Behind the lens: I want to hold her hand
As young photojournalists we are taught that good images will be a perfect combination of beautiful light, interesting subject matter and thoughtful composition, but a great image will be all these things plus something special – this is Henri Cartier Bresson’s ‘Decisive Moment’.
A hallmark of the world’s defining photojournalistic images – think ‘Saigon Execution’ by Eddie Adams or ‘VJ Day Kiss’ by Alfred Eisenstaedt - the decisive moment is what separates the ordinary from the extraordinary. That split second that we wait hours for, that one frame amongst the sequence, that when you know you got it sends a shiver of jubilation up your spine and an impatience to develop and send through to your editors.
This image of Robyn, Jennifer and Alex was made on assignment for The Age newspaper during the Covid-19 lockdown. For OH&S reasons the editorial directive was to photograph through windows to avoid any unnecessary contact.
My intention was to make a basic portrait of Robyn and Alex behind the glass with Jennifer’s masked face reflected in the window. Having photographed a lot of reflection images, I knew I needed to have Jennifer’s face (who was outside) surrounded by a shadow but also reflected in the window to be able to expose all three faces correctly. Usually, I would set up a flash with a softbox and put it inside to light the subjects behind the glass and then expose for the reflected face, but this was a different situation.
Robyn Becker was in the final stages of terminal breast and gastric cancer and in home isolation with her daughter Alex. She was told the week before that she would only have hours to live. Her sister Jennifer flew from California to Melbourne to be with her but under the strict Victorian Governments regulations, she was required to quarantine for two weeks. She had been given special leave from the hotel to be with Robyn but only for an hour at a time and contact was technically forbidden.
Much of my work is photographing intimate moments. In this situation many people don’t enjoy having their photograph taken so putting them at ease and gaining their trust is vital to make an image that speaks to the audience. I tend to spend most of the time engaging with them personally while I listen to their story. I don’t lift the camera until I can sense that they are comfortable with my being there.
Having explained what my intention was in regard to their portrait I set an aperture of f5.6. Usually, I would close down a bit more – anywhere from f8-16, as reflection images work better when more fields are in focus - but I knew that to add a sense of depth I could catch the outline of Jennifer in the edge of frame.
I had shot a bunch of static portraits of varying width and different angles when the sisters reached out to each other. My instinct told me that this moment would make the picture so I moved closer to Jennifer – to fill the foreground and triangulate the faces - when Robyn’s lips wavered and she was overcome with emotion – the decisive moment. Sadly Robyn passed away about two months later.
I knew it was a special image the moment I made it due to the sorrow surrounding Robyn and Jennifer’s situation, but I think it resonated more broadly as 2020 went on. The circumstances sadden me, but I also feel blessed to have been able to witness and document such a personal moment in these ladies lives.
“I Want to Hold Her Hand” would win the 2020 Walkley Photograph of the Year and Pictures of the Year International (POYi) 2nd Place – Daily Life