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When a photo becomes the story

The centre of Australia provides Justin Brierty with all the ingredients to become an award-winning photographer, as WILL MUMFORD discovers in a conversation with the PANPA winner in our latest edition of The Bulletin.

Justin Brierty enjoys getting up each day and not knowing what he will be doing. Not too long ago, in the space of a week, he photographed a multimillionaire, Jess Mauboy, a transvestite, a town camp child, a judge, pirates, and a bunch of guys running through a dry river bed dressed as Tony Abbott in masks and budgie smugglers.

As chief photographer at the Centralian Advocate in Alice Springs, Brierty says he is provided with an unlimited wealth of important, unique and quirky stories. Some of them, though, are just sad.

Last year he took a photograph that didn’t simply illustrate a story, but was the story.

The photograph, which appeared on the front page of June 15 edition of the Sunday Territorian, was of a 15-month old toddler in a nappy, locked in the back of a police paddy wagon, next to the headline ‘Baby Behind Bars’.

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The mother of the baby was 15 years old and police were called to her apartment after she was allegedly seen beating the baby. The mother had allegedly been beaten by her own family members on the same day, while they were attempting to stop her from harming the child.

“It was heart wrenching for the young kid. On the same day he’d watched his older relatives beat his mum up, he himself had been beaten up, put in the back of a police wagon, had his blurred image splashed across the pages of the next edition of that paper and then was put into government welfare,” Brierty said of the story. “Not exactly a good start to life for a young 15-month-old kid.”

The police response to the story was that their action was justified and that Brierty was “further aggravating the situation” by deciding to photograph the ordeal.

He said this incident made him realise the importance of trained photographers to the production of important, public service journalism.

“There was a police officer standing at the front there, and I’m confident that a lot of people wouldn’t have picked up a camera to take a photo of that,” he said.

“They may have been too scared to, or wouldn’t have known what to do. But as a trained photographer and photo-journalist you know what to do and how to get that image.

“For myself, I was determined to get that image, I had to. I ended up winning Best News Photo of the year for it.”

Actor Derik Lynch holds an Aboriginal Australian flag at the site of the ghost gums made famous by artist Albert Namatjira
Actor Derik Lynch holds an Aboriginal Australian flag at the site of the ghost gums made famous by artist Albert Namatjira

Brierty got into photography after his mother brought back cameras from Hong Kong for both he and his brother “many moons ago”.

He studied applied sciences at university, hated it, decided to do courses in photography and fine art in the early 1990s and soon began to freelance for Fairfax and ACP magazine The Bulletin.

After two or three years of that, Brierty headed to Bangkok, where he was based for the next decade.

“I moved over to Thailand during the economic crisis they had over there,” he said of the time.

“My work was split between commercial and news work, and I would switch between the two –when one died off I would do some of the other.

“It was crazy. There’s just so many amazing features over there – I was covering body collectors, the last executioner who shot and killed people in the prison there, I photographed a forensic doctor who would go through roughly eight bodies a day in the Bangkok city morgue.

“Another interesting character was this monk who used donations from the temple to buy a lavish Mercedes Benz and get dressed up as a high ranking army official at night time and go to karaoke at the local bar with some of the girls.

“That was bizarre.”

However, his experience in Southeast Asia also came with some heartbreak and trauma.

Brierty was in Bangkok when, in December 2004, a tsunami hit Indonesia. Once the damage had been done, it had caused somewhere between 200,000 and 280,000 deaths, according to estimates.

He said that while professional instinct and experience allow photographers like himself to retain focus when documenting such horror, you can never fully desensitise yourself to the trauma of those around you.

“I flew to Phuket, Phi Phi Islands, Khao Lak, and the whole area was just wiped out. I remember these tourists coming to the hospital where there was one board of pictures of missing people on the first day, after a week there was a whole corridor full of photos.

“I remember taking this image of a father and a son among all the ruin and rubble; they must have been looking for a relative, the wife or daughter, and on the back of the son’s t-shirt was one of those Nike slogans that says ‘Just Do It’.

“I remember on New Year’s Eve after that tsunami, the body collectors were digging two metres underneath a bath tub that was located 150 metres away from the beach and they had found this guy’s body in a hotel…they had to use a backhoe to get him out.

“Once you get the smell of death in you, you never forget it. It doesn’t so much desensitise you to it, but you’re well and truly aware of it.”

Bodies are collected on Phi Phi Island in the wake of the 2004 tsunami
Bodies are collected on Phi Phi Island in the wake of the 2004 tsunami

In tragic situations, the balance between trying to shoot visually appealing photos and trying to capture the most accurate portrayal of the circumstance intensifies.

“I was coming onto Phi Phi Island and I’ve got this image of around four Thai navy soldiers walking under this sign saying ‘Welcome to Phi Phi’ and they’re carrying away a body bag,” he said.

“So, you know, Phi Phi Island is meant to be this luxurious, incredible island, which it is, but somewhere that was just devastated only a few days before by this tsunami – that image is striking, but it also shows the viewer what was happening at that time.”

The move to Alice Springs in 2008 saw Brierty leave a city with around 10 million people to a town with less than 30,000 people (although he spent some time in Melbourne in between).

His motivations for moving were straightforward. “I was a bit over the amount of people that I was dealing with in Bangkok,” he said.

“I thought, this area’s got an amazing landscape and it’s got some incredible issues and yarns that aren’t always raised enough in the eastern states.”

After 20 years as a photographer, 2014 was gong-fest for Brierty. He was awarded the PANPA for Community Features and Lifestyle Photo of the Year, the Photo of the Year at the internal News Corp Australia awards, and Best Photography of the Year at the NT Media Awards. He said he was still getting over the plaudits he received last year.

Despite the development of digital photography and the ubiquitousness of smartphones, which have made it easier for anyone to take a photo in an instant, Brierty believes that the future for professional news photographers will remain strong and valued.

“Experience and a photographer’s eye for composition will always stand out over someone who takes a picture every day here and there,” he said.

“A good editor will be able to tell the difference between a supplied image, an image that was taken by a journo and one that was taken by a photographer.

“Excuse my language, but the quality stands out like dog’s balls. It really does.”

Justin Brierty is now at The Cairns Post.

To read the March edition of The Bulletin in full, check out The Newspaper Works PressReader page.

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