My big break…

Me 1964

A clean-cut, clean shaven young man with Crown Graphic on the hill overlooking Koki Market in Port Moresby, 1964

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.

Time photo

Time Magazine, February 28th 1964

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.

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9 Comments

Filed under Australian, Autobiography, News, Photographer, Photography, Photojournalism, Rob Walls

9 responses to “My big break…

  1. It is great to get a break early in one’s career and fantastic to see that you kept going and still love taking photos.

    Roel Loopers

  2. I like to read about the old days and a nice picture of a young shaven photographer.

    Guido

    • You’ll get plenty about the old days here, Guido…though I’m determined to find the time to post new work too, to prove that we old photographers can still hack it with the best. There’s another Guido who comments here…I take it you are not that one?

  3. Ted Richards

    Hello Rob – this is a walk down memory lane. I came across your site by accident but I remember you from Canberra in the 60s. I was also offered a job at the brand-new AUSTRALIAN but at the same time I was offered one at the ANU Medical School which I took. Five years of medical and scientific photography and then went freelance. Eight years as the Canberra stringer for the old Herald and Weekly Times group of papers. What a life – servicing a Melbourne afternoon paper from Canberra when the only way of sending pics was by the old Post Office picturegram transmitters at twenty minutes per picture.
    Like you, still at it, digitally, but I mostly exhibit and do workshops in so-called alternative processes now – very hands-on and the complete opposite to digital.
    Nice to get in touch,
    Regards
    Ted

  4. Great to hear from you Ted. I remember you well, even as far back as the old Canberra Photographic Society days. I can’t help thinking that if you HAD taken that job at The Australian, I might not have been hired. My life might have taken a completely different direction. For me the grind on The Australian was being posted as their only photographer in Melbourne, a year of gramming pictures every day and trying to compete with the combined staff of The Age and the Herald and Weekly Times. A great training ground. It was after that that I decided to try to spread my wings on Fleet Street. For me, life these days is much more low-key, but I’m still grateful for the things I learned in my time on newspapers.

    All the best,

    Rob

  5. Pingback: …and through father’s eye | James McArdle: Camera/Eye

  6. John Sysum

    I am trying to contact David Beal, can you pass this on to him pease. I believe he was the photographer of a cover of Life Magazine Australia August 21 1967 in which he took a photo of an Aboriginal Man.
    My mother has painted this picture and I would like to find out some more details please.

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