Category Archives: Biography

50 years on and still rocking…

This year is my 50th year as a professional photographer. But more importantly, today is also the 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones first gig at the Marquee Club in London. To celebrate our mutual longevity, I thought it might be appropriate to again post my picture of Mick Jagger, taken at the Hyde Park free concert on July 5, 1969.

Mick Jagger, Hyde Park free concert, July 5, 1969. © Rob Walls 1969

Brian Jones had died only two days previously and this was the first concert for replacement guitarist, Mick Taylor. And so here we are both still rocking on 50 years down the track…long may we continue…

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Filed under Biography, documentary photography, Music, Photographer, Photography, Photojournalism, portraits, Rob Walls

A piece of technology not yet past use-by date…

In 1964 I worked on construction progress shots on a space tracking station for NASA at Tidbinbilla near Canberra. A year later, as a young staffer on The Australian I photographed its commissioning by the then Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies. These are a couple of my pictures from the March 20, 1965 edition of the paper.

Sir Robert Menzies opens the NASA Tidbinbilla space tracking station. March 20, 1965 (tearsheet from The Australian) Photos by Rob Walls

If you are wondering about the significance of the thistle in the left of frame, its symbolism is now lost in the mists of time. However, the explanation is this: aware that Menzies had recently been made a Knight of the Royal Order of the Thistle, I thought the visual reference appropriate. Actually, flies being somewhat of a pest around rural Canberra, NASA had the prescience to put an aerosol can of newly invented product on every VIP seat. Aerogard. My overly literate caption was a tad too much for the subs at the paper. It began, “Knight of the Thistle and Lord of the Flies…”. They stepped on the William Golding reference.

Last month I was visiting a vineyard at Cambridge in Tasmania and saw that it was overlooked by the University of Tasmania’s radio telescope, one of a network of four across Australia. On visiting it to take some closer shots, I discovered that this was the very same dish I had photographed nearly 50 years ago, under construction and at the opening. NASA had donated it to the University in 1985 complete with a US built left hand drive truck with a cherry-picker for servicing it.

In shooting for the Day in the World project on the 15th May, I decided to include the telescope in my pictures, killing two birds with one stone, getting pictures for my Working Life project at the same time by photographing Brett Reid, the observatory manager against part of the machinery he looks after.

Brett Reid, the UTAS Observatory Manager with the ex-NASA radio telescope at Mount Pleasant, near Cambridge in Tasmania. © Rob Walls 2012

Brett, kindly took me up in the old cherry-picker to get a good angle on him, the dish and a glorious Tasmanian afternoon sky. It was great to see that something I had been involved with nearly 50 years ago, was, like me, still working.

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Filed under Australia, Australian, Autobiography, Biography, documentary photography, Photographer, Photography, Photojournalism, portraits, Rob Walls, Tasmania

C’est la guerre…or such is life…

The six-year internment of David Hicks at Guantanamo Bay still inspires heated argument here in Australia about justice and human rights. The publication of his memoir and the low act of bastardry of the Federal Government in seizing the profits from its publication brings into serious focus the issue of freedom of speech. In the main, those who condemn him, do so almost entirely on the evidence they believe is contained within this single photograph.

David Hicks posing with an RPG launcher in Bosnia

Here Hicks is posing with an unloaded rocket-propelled grenade launcher on his first day in Bosnia, where from misplaced idealism he had volunteered to help the Muslim forces resist the “ethnic cleansing” of the Serbians. That he later came to the attention of US forces after in Afghanistan and spent six years imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay is well documented, in the media and in his memoir.

Opinion on the justification of his actions is highly polarised, but characteristically young men often take risks and make foolish decisions. Sometimes, to test themselves, they will choose paths in the road that take them away from the commonplace. They occasionally make choices they think will allow them to experience life with an intensity above and beyond the ordinary. Some will take up extreme sports, some will place their lives on the leading edge of danger in more unconventional ways. It was ever thus.

Forty three years ago, at Umuahia in southern Nigeria, I handed one of my Nikons to a Biafran rebel soldier and asked him to take a picture of me. In the closing days of January 1968, I had landed in Port Harcourt, Nigeria after a 27 hour flight on a very old, 4-prop, Lockheed Constellation running arms and ammunition out of Lisbon. Simply put, my entry into the secessionist Republic of Biafra was illegal.

I was there as a freelance photojournalist for United Press International and was eager to test my mettle as a war correspondent. Because of the need for secrecy, I had not told my family what I was doing or where I was going. I was 26 years old, had been a photographer for barely six years and I confess there was a certain amount of swashbuckling ego involved. I wanted to discover how I might handle myself covering a war. I planned on sending the picture to my parents in Australia when I got back.

Umuahia, Biafra, January 1968 © Rob Walls

In the picture I’m wearing an African dashiki embroidered with the rising sun emblem of Biafra. This shirt had been a gift of the very efficient Biafran media office which was coordinating press coverage of the new nation. Earlier that day, travelling in the back of a Land Rover, an old Africa hand from one of the London broadsheets, in rather haughty upper-class tones said. “If I were you, I would not risk being be caught wearing that shirt at the front line, dear boy. The Nigerians will assume you are a mercenary or a spy and they’ll probably shoot you.” I ignored his advice. I was young, foolish, full of testosterone and adrenalin and wearing the shirt, I thought, was a simple courtesy to my hosts whose cause I had begun to sympathise with. Like the photo of Hicks with his RPG launcher, the photo would have been “conclusive” evidence of my collusion with the rebels.

Less than 10 seconds after the shutter was released on that picture, two MIG 17s of the Nigerian Air Force were screaming high overhead and that heavy machine gun was banging away busily into the sky, its spent cartridge brass ringing and rattling into the body of the truck. Flown mostly by South African mercenary pilots, the MIGs were too high to be more than a barely discernible con-trail against the sky, but at a moment it wasn’t difficult to join the dots and surmise that these fighters may have released bombs, or be about to make a strafing run.

We were in the grounds of the home of General Odumegwu Ojukwu, the charismatic president of the breakaway republic, an obvious target for an air-raid. It was then I discovered at moments like this you tend to feel quite naked and looking for safe hiding places becomes a nervous pre-occupation. As it turned out the choices were so few, I ended up standing rather foolishly in the open under the ineffectual boughs of the large tree I had been photographed under a few moments before. About the only consolation was that I thought I could not be seen from the eir.

The MIG pilots, sensibly uninterested in coming down to an altitude where they could be shot at, made no attempt at accuracy. The bombs dropped in our general direction exploded harmlessly about 500 meters away..

A week or so later, I was told that I would be taken back to Lisbon on the next plane running the blockade into Port Harcourt. Feeling that I hadn’t got enough pictures, I wanted to stay on. I decided to ask the advice of some of the more experienced journalists I had travelled with. A journalist from Agence France Press I had befriended, told me that if I wanted to do that, there was only one option; before they come to collect us for the flight I could go hide in the jungle until the plane left. I asked him what he would do.  “Get the fuck out, this is too dangerous, you could die here!” I decided to take his advice. An Italian photojournalist, braver than I, Romano Cagnoni, did go and hide in the bush. His famous photograph of shaven-headed Biafran recruits published around the world with double-page spreads in both Life and Paris Match.(see here)

Back in Lisbon, I discovered the harshest reality of war photography: right time, wrong war! It was the beginning of the Tet offensive in Saigon and 19 Viet Cong had blasted their way into the US Embassy. Now that was news! Under those circumstances there was little interest in a civil war in West Africa. C’est la guerre. Or in the final words of Ned Kelly, “Such is life”. With this lesson, I decided that my embryonic career as a combat photographer should come to an end.

It was only this week, in thinking about the implications of the Hicks case, that I dug out that old photograph and thought of what might have happened if I had been captured. The result: probably somewhat similar to the consequences Hicks suffered…or worse. I note the words I scrawled, tongue-in-cheek, on the back of the picture: “I’m the one behind the machine gun”.

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Filed under Australian, Autobiography, Biography, documentary photography, Photographer, Photography, Photojournalism, Rob Walls

Rupert Murdoch – The News of the World and the scoop photo that escaped me…

In 1969 I had been working on Fleet Street for almost three years, mostly for (United Press International). UPI had offices in a narrow building at 8 Bouverie Street, immediately opposite the News of The World. One Saturday afternoon after filing pictures from an assignment, I was leaving the office, when I saw a flash car, double-parked in the narrow street. At the wheel, was Anna Murdoch. I knew Anna from our time working together on The Australian in Canberra in 1966 when she was still Anna Torv, and as the gossip went, Rupert’s mistress.

I stopped to say, hello. When down the steps of the NoW strolled Rupert, tucking the very first edition of his new acquisition (and perhaps here I could be excused for using the cliché, hot off the press) under his arm. Anna said to him, “You remember Rob, don’t you, Rupert?” We shook hands. He said, “Yes, I do..you’ve changed your beard or something, haven’t you?” Actually, I had been clean-shaven when I worked for him in Canberra. Knowing his reputed visceral hatred of facial hair and ever the smart-arse I replied, “Yes…actually, I’ve grown one.”

Though I was carrying a loaded Nikon, I was just not clever enough to think to take a picture of him. I imagine a shot of Rupert with his very first copy of The News of the World  might have been a very good seller this week…

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Still resonating forty eight years later…

Bronze sculpture by Ray Ewers in the Australian War Memorial Hall of Memory. Photo by Rob Walls 1963

I’m constantly surprised by what you can turn up with a little digging on the internet. A few days ago, I found this photo in the National Archive of Australia. I made this picture in the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial forty-eight years ago, when I was working as a photographer’s assistant at the Australian News and Information Bureau in Canberra.

From memory, I shot this using available light with a Speed Graphic using a 65mm Ektar wide-angle lens on Tri-X 5×4 sheet film. The most vivid memory of the shoot was that if you rapped on the bronze camouflage net the figure is standing on, you would get a deep vibration that would resonate up the bronze and echo into the mosaic dome above the figure. The sculpture is no longer kept in the Hall of Memory but has been moved outside into a sculpture garden.

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What’s the best thing that happened to you today?

About three years ago, while travelling in Borneo with my son, Kim, we befriended a Canadian couple, Carol Mah and Warren Duggan. We hung out together for a few days, bonded by a shared love of music and cold beer. Carol introduced us to a delightful custom. As we raised the first large beer at the end of the day, we would each, in turn, tell each other what the best thing was that had happened to us that day.

Well, today, I was photographing the huge open cut gold mine at Kalgoorlie, known as the Superpit, when an African childrens’ choir disembarked from a large bus to view the mine. Beautiful children; the boys with shaven heads and the girls with tightly-braided hair, they chattered happily as they gazed down into this enormous hole. Well, Carol and Warren, the best thing that happened to me today, was when their choir-mistress called them together and they gave an impromptu performance to the dozen or so of us gathered on the viewing platform.

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If you would like to share my delight and hear the Watoto Childrens’ Choir go here.

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Continental crossing…some postcards from Highway 1

The jetty at Ceduna, South Australia the starting point for crossing the Nullarbor      © Rob Walls 2011

The journey begins © Rob Walls 2011

In 1200 kilometres I saw no camels, no wombats and only road kill kangaroos © Rob Walls 2011

Road train driver Faye Francis-Lewis in front of her rig with her dog Mr Twobow. With her husband Warren as co-driver,  she was driving 75 tonnes of refrigerated tomatoes from Perth to Adelaide. © Rob Walls 2011

A broken trailer axle and the belongings of someone moving their home to the east are scattered along the highway © Rob Walls 2011

Like a Roman ruin in North Africa the remnants of the old Eucla Telegraph Station are swallowed up by the sand © Rob Walls 2011

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