Updated version of what appeared in Australian Cinematographer.
In the world of television news, if there is one group which can rightfully claim a grievance for lack of recognition, it is the cameramen* who bring you what it is all about: the pictures, the vision, the actuality and the reason you watch news bulletins. They are the special forces of the news industry. Unlike the reporters and producers, they have to be at the front line. Otherwise, those news reports count for little. Yet their contribution is so often overlooked. It is disappointing in an industry which likes to trumpet its successes. And now they face extinction with the gradual switch to the squirt-and-run style of video journalists (VJs).
It is probably forgotten that the cameramen at the birth of television were also the reporters just as they were in the old newsreel days. Like the famous Damien Parer and many others before them, they went out alone to cover the stories. It was then left to an editorial person back at the station to put them together. In many cases, they are still the reporters today because they still cover some stories alone.
I spent 40 years in foreign television news working for Visnews (now Reuters TV) in London, Saigon, Singapore, Hong Kong and New York before returning to Australia to run the ABC’s international television news operation. Visnews was the world’s biggest television news agency. Its reporters were its network of staff and freelance cameramen working to the London head office news desk or a regional bureau.
They were thrilling days of ferocious syndicated competition. The excitement was the anticipation of what your coverage of a major story would show and would it be better than the opposition’s. The cameramen were the key to an agency’s success. Many of them knew more about the story than the much-feted foreign correspondents and certainly had sharper news instincts to be competitive.
One such cameraman was our own Neil Davis. His war coverage from Vietnam and Cambodia was at the very frontline shot on his faithful Bell and Howell three-lens wind-up camera with a cassette recorder for sound. He knew more about what was happening than any reporter. Michael Buerk, the acclaimed BBC correspondent, made a name for himself for his poignant reporting of the 1984 Ethiopian famine. But the person who broke the story was really the Visnews cameraman, the late Mohamed Amin, whose pictures of starvation and suffering are forever remembered. But initially the credit for the story went to Buerk because he was the voice behind the pictures. Unfortunately and unfairly, that is the way the system works.
Such an example happened in August 2011 when three ABC personnel were killed in a helicopter crash near Lake Eyre. The tragedy is remembered for the death of reporter Paul Lockyer, a much-admired face and a voice known to millions. The veteran helicopter pilot, Gary Ticehurst, was also remembered to a lesser extent. But for the cameraman, John Bean ACS, somehow his name and role barely registered in the public consciousness even though he had shot the Lake Eyre documentary which they were following up on.
For me, the best news cameramen in the world are Australians. They are versatile, have a can-do attitude and an uncanny eye for the pictures that count. Many taught themselves to edit, making themselves all-rounders. One was Paul Moran from Adelaide, who was killed by a suicide bomber at the start of the Iraq war in 2003. Confronted by a strange editing machine in a small-town U.S. tv station, he got a job by assuring them that he could use the machine except it would take a day to adjust because in the southern hemisphere it was back to front. In foreign fields, Australian cameramen like Paul irritated those from countries which had strict demarcation lines between camerawork and editing. They have always been in demand as freelancers by the big international broadcasters for their all-round skills.
Yet little is publicised or truly appreciated about these people or their craft. When I see a home-grown documentary, my main interest is to find out who shot it. This can be problematic if it is on the ABC because of the insulting tendency to compress the credits and promote some upcoming program. The ABC’s 7.30 from time to time gives an on-air credit to the producer as well as the reporter. The cameraman? Not a word. Or indeed the editor for that matter.
Very occasionally it works the other way. In 1994, the ABC’s Andrew Taylor ACS won the Walkley best cinematography award for his dramatic pictures of the uprising outside the Moscow White House. The ABC reporter, Deborah Snow, was a finalist in the best coverage of a current story, but the judges deemed this and the other two finalists not worthy of an award!
The great David Brill ACS had to buy his own camera equipment and pay his own air fare and excess baggage to New York back in the 70s when the ABC appointed him as its North America cameraman. His initial accommodation was at the $14 a night Pickwick Arms. Much cheaper that way, decided the ABC management. What’s more, he had to pay for his own insurance, including when covering the civil wars in Central America. Yet he had to work full time with ABC correspondents who had been posted with all the financial and other entitlements of Australian diplomats. Some subsequent cameramen posted overseas also had a struggle to be regarded the same as a correspondent.
Somehow cameramen were regarded as lesser beings compared with their reporting colleagues. It was as if they were blue collar workers rather than someone of a higher status. In interviews at the ABC for choosing a correspondent for an overseas post, a senior editorial person would always be present in order to have a say. But they often had little interest when it came to selecting a cameraman. It was as if cameramen were all the same and you could take them for granted. Indeed often ads for these positions were for ‘camera operators’ which I found appalling. To me, operators were people on switchboards or who drove forklift trucks. Cameramen are craftsmen.
As per the Neil Davis example, many cameramen are also smart newsmen with the right instincts. David Brill went on to become a distinguished video journalist for SBS Dateline before unenlightened new management moved in. Michael Cox, who won a joint Logie with ABC reporter Geoff Thomson for their coverage of being embedded with US marines during the Iraq war, later wrote a published account. It was worthy of any correspondent. Peter Curtis ACS, then based in Moscow for the ABC, went on assignment to the Kuril Islands in the Russian far east. On the long flight back, he wrote an account of his visit which mysteriously surfaced in a University of Tasmania department as an example of journal writing. Later, with his permission, it was reprinted in a magazine for international pilots. It, too, was another beautifully observed account of a strange and distant place – just like his camerawork.
Once I was talking to another ABC cameraman based in Moscow who mentioned two or three very good story ideas in passing. I said he should mention this to the reporter to submit to the weekly planning meeting in Sydney. ‘Oh, no’, he said. ‘I’m only the cameraman’. I was appalled.
I have the greatest admiration for many of the ABC foreign correspondents I had the privilege of working with. The same applies to many Visnews and later ABC cameramen for their versatility, creativity, memorable work under pressure, courage, competitiveness and understanding as much as the reporter of what the story was all about. Alas, the halcyon days of news-gathering are over with the advent of drones, mobile phone cameras, selfie sticks, handout vision and the cold hand of the accountants. Perhaps it matters little when so much news these days consists of sterile interviews and statements set up by PR apparatchiks.
But you certainly need an experienced news cameraman and cool hand when it comes to one of the worst problems of an Australian summer: bushfires and their unpredictability. Some of the most terrifying television news pictures which stay in your mind are of raging bushfires up close. For me, another was the coverage by the ABC’s veteran Peter Sinclair of the 1998 Sydney-Hobart yacht race. He and helicopter pilot Gary Ticehurst battled through a huge storm to cover and monitor a distressed yacht far out to sea before having to return to land with just a few minutes of fuel left. Just thinking about it is enough to make you sweat.
So was the Lindt Cafe siege in Sydney in December 2014. The Seven Network won the Logie for best news coverage. It was to the credit of Seven that its senior cameraman spoke on behalf of all those involved. How appropriate that was because it was the cameramen rather than the reporters who made that a story to remember.
Some years ago, the ABC’s excellent Foreign Correspondent program published two volumes of interesting yarns of incidents, background and events relating to many of the program’s reports. They were mainly by the reporters and producers. I have often wondered why the ABC does not produce a video of the best sequences shot over the years by its news and current affairs cameramen. It could be set to inspiring music. No voiceover would be needed. Just perhaps a note of the date and location of the sequences. The memorability, sensitivity, beauty, content, imagery, drama and wonder of those pictures would be something to behold in today’s frantic world.
As the ABC has had so many outstanding cameramen, it might be a dilemma to know where to start. But I would begin with current staff and nominate the work of Louie Eroglu ACS. As his many awards attest, he is a standout craftsman whose eye for striking and unforgettable image-making is a visual and poetic treat. It is the same with even his stills on Facebook. He has a magical eye which can see a memorable frame in an instant. He epitomises the professional craftsmanship of Australian cameramen.
Given that it is usually the reporters who get the credit on big stories, cameramen should not forget the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words whereas a two-minute television news story amounts to less than 200 words.
FOOTNOTE. The main media prizes in Australia are the annual Walkley Awards. The 13 judges of the latest awards did not include a cameraman, though a stills photographer was among them. Once again, it was mainly journalists judging something they had probably never done in their lives – camerawork. Perhaps they can be excused on this occasion when the winner was Louie Eroglu. But you can be sure he would have had tough competition.
*I have referred throughout to cameramen because I have only worked with cameramen.
John Tulloh is a former ABC journalist with long experience around the world.