Reflections: ‘Highlight of my career’

The AIPP Reflections Project has crossed the half-way point, with the bulk of surviving registered Australian WWII veterans having now been photographed.

The aim is to capture the portraits of Australia’s living WWII veterans, which will result in a two-volume set of books to be donated to the Australian War Memorial and RSL.

The project will also see the handing over a digital collection of the images to the Australian War Memorial; provide each veteran and their family a free print, courtesy of Kodak; offer the families of veterans prints to purchase (with proceeds donated to Legacy and the RSL Foundation); and lift the profile of professional photography in Australia.

While everything has gone according to plan and without any major issues, the project’s national manager has encouraged AIPP members to jump on board to help finish it off.

Char;es 'Chas' Fisher fought on the Kokoda Trail. He went without food for 13 days, and his platoon was cut off by the Japanese, who were advancing against them. They couldn't get back to their main battalion, so they had to just sit quietly for 13 days. During this time Chas found a pawpaw, and said it was the best Paw Paw he'd ever eaten. Photo: Louise Bagger.

Charles ‘Chas’ Fisher fought on the Kokoda Trail. He went without food for 13 days, and his platoon was cut off by the Japanese, who were advancing against them. They couldn’t get back to their main battalion, so they had to just sit quietly for 13 days. During this time Chas found a pawpaw, and said it was the best he’d ever eaten! Photo: Louise Bagger.

‘It’s been going well and we’ve been busy. We’ve got 5300 veterans registered [to be photographed] now. When you spoke to Peter Myers at the beginning of the project we probably had about 700 veterans, so it has grown a lot,’ John de Rooy, Reflections national project manager told ProCounter.

The last few weeks have been particularly busy. August 14 marked the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, and veterans celebrated by attending ‘Victory in the Pacific 70’ events across the nation. John and state co-ordinators saw this as an opportunity and had AIPP photographers set up a studio at these events where hundreds of veterans were photographed.

But the exposure also led to hundreds more veterans – roughly 600 in 10 days – registering to have their portrait taken. John said he will be happy if the total number reaches 8000.

‘We have to keep going as long as the registrations are flooding in, you can’t just suddenly stop and leave veterans out. They’re all excited to be a part of the project too – they’re over the moon, a lot of these people. I had a call today from an RSL that had just organised to have 20 veterans photographed. They’re all having their suits dry cleaned, polishing their medals, and hanging out for the day. A lot of these people are over 90 and keen to get together again with their mates, have a day out, have a nice photograph made which they and their family receive.’

John said 390 photographers have volunteered their time for the project. That’s roughly 14 veterans per photographer. And when a photographer is responsible for covering the whole of South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula; or drives hundreds of kilometres to reach regional towns like Kununurra in Western Australia; or catches a ferry to Thursday Island in the Torres Strait, it’s definitely a labour of love.

‘It’s not overwhelming, but it’s quite a challenge, as we expected. It’s up to the photographer to organise it themselves. There’s some amazing people helping though – one guy in country New South Wales has driven over 2000 miles and photographed over 80 veterans. What an effort. And once you start doing it too, you love the experience. Some of these old diggers have really great stories and are proud people. It’s a really good feeling.’

Clifford Brice was one of the Rats of Tobruk that fought at the Battle of El Alamein. He kept a journal for the entire battle on toilet paper. And we're not talking about Kleenex toilet paper, but rough sandpaper-like paper. Louise saw the daily journal and photographed it. Photo: Louise Bagger

Clifford Brice was one of the Rats of Tobruk that fought at the Battle of El Alamein. He kept a journal for the entire battle on toilet paper. And we’re not talking about Kleenex toilet paper, but rough sandpaper-like paper. Photo: Louise Bagger.

Reflections a ‘career highlight’
The Reflections state co-ordinator for South Australia, Louise Bagger, told ProCounter that her involvement in the project has been a career highlight.

South Australia has performed outstandingly, with approximately 50 veterans left to photograph from around 980. Louise captured 140 of these portraits herself, while simultaneously juggling her responsibilities as co-ordinator, and commitments to her family and her business – which is fortunately quieter during winter. Louise also had nothing but kind words for the dedicated team of 13 or so photographers who have been at it since March in SA.

‘We’ve worked together as a team. I put the onus on photographers to get it done,’ she explained. ‘Time may be on our side, but it’s not on their side. We’ve already lost a few of our veterans – unfortunately some we didn’t get to on time. When that started to happen, it made a lot of the photographers realise that these veterans can pass away at any moment.’

Louise said that for her, the project has been an honour and she’s taken it on a slightly more personal level because of her own 15-year stint in the military.

‘As a photographer, it’s all about the eyes. The eye is the main focal point, and the eye is also the window to the soul,’ Louise explained. ‘When I put the camera to my eye and focus on their eyes, just in that little split second there is something so deep and so soulful that I see. When I look at the photos afterwards, going through them, it’s just so deep. The life in their eyes is so humbling to look at – it’s quite an honour to be involved in something like this.’

Positive plug for professional photography
Beyond the project’s service to veterans and Australia’s historical archives, it boosts the profile of professional photography in Australia. It will strike a chord with many families and veterans involved, John said.

‘And among the veterans, their families, and the people hearing about the project – they’re finding out what professional photographers do. They find out we can set up a studio anywhere with a background, light and reflector and produce really A-class, professional results. And then send them the print on paper – an art that’s been lost a bit, I guess, with everything posted digitally nowadays.

‘Most of these blokes have been photographed in the 1940s when they lined up to get on a ship – an enlistment portrait,’ he continued. And for some, they probably haven’t had a professional photograph taken since. It’s a great comparison, when you pull up an image of a soldier in 1940 wearing their slouch hat, and to then put another image beside it of the same person but at 95 years old… It’s a wonderful comparison.’

Then there is the media attention bringing the project into households around the country. Reflections has appeared on ABC National News, Channel 9 National News, been broadcast on radio and reported in national and international newspapers. One portrait of an indigenous veteran who fought in Papua New Guinea reportedly garnered over a million hits on Facebook, John said.

‘I don’t know how many people in Australia watch Channel 9 National News, but when they see the AIPP name and the AIPP photographer doing what they do best, right across Australia on the news – well, I’d hate to have to pay for that advertising.’

Here's a grainy screen grab from a Channel 10 Eyewitess News segment, featuring WA AIPP member Rebekah Wilson.

Here’s a grainy screengrab from a Channel 10 Eyewitness News segment, featuring WA AIPP member Rebekah Wilson.

Each time a major media outlet runs the story, more registrations start pouring in. The project could easily continue into early 2016, but the AIPP is planning the end date to be Remembrance Day, November 11. Photographers will once again set up their studios around Australia in RSL’s, retirement villages, and nursing homes to photograph the bulk of remaining WWII veterans.

‘We can still accept more help,’ John said. ‘Some photographers have been flat out on it since March and have photographed nearly 100 veterans. So there’s areas where we could do with more photographers to pitch in and help.’

Even if members from South Australian AIPP, where Louise’s team has practically finished the portraits, want to join in, John said there are plenty of administration jobs available.

‘It might not even be photographing – they can do admin work, or help sending prints out in envelopes. There’s lots of jobs to get this project finished.’

John de Rooy said any AIPP members interested in participating in the project can send him an e-mail.

Click here to visit the AIPP Reflections page.


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