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The Story Behind the Image: Fiona Lake discusses her Star Prize Entry

“Cobb and Co. Long Haul” by Fiona Lake


For more than a century ‘believability’ was photography’s unique asset, and remains so for professional photojournalists. Honest images that tell a story with purpose, prompt thought and attract attention to accompanying words. Making the world a better place, one un-manipulated image at a time. The world has been over-burdened with pretty but meaningless ‘wallpaper’ images for decades and with mobile phones even producing digitally manipulated images now, without photographers even being aware of it, photography is losing the priceless capacity to persuade. 

But creating lasting, worthwhile images is not just about technicalities it’s about heart. A photography lecturer friend once told me – you can teach anybody technical skills, but you can’t teach everybody to see. But more importantly, you can’t teach photo-takers to care, let alone how to convey that care to others via their images. When I judge rural photography competitions, it’s the photographers who have managed to convey a sense of how they felt about their subject and who evoke emotion, who end up in the ‘maybe winners’ pile. With cameras now so foolproof we’re in an era where content and heart trump technical perfection. Only camera club zealots care if the dog hairs can be counted.

It’s extremely difficult to convey emotion in aerial images and I’m not suggesting I succeeded with this image. But I like the kink in the team as it’s a reminder that these animals are not machines – skill is involved; and the young apprentice riding on the dray, observing the work of the master. Our world today exists thanks to beasts of burden and I’m dismayed that with each generation since motorcars replaced horses, remembrance of this debt diminishes.  So when the Cobb & Co Festival Committee asked if I’d like the job of photographing their event I jumped at the chance to help shine a light on under-appreciated rural skills and an event that meant a lot to a small, drought-stricken community.

I grew up on a farm and I’ve now spent more than forty-five years photographing stock. Preparation and anticipation are the two main vitals I’ve got better at. This means knowing where and when potentially great images are likely and being ready to grab them. Because there may only be seconds. Knowing when something won’t work is also useful as it preserves valuable time and energy for investing in what will.

I’ve been chasing aerial shadows since first setting foot in a mustering helicopter back in 1988. Best results require clear skies, a certain angle of the sun in relation to the subject, plus a sufficiently clear piece of ground. And, of course, anticipation.  Being at the right place at the right time is rarely an accident. 

My style is authenticity. I don’t ask people to pose or interfere with their work. I believe most people can instinctively tell when images are posed, and can often guess what subjects are thinking. So Peter just did his thing, and I literally trotted along after him, on foot, figuring out how I could get a shot of him just getting on with what he needed to do.

For safety reasons drone operators must err on the side of caution in the vicinity of horses, but I knew from talking to Peter Thomson that his bullocks were placid and had been filmed with drones before. So while I still needed to watch the stock behaviour carefully, I could go closer.  Nobody should fly drones around stock unless they understand them and know the signs to look out for, signalling to back off. I did fly around the horseteam, but mostly I flew high and well out of the way – the most important thing with horses is, of course, not to startle them.

But much as I like this image all of my work pales in comparison to the real giants in the photography world – film era newspaper photographers. Sent at a moment’s notice to create publishable images of everything imaginable including unwilling and possibly dangerous subjects. In any weather and lighting conditions. No checking on digital backs before rushing back to the lab or darkroom, with editors clamouring for results right now. Editors knew that images were the bait that got eyes to stop and read the accompanying words. Readers remember their images for decades after they saw them. I was raised on a diet of outstanding photojournalism in one of Australia’s most respected broadsheets, the Melbourne Age. 

Sadly career photojournalism is almost extinct. Budget reductions mean that most print media images are now taken on phones or point-and-shoots; either donated by the public or as an afterthought by journalists whose training and talent lies with words not images. Copyright laws and professional indemnity insurance – what’s that? A lifetime spent honing one specific skill – taking world class news images – almost nobody, now.

Owning a camera doesn’t equate to being a professional photographer, any more than owning a keyboard would make me a journalist. The reduction in print media photojournalism specialists is an opportunity for the IFAJ to promote and recognize quality work. It would be good to see more debate on the ethics of manipulating news images and reference made to the solid code of ethics of the National Press Photographers Association website. And, of course, more drone images included in future ‘Star Prize’ awards – of course bearing in mind the aviation rules in the country of origin.