, and eventually I did become part of it and became friends with a lot of them.”
He admits he probably could have gone in any direction when I started TAFE. “At that point, journalism and world affairs and social issues weren’t really high on my agenda at all.”
His colleagues at Fairfax were responsible “in a big way…for setting me on my path,” he says. Many became mentors, including Dean Sewell, Tamara Dean, and sports photographer Tim Clayton.
In 2006, Quilty was promoted to staff photographer at the AFR Magazine. “Working at the AFR was fantastic because I was able to earn money taking pictures,” he says. “I was always very grateful to be able to be making money out of the trade that I loved.”
But on weekends and holidays, Quilty was devoted to his own ideas. It was this personal work which soon earned him the greatest recognition, and “probably led me to where I am today.”
Today, Andrew Quilty is in demand by the likes of The New York Times and Time magazine. New York City, his base in recent years, seems an odd fit for his quiet, laidback nature. “New York is so heavily focused on itself,” he reflects. “It took me a year or two to realise it wasn’t that I wanted to shoot in New York, but for the people in New York.”
His first moment in Time was in 2006, with his chilling shots of the Cronulla Riots published in the Australian edition which existed at the time. It’s an early success that “still kind of trails me,” he says.
“‘The riots guy’” he is not. For Quilty, breakthrough moments can come every week. “God, my first published picture in the Financial Review on page 64 was huge,” he says.
An achievement he sees as truly worthy of the label was his first publication in The New York Times, for his coverage of the 2011 Queensland floods.
In stark black and white, the images are powerful. In one, he captures a small girl in her front yard, the street behind her submerged. In another, road signs and houses peek out of the water.
“It was hard work,” he says. “But I really enjoy doing that kind of work, witnessing people in fractious scenarios and difficult times; going through change.”
It has become a theme in his personal work.
“Being commissioned to do that sort of thing, I still pinch myself whenever that happens,” Quilty says.
“Being a witness is such a privilege … so it’s something I never take for granted, something I always appreciate.”
So, what makes a good photo for Andrew Quilty?
“Intimacy is a big thing for me,” he says. “When a photographer has been allowed into a situation and is allowed to get particularly close to what they’re photographing, particularly with people. It’s a bit of a pet hate of mine when situations are difficult to approach are photographed from a distance.
“Being a good photographer is easily as much about being a humanist, and an inquisitive and curious person, as it is to be technically proficient.”
It is an approach that has led him to exactly the kinds of places your mum tells you not to go – like Afghanistan.
On his first visit last year, he spent three months in Kabul with his friend, former AFR writer Claire Stewart. They searched for stories, not necessarily of war-torn disaster but of the flip side: the incredible strength and generosity of the local people; of “triumph over adversity, on varying scales,” he says.
Published in The Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend in April, Tricky Wicket followed the Afghanistan cricket team in preparation for its first ever World Cup in 2015. Quilty and Stewart spent many hours with the team and its management, hitching lifts in the team bus to danger zones like Khost – kept safe because Taliban members, apparently, are big cricket fans.
“It wasn’t so much a sports story as a success story – one of the few that come out of Afghanistan,” Quilty says.
He found another capturing orphans learning music at a conservatorium in Kabul, set up by man with dual citizenship between Australia and Afghanistan after the retreat of the Taliban – which strictly banned music – in 2001. It uncovered another great irony of shooting in foreign lands.
“Access in developing countries is a lot easier in many cases than countries like Australia, where regulation is a bit out of control at times,” he explains, “especially with things like photographing children, at orphanages, in bedrooms.
“It’s nice to be trusted that way – whereas here, it’s assumed you have sinister motives and you have to prove otherwise.
“Most of the kids love getting their photo taken. It’s a cliché, but to see the way these kids are … is inspiring and heart-warming.”
Breaking down prejudices is what attracts Quilty to unlikely or unwelcoming places, from the Middle East to Mexico. Along with Kabul’s dramatic mountain landscape, and the lifestyle refreshingly free of materialism and superficiality, it’s what drew him back to Afghanistan in April.
People often “beat the drum of whatever story du jour is coming out of [a] place,” he says. “More often than not, you go to that place and you find that the people are lovely and welcoming, and any preconceived notions you had are pretty quickly shattered.
“It’s great to discover that.”
Some dangers are real, however. He and Stewart were fortunate they were not present when a Kabul restaurant, popular with journalists and expats, was destroyed by a suicide bomber two nights after they dined there. On another occasion, a young boy confronted Quilty with a knife after trying to steal his camera. “I think he was carrying it for protection in the end – I just walked away,” he said.
Hairy moments don’t deter him. “I’m trying to get back there because I had a great time and I loved the country.”
While he prefers to work solo, once there, he slips into a small community of like-minded foreigners, “so it’s not hard to get connected with the people you need to be and have a good idea of what’s happening on the ground – you pick that up pretty quickly.”
It is a long way from shooting corporate and political portraits, but he doesn’t see anyone as “all that more important, or worthy” than anyone else.
“I kind of have the same approach to anyone I photograph, whether it’s a prime minister or a guy on the side of the road in Kabul,” Quilty says. “Except that one is often harder to communicate with…”
The June 2014 edition of The Bulletin is out now.
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