Right back at the beginning of my career, I had what I like to think of as my “big break”. While it was a break for me, it was a far less welcome break for the other photojournalist involved.
In 1964, as a young, and very inexperienced photographer I was sent by the Australian Government to the Department of Information in Papua New Guinea to fill in for three months, while the local photographer took long service leave. This was an exciting assignment to get so early in my career. I had been working as an assistant photographer for just on a year and here I was, thrown in at the deep end, in nominal charge of a photo department, with several staff and a hell of a lot of responsibility…and to New Guinea; still a distant and exotic location.
Because it was the run-up to PNG’s first election prior to independence, I got to travel all over the country, covering the country’s first election campaign, flying in to all sorts of isolated airstrips in old DC3s and Cessnas. Even Time Magazine considered the story important enough to send a journalist and photographer, David Beal, from Sydney to cover the event. Getting to meet a professional Time photojournalist made a great impression one me. After all, it was my burning ambition to see my work published in magazines like this.
Encountering each other on the campaign trail, David and I shared a few beers but then we both headed off in different directions; he to the highlands, me to Rabaul in New Britain. In travelling the country, something that even today still has to be done mostly by plane, our paths crossed once again in transit at Lae airport. David was looking very sorry for himself; he was hobbling on crutches with both his legs in plaster from ankle to thigh.
While shooting with a long lens in the highlands, with the camera to his eye he had stepped out onto a narrow one-way bridge just in time to share it with a large truck. The impact broke both his legs and his Nikons sailed over the bridge and into the river below. The outcome of this unlucky accident was that my pictures ended up with the story in Time.
I think it was this particular tear-sheet that swung me a staff job on new national daily, The Australian, later that year.
But this is not the end of the story. David Beal went on to establish the biggest and best audio-visual company in Australia. When I wanted to produce an audio-visual portfolio piece on Indonesia, I decided to engage his company. When it was completed we launched the audio-visual with a little party at the AM studios. David was there for the showing and the drinks afterwards.
Late that night, he woke up to the clatter of rocks being thrown on the roof of his house in Paddington by some drunken louts. Racing out in his pyjamas to give them a verbal spray over the back fence, he leapt onto a garbage can. Losing his balance in the dark, he toppled off the can and broke his leg! For a few years after, David and I kept up a running joke that after meeting with me he had almost as many broken legs as we had had face-to-face meetings. I’m certain he made a deliberate policy of avoiding me after that so he could remain ambulatory.