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Photojournalists jump ship to film stills

Establishing a diverse range of income streams has become key to the survival for some photographers, with many photojournalists finding their skill set fitting comfortably in film production stills.

Actor Hugo Weaving as Bob Lang in The Turning, based on author Tim Winton’s collection of linked stories, The Commission. Photo: David Dare Parker

The slow death of print media has made well-paid assignments a rare commodity for photojournalists. With work drying up many, if not most, have had to consider tapping out of photography, or taking their camera elsewhere.

‘A lot of still photographers come from photojournalism, as a key skill of a stills photographer is to observe and tell stories within images,’ wrote Australian film production stills photographer, Mark Rogers, for Inside Film Magazine.

Although Mark’s background is in commercial and fashion photography, he describes the film set as a high-stakes environment – a ‘crazy puzzle of moving human and mechanical parts’. His job is to ‘snag a shot that represents the central idea of a film in a single frame’, without being a disruption. (It sounds like documentary photography without the ethics!)

Walkley Award winner, David Dare Parker, has established a solid career since the mid-1980s as both a photojournalist and film stills photographer. Like many of his cohorts, he was inspired by the legends like Don McCullin, Robert Capa, W. Eugene Smith, Mary Ellen Mark, Tim Page, and others.

‘I loved that early Magnum tradition when I was young. I bought into the hype and loved the stories,’ he told Inside Imaging. ‘Part of Capa’s story – I can’t remember where it was mentioned – but he had an affair with actress Ingrid Bergman and spent time on the film set. He realised this was a great way to generate income for the agency – the new collective that was Magnum. I was emulating what I thought a career in photojournalism could be.’

East Timorese return to the burnt out remains of their homes only to find rogue elements with the departing Indonesian Military burning nearby buildings. September 1999. Photo: David Dare Parker.

In the 1980s, David was in his mid-20s and living in London. Having just dipped his toes into photojournalism, a death in the family brought him back to Melbourne, where he read an article about Perth being the ‘new Hollywood’. With Capa’s story fresh in mind, he jumped on a bus heading west across the Nullabor. Upon arrival, David realised Perth was far from the promised land of new Hollywood, but the growing local film industry did have space for a new stills photographer.

‘There were production companies, but it was such a new industry here. I think they had one major feature film in the early ’80s, and I jumped on the next one. It was fun.’

David is now based in Margaret River, an idyllic destination more suited for wedding or surfing photographers than hardened photojournalists. Work usually requires anywhere between a three hour drive north to Perth to days commuting to locations around Australia.

He lands the odd editorial job for The Guardian or Bloomberg, but it’s not like the days when picture editors from Time Magazine and The New York Times were in the Rolodex. It doesn’t matter anyway. David’s photojournalism has always consisted of passion projects, only made possible by the reliable and better-paid work in film production. The big difference now is there is less financial incentive, but like many other photojournalists, he’s not in it for the money.

Sunday 12th November 2017. After 16 – 20 days waiting on the Myanmar border, Rohingya refugees cross the Naf River into Bangladesh using eight makeshift rafts made out of bamboo and plastic palm oil containers. Photo: David Dare Parker.

David’s work is primarily for Australian productions, and at the moment that’s mostly ‘factual projects’ – stills for documentaries and reality TV. He’s currently between trips to remote desert locations to photograph the reality TV series, Aussie Gold Hunters.

‘On set you’re often dealing with scrappiness, and you’re there to capture something. As a photojournalist, it’s the same thing really. You try not to be intrusive and have influence on the people in front of you,’ he said. ‘There are times when I’m working in the field, covering a demonstration. If I think it’s not working for me – that I’m intruding too much – I’ll take a step back. I won’t take that picture home with me, and won’t lose sleep over it. I’ve never worried about a lost picture or opportunity. There will always be more.’

Red-shirt anti-government protesters are detained by Thai soldiers inside their camp in Bangkok during military crackdown to end the Red-shirt protests. Photo: David Dare Parker.

David’s film stills promote the movie, often as key art for posters. Sometimes this involves studio photography, but he naturally prefers shooting the action on set.

The poster for Mystery Road season 2.

‘I have the lights and everything, but I don’t push that side of it too much. I prefer to be a photographer on set capturing moments. I’ve known the people I’m working with for such a long time, so it’s like a community. It’s more enjoyable for me than renting a studio somewhere, and putting up backdrops. For me, I find that a bit stiff. I think it’s lovely when you can just capture the moment and put that on a poster.’

The stills photographer is just one cog in a large marketing machine. They work closely with publicists who supply a call sheet with concepts, and designers who make the artwork. Sometimes David’s inner photojournalist finds this marketing machine unnecessarily complex, such as when he captured three individual portraits in similar light, and they ended up pasted onto a back drop of the location. ‘I thought that was odd, as I could have just as easily had the whole group there and quickly shot them at the same location, and one would look more natural’.

The concepts are often thoroughly enjoyable to bring to life. When David was in Broome for the Warwick Thornton crime drama series, Mystery Road, he photographed a steer skull in the red Pindan dirt, and a silhouette of the lead actor was overlaid to make the poster art.

Stills get a bad rap

Stills photographers have a reputation for sometimes being a nuisance on set, and David acknowledges he’s the only person that’s not an integral part of making the project.

He’s mostly treated well, partly thanks to working in the industry for so long and knowing the job inside out. Although he’s not immune from carrying the stigma of a stills photographer.

‘A fresh face can disturb the set a little bit. Every now and then you’ll come across an actor who is fussy about their eye line, and you may happen to be in their eye line. Sure, there might be 30 other people around you. Sometimes stills photographers have this reputation. Film sets can be a tricky and complicated work environment. There are some egos on set, and most people are there for the right reasons, but tempers can fray and anything can alter the dynamic of a film set. It’s much like photojournalism, as it has risk.’

Wouldn’t want to get in the way of these blokes. Actors Richard Sullivan (as Davo), Callan Mulvey (as Anthony ‘Snoddy’ Spencer) and Peter Flaherty (as Lard), Bikie Wars: Brothers in Arms. Photo: David Dare Parker

Although upsetting a grumpy actor may be frightening, David brushes them off without giving it much thought. After all, this is a man who has been shot at, beaten, spat at, and been in extremely dangerous situations. Both jobs require thick skin.

‘You just can’t react when something doesn’t go right, or somebody gets upset at you. There’s no point. If everything shuts down for one or two minutes, it might not seem like much, until you consider how many people are on the clock and it becomes a cost to production.’

Actor Robert Menzies as Arthur Upfield in ‘3 Acts of Murder’ on location in Cue, Western Australia. Photo: David Dare Parker.

Mirrorless cameras have made life easier for stills photographers, thanks to the silent shutter. The DSLR shutter noise can be distracting for actors and crew, and the worst case scenario is ruining an audio take. Hell hath no fury like a sound engineer scorned.

Before the silent shutter, photographers shot with a bulky and awkward camera muzzle to dampen the sound, or would request a brief ‘set up’ from the assistant director to halt filming to capture a hero image. David, a Nikon ambassador, prefers using DSLRs for photojournalism as he’s accustomed to the viewfinder and feels they’re more durable, but almost exclusively shoots with the Z6 and Z7 on set.

‘The sound is so sensitive. If there is, say, a romantic scene the last thing everyone wants to hear is the shutter going off. It upsets everybody, and that’s why I think there is a stigma attached to stills photographers on set. It’s an etiquette, and so sometimes you are itching to be in a place but have to settle for second best. There might be two or three other camera crews and audio.’

David’s last major photojournalism project was in 2017, documenting the Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar. His passion is as a photojournalist, but he’s finding it harder to call himself one these days. The events of this year haven’t really left David itching for the next overseas project. Instead, he’s taken this time to step back and focus on family, and spend more time riffing on the guitar.

Check out more of David’s photojournalism and film stills here.

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