A major public figure emerging from Melbourne’s recent lockdown and vaccine mandate protests is wedding photographer-turned-live-streamer, Rukshan Fernando.
Fernando sides with the protest movement, with his immensely popular live streams earning him celebrity status at demonstrations, where he’s often praised for broadcasting ‘the truth’. Groups frequently break out into a chant of his name as he passes by. While he describes himself as an independent journalist, critics consider the content dangerous for ‘amplifying the protest’ and throwing fuel on the fire.
His Facebook live broadcasts, under the banner Real Rukshan, attract tens of thousands of concurrent viewers – millions in total.
It’s odd that a suburban wedding photographer has become an integral figure in the Melbourne ‘freedom’ protest movement, although not entirely surprising. Melbourne has now claimed the title of most locked-down city in the world, with restrictions severely impacting the wedding and events industry.
Despite only live streaming protests for over a year, Fernando’s highly skilled video broadcasting technique has clearly benefitted from his career as a wedding photographer.
A wedding photographer’s bag of skills typically include being observant – a ‘fly on the wall’ who captures candid moments. Fernando has this approach during his live streams, where he embeds himself within the protest and points the camera at the action to show a protester’s perspective. He comments in a calm and unobtrusive manner, and also conducts short informal interviews with protesters, which have attracted criticism for not asking hard-hitting questions, particularly when the interviewee has dubious affiliations. The interviews are more akin to small talk. The kind of banter that’s appropriate from a stranger at, say, a wedding.
From weddings to protests
He operates a studio space in North Melbourne, Ferndara, specialising in wedding and engagement photography and videography. Established in 2009, his business services Melbourne’s multicultural community with a particular focus on South Asian weddings.
The son of Sri Lankan migrants, he points out his detractors struggle with his heritage when dismissing protesters as a rag tag group of neo-nazis and alt-right racists.
‘A lot of people are confused about me, especially because of my background, my ethnic look … that there is such a thing as a Sri Lankan, a bit more liberal, a bit more conservative; it doesn’t fit the narrative,’ Fernando told The Age.
While he’s aligned with libertarian politics – minimal state interference in the free market – before the pandemic Fernando claims he wasn’t engaged or interested in Australian public affairs.
‘[With] The first lockdown I was really open to the idea of locking down as a business to help the community,’ he said in an interview with YouTube channel, Discernable. ‘My business was smashed, right, but I was open to the idea because this is a crisis.’
Fernando became increasingly disgruntled with the Victorian state government for impacting his business and interfering with his life. He said during the second lockdown, beginning in May/June 2020, he lost faith in the government over its ‘devastating’ impact on the events industry.
‘The long-term effects of this [lockdown] on business can be catastrophic. For me as an events business, the uncertainty that’s created by this is probably the worst thing and there is no [compensation] figure you can put on that,’ he said to Discernable. ‘So weddings won’t be booked, and we have interstate weddings coming up. There is just so much uncertainty. Those states might be fine, but even if I got there and let’s say I got locked down, and I have bookings for when I get back. It throws everything into chaos. And I’m just one business that’s affected in that way.’
As he developed more critical opinions of the political leadership, Fernando felt his views were disconnected from messages coming from the mainstream media. After creating viral memes criticising and mocking Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, the photographer attended the 2020 protests wielding his camera.
Raw footage of the final two minutes of the protest at the Shrine of Remembrance. 22.09.21 pic.twitter.com/9m8JT24fW1
— real Rukshan (@therealrukshan) September 22, 2021
Citizen journalist or…?
Fernando makes no money from live streaming protests. ‘I want to avoid that. I’ve told people not to put up fundraisers,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to be tied to any particular group of people. I don’t want be owned by these people or anyone.’
He provides his footage free of charge ‘for news and commentary purposes’, and the mainstream media frequently take him up on this generous offer. Fernando claims his intention is to engage protesters to understand what motivates them and why they are there. It’s a role he believes should be served by the traditional media, but has been a dramatic failure on their part.
As the movement swelled with each iteration – from a handful of anti-maskers intercepted at Melbourne parks, to thousands of angry protesters blocking traffic on the West Gate Bridge – so has the Real Rukshan’s fanbase, which currently has over 220,000 Facebook followers.
While he’s a rich source of content, Fernando’s immense popularity has also attracted criticism from the media. ABC‘s Media Watch said he’s ‘not a journalist’; and Crikey trawled through his content for right-wing affiliations to conclude he’s pushing a nefarious agenda.
‘Like much of Fernando’s work, his live streams are both true and misleading,’ wrote Cam Wilson for Crikey. ‘It’s true that an increasingly militarised police have responded to protesters with heavy-handed tactics and appear to have committed acts of brutality. It’s true that many protesters have been peaceful. But Fernando’s coverage omits the full story: that an unruly, chaotic group that represents a vocal minority ran amok in a city during a pandemic with no regard to its safety or the safety of others. His videos credulously platform people with fringe and extreme views without interrogation.’
In the Crikey article, Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyst Ariel Bogle said that while streamers like Fernando ‘claim to present the so-called “ground truth”, they necessarily only show one side of the story’, and naturally ‘more extreme content gets more views’.
Deakin University political sociologist, Dr Josh Roose, shares a similar opinion about what he sees as Fernando’s misleading agenda.
‘[His videos have] grown him exponentially in the last week,’ Roose told The Age. ‘It’s an interesting tactic and style. He’ll attend these protests, film the violence, yet deny responsibility. His filming of the protest is actually part of the problem. He films the spectacular … and seeks to bring in sympathy for protesters in the middle of a pandemic that not only are a health risk but have a record of being violent towards the police … in that sense he’s building their narrative.’
While Fernando doesn’t have the training or experience of a photojournalist, these criticisms of live streaming teeter dangerously close to describing how many photojournalists work. While striving for balance, photojournalists are required to make decisions and omissions when documenting an event. A photojournalist attempts to convey as much visual information as possible, but it’s hard to argue they tell the ‘complete’ story that shares all viewpoints with absolute objectivity. And let’s not pretend photojournalists or editors aren’t drawn to powerful moments that evoke an emotional response. It used to be called a front page story.
The Crikey article interestingly acknowledges that media organisations haven’t always had ‘boots on the ground’ at protests, leaving Fernando’s perspective to be the ‘dominant lens’ for ‘believers and sceptics alike’. Perhaps this is the new news era many warned would arise from mastheads cutting costs and gutting photo departments, in pursuit of cheaper alternatives such as user-generated content from (surprise surprise), live streamers.
Fernando occupies an unusual spot in a complicated media landscape. The media commentators sought out by established publications are clearly uncomfortable with this fiercely independent Melbourne wedding photographer, who tens of thousands of people trust more than their local news station.