A passion for sport that launched a career has led to The Daily Telegraph photographer Phil Hillyard being named the first newspaper Canon Master.
Phil Hillyard has always been an avid sports fan. Nothing has changed, except his perspective.
Instead of barracking for his favourite footy team, as he did as a child, the News Corp Australia photographer now finds himself urging a side to victory for the sake of a picture.
Since joining The News in Adelaide prior to its closure in 1992, Hillyard has found that a good picture taken during a match can be transformed by the outcome into a great one, worthy of the front or back page.
“If you’ve got a great picture in the first half of a rugby league game of a team scoring a try in a corner and it’s some spectacular image,” Hillyard says, “then for that next half you are barracking so hard for that team to stay on and be victorious because, if they lose, that picture means nothing.”
Over his two-decade career, Hillyard has captured some of the most iconic, emotional and tragic moments in Australian sport – Sally Pearson crashing through hurdles at the 2006 Commonwealth Games; Michael O’Loughlin, of the Sydney Swans, roaring at West Coast Eagles fans; the late Phillip Hughes at the moment he was struck fatally by a cricket ball.
He also has covered numerous Olympic and Commonwealth Games, spent many years travelling with the Australian cricket team and even spent an intimate week photographing former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard following her toppling of Kevin Rudd – a series that won him the PANPA for national/metropolitan news photo of the year in 2010.
Last year, he became the first newspaper photographer to be named a Canon Master – a team of 14 esteemed Australian photographers who inspire photography enthusiasts through a series of events, seminars and Canon brand campaigns.
He also won a Walkley in 2015 for his black and white picture of Bulldogs rugby league player David Klemmer as steam billowed off his bald head during a night time match.
Yet Hillyard is somewhat humble about his achievements – he is hesitant to introduce himself as a “Walkley Award winner” despite having picked up some nine Walkleys and being named Nikon-Walkley Press Photographer of the year in both 2001 and 2011.
“I still consider myself as somebody who is learning photography,” Hillyard says of his Canon Masters appointment. “But to be put into this position and hopefully be able to give a little bit back to the public and the camera enthusiasts out there is quite a privilege.”
It was his love of sport, and the notion that he could forge a career sitting at the footy and snapping pictures, that encouraged him to dedicate his teens to searching for work as a newspaper photographer
Hillyard remembers the beginnings of his career vividly. One of his first gigs was in the darkroom of the afternoon tabloid The News, in his hometown, Adelaide.
After The News closed, he freelanced for a couple of years before securing a job as a news photographer at The Advertiser. He moved into sport in 1996.
This led to a position at Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph. He initially refused repeated requests for him to transfer to Sydney, but eventually moved there in 1998. “Basically getting up here in time for the Sydney Olympics,” he says, noting that his career really took off after he moved.
Hillyard says covering big sporting events requires great focus and a keen eye for what the “news moment” of a game might be. In rugby league, that moment might be a dramatic try scored in the final minutes of a match – or it could be the player who threw the miracle pass that allowed the team to score.
Capturing those great moments doesn’t come without its dangers, especially in rugby league where a position on the sideline can deliver picture opportunities, but also put you in the “firing line” of bull-rushing players as they jump and slide to score tries.
“To be honest we’re pretty lucky that we don’t get cleaned up more than we do,” Hillyard says, before quickly adding, “Touch wood that we stay safe.”
In other sports like cricket, Hillyard can be placed further away from the action, watching the game intently through a longer lens. Although that doesn’t necessarily mean the experience is any less intimate.
“It’s like you’re peering into the inner thoughts of the batsman out there on his journey, trying to fight off the bowlers.”
“I do find that (photographers) can watch it a little bit closer than the journos who are just sitting up there eating pies, waiting for the replay,” he says. A cheeky smile crosses his face as he adds, “They’ll hate it that I said that.”
Hillyard has always loved cricket. It was a passion that has its origins in the games he used to play with three Indian boys who lived across his street.
Those childhood games also sparked his fascination with India.
In 2004, he travelled to the country with one small camera, a small lens and lots of rolls of black and white film.
“I just set about trying to document cricket in that country.”
Hillyard loves shooting in black and white. “I think it’s why we all got into photography in the first place,” he says.
He shot the Julia Gillard series in black and white and his editor published about a dozen pages worth of black and white photos, something “reasonably unheard of these days”.
He also loves the thrill of working in newspapers.
“I love being there on the big stage, trying to record the moment that is the story of the day.
“If you concentrate hard and make good decisions, more often than not, things will run your way.”
Although sometimes, no matter how skilful the photographer or the amount of planning, the picture can go the wrong way.
At the 2003 Sydney Ashes Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Steve Waugh’s classic last-ball century had the whole ground ecstatic. But when Waugh hit the ball to the boundary for four, he turned his back away from the battery of cameras.
“So we had all these back-on photos of Steve and everyone talked about it for weeks,” Hillyard says.
“I’m still grumpy about it.”
This article originally appeared in The Bulletin, which can be downloaded or read online here.