In the corridors of power: A day in the Canberra Press Gallery
As sitting weeks go, this one couldn’t get much worse for the Prime Minister. Heavy rains and flooding have failed to wash away the stench of recent parliamentary sex scandals, and rather than front the media on the latest (a staffer allegedly performing a sex act) Scott Morrison has opted to spend the morning flying over flood affected regions of Western Sydney.
The press gallery, a large section of parliament house where numerous news organisations have offices and studios, would typically be abuzz in the early morning as politicians make breakfast television appearances and give door stops to journalists, but today the corridors are quiet. We have time for a coffee.
My plan had been to spend a day with The Guardian photographer Mike Bowers, but he’s been sent to cover the floods in Taree. It’s Alex Ellinghausen from the Sydney Morning Herald who arrives at the Senate entrance to escort me through security.
Although it’s only 7.20am, Alex has already reviewed the morning’s news, checked the day’s assignments and informed the news desks at The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and the Financial Review what he plans to cover that day.
“Every day there are so many jobs, it is simply impossible to cover every single press conference here”, he tells me. “You prioritise what are the most pressing issues of the day and you do your best to cover them”.
We grab a coffee from Aussies Cafe and head over to the Serjeant-at-Arms office where I need to get permission to make photos in the house. Despite the freedoms we perceive the media has, strict rules govern what can and cannot be photographed in the house.
Alex, who has been photographing Parliament since 2011, remarks, “You can’t just walk up to anyone’s office or corridor and make photos. There are designated zones within the building where you are allowed to make photos, and if you disobey the rules the Serjeant-at-Arms or the Black Rod will give you a written warning or revoke your access pass”.
With access approved and cameras at the ready, Alex heads off to photograph Senate Estimates while I join his colleague, Sydney Morning Herald photographer Dominic Lorrimer to photograph Tanya Plibersek as she talks to media in a corridor.
As we arrive other photographers and TV crews are already recording the scene. Large windows looking out into a courtyard provide good natural light for photography but as Dominic begins shooting I notice another photographer, Getty freelancer Sam Mooy shooting from the side, his camera pressed hard up against a sign.
Three metres in front of his subject (at 90-degrees to his position) he has positioned a Godox AD200 flash on a light stand that is firing remotely as he makes photos (see below). As I am to learn, photographers in the House are constantly trying to make extremely boring situations look interesting.
Minutes after photographing Plibersek we join Alex in the Blue Room to photograph the Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, as he gives a press conference. The room is not very big and by the time a dozen or so journalists are seated and a few television camera operators have taken their positions, it is standing or kneeling room only for the six photographers covering this event.
While Alex works from the back of the room with a 70-200mm lens, Dominic joins other photographers on their knees near the front to look for interesting wide shots. Moving about is done with caution, lest you stand in front of a live television camera.
Halfway through the ‘presser’ I notice Alex and Dominic are reviewing images on the back of their cameras and then looking down at their smartphones. They have transferred their best photos from this event across to an app on their phones, added a caption and sent the files as large JPEGs to their news desks in Sydney and Melbourne in a process that takes less than two minutes.
While there is always a rush to get photographs to a news desk, Alex explains that getting the photos away quickly allows them to be ready for the next job.
“Covering politics is about dropping everything immediately when you get the call. You might get an hour’s notice for some events but other times you’ll get just 10 minutes notice, and if you are doing a job outside the building you’re really hustling to get back in time”.
From the Blue Room we go to the Mural Hall, where Liberal MP David Littleproud is announcing disaster relief measures, and then across to the House of Representatives where a lone Labor MP is giving a speech to a near empty chamber. I’m told most other MPs will be watching this speech from their offices.
About 10.30am things quieten down and I join Dominic in a courtyard for a break. Although based in Sydney, Dominic travels to Canberra to help Alex during sitting weeks.
“In Sydney a photographer might shoot three assignments a day, simply because it takes so long to get places, but here, when Parliament is sitting, we can shoot upwards of 10 or more jobs a day. We try to give our picture editors as many options as possible because we never know what the lead story will be at the end of the day.”
As we talk, Sam Mooy joins us. He too travels from Sydney to Canberra whenever the house is sitting. “Yeah, I absolutely love it. It’s challenging trying to make pictures out of essentially nothing”.
At 11.45am we head into the Labor Caucus room where numerous politicians have gathered to hear Labor MP Chris Hayes announce his retirement.
Shutters clatter incessantly as Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese walks into the room, and as soon as he takes the lectern, the gathered photographers are back on their knees again, mindful of the politicians, journalists and TV cameras behind them.
Again, every photographer is looking to make interesting photos, but this time it is at the end of the event as various MPs gather to embrace Mr Hayes that the more interesting photos are to be had; smiles and unguarded emotions are a photojournalist’s click bait.
Having left the caucus room, I join Australian Associated Press photographer Mick Tsikas as he edits photos at his desk. While some photojournalists only file a few images from each event, AAP photographers file the majority of images they shoot in case they have future value (Mick cites US photojournalist Dirck Halstead who, after a two-week search, found photos in his archive of Clinton and Lewinsky together).
The AAP photographers at parliament spend a lot of time editing photos (cropping and tonal adjustments only) and just as much time adding captions to every image.
“Everything has a proper name” says Mick. “Half the job is photographing but the other half is captioning, and that is really important. The captions have to be ‘who, what, where’ and they have to be correct”.
Mick describes the job as fun for the first five minutes, but the rest of it is a slog.
“You really have to love photography; we’re just taking headshots and you’ve really got to be trying every time to make something out of nothing. That’s the challenge. I reckon people who do this are better photographers than the guys in Iraq or Afghanistan. My mum could take a great photo in Afghanistan; I mean, it’s a photo every corner. But you come here and take a photo of the PM talking at a lectern and try to make that interesting!”
As Mick finishes editing photos at his desk, his colleague, fellow AAP photographer Lukas Coch, walks into the office looking weary.
At 6.00pm the previous night he was tapped to be the pool photographer for the PM’s visit to the floods and by 8pm he was on an RAAF VIP flight to Sydney.
Early that morning he was in an Army helicopter making photos of Scott Morrison looking concerned.
We walk out into a hallway where we can talk without disturbing the six journalists who are busy writing and I ask Mick whether there is any friendship between the photographers and the politicians?
“No, you put a line in the sand, we’re not friends with them. You have to, otherwise they will call you up and say, ‘I thought we were mates?’”
Do people come back at you about a photo they didn’t like?
“All the time, especially the Prime Ministers. I did that photo of Michaelia Cash snarling, and she looks like she stepped in something every time she looks at me now! I always say, I didn’t make you do that!”
Gary Ramage, a former chief photographer with News Corp, joins us. He too has upset a PM or two in his time.
“I took a photo of John Howard playing cricket in Pakistan. The ball the kids gave him was made of tape and when he went to spin it, it stuck in his hand and dropped in his feet, but it went front page of The Australian, and he never forgave me. But, there are also the happy moments we get to see, like recently when Anika Wells gave a speech in the house while holding her two babies!”
As Alex tells me later, “You get a lot of highs and lows here, and the beauty of photojournalism is you often get to tell a story that your journalist colleagues might not necessarily be able to tell. When a politician gets asked a question, they can deflect it, they can change the subject, or they’ll say something that’s not related, but the body language often betrays them. It’s the little moments that we’re looking for that reveal and tell the story to the reader. It’s a great tool to have”.
Mick quips “The journalists have got 300 words; we’ve got a photo; 1000 words!”
As 2pm nears we go back into the House for Question Time and everyone knows it is going to be a raucous session. As MPs flood the chamber, Alex, Sam, Mick and Gary position themselves at the press gallery end of the Senate chamber, a 30-metre wide balcony positioned directly behind the Speaker of the House. While in the Public Gallery, Lukas and Dominic make photos from the opposite direction.
As questions begin to fly, each photographer begins scanning the floor below, looking for telling moments.
Until a decade ago photographers could only photograph an MP with the call, but nowadays any MP on the floor can be photographed, be it the PM ignoring a question or crossbenchers colluding on a vote.
The challenge though, is trying to keep an eye on everything. As one photographer commented, “It’s like photographing rugby league without the ball”.
With Question Time over it is time for me to pack my bag and head home. Alex was also packing his gear into an exceptionally large Think Tank roller case, ready to shoot one more assignment for the day. As we walk out past security he comments,
“The misconception of covering politics is that it’s boring; it’s middle-aged people standing at lecterns and giving speeches, but everything that we cover here has real-world impact on lives around the country. The things that are getting debated here – JobSeeker, JobKeeper, conduct in the workplace – it’s people’s livelihoods. And the environment, refugee rights, indigenous affairs – there are so many things that get decided here and it’s a huge privilege to cover it. It’s not just boring pictures of people”.
I walked away from Parliament also feeling privileged – to have spent a day with some of Australia’s best photojournalists. My day with them was anything but boring! ❂