In the 27 years since he walked into the offices of The Liverpool Champion in outer-western Sydney and picked up his first job as a photojournalist, The Sydney Morning Herald photographer Brendan Esposito has dipped into all walks of life.
He has documented Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games, royal, presidential and Ashes tours. “I am an all-rounder,” he says.
“I’m an old school photographer, from a time when you came into the newspaper world, and you had to be able to cover all genres. That’s kept me in good stead and kept me employed.”
The photos that won him the PANPA News Photographer of the Year (national/metropolitan), haunting black and white scenes of destruction in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, are the result of years of experience in difficult situations and regions of conflict.
“When I say conflict regions, there’s all sorts of conflict that you can photograph – it doesn’t have to be guns,” Esposito says.
“It can be really volatile and dangerous situations – dangerous to your health, mental health, physical health.”
From the typhoon’s epicentre in Tacloban, to witch hunts in the highlands of Papua New Guinea and East Timor in the midst of war, Esposito has been a witness and a messenger to the wider world covering humanitarian issues – sometimes barely eating or sleeping for days to get the right shot.
“Situations like that really test you as a professional photographer,” he says. “You work under high pressure, high intensity; you work against possibly the best photographers in the world.”
For the 50-year-old photographer, these situations are also part of his own personal growth.
“I’m at the stage in my career where it’s not about trying to have a career per se, or win awards,” he says.
“I enjoy meeting people and documenting their lives, whether that be pleasurable events or hardship, because they are all situations in my life that I draw upon and learn from.
“It sounds very cliché, but I like to be in a position to speak for those people who can’t really speak and show their plight or situations they are in and help them, or bring about awareness.”
It is an ability – not a talent, he says – that he has honed over almost three decades. “When you get the opportunity to photograph something as powerful as that, you want to do it justice and you want to be honest, but you want to photograph what that person is conveying and that is difficult,” he says.
“It probably takes a visual maturity and a long time in the industry to really see those moments and to be able to convey that message. It’s something I’ve learned over the years by trial and error, making mistakes and failing – but failing forward, and progressing in my profession.
“Photography is emotional; it’s built on emotions – of the photographer and the subject,” he says. “There is a lot of mental fatigue when you go into hotspots around the world, or domestically when you’re dealing with really powerful issues and that can have an adverse effect on you.”
Being aware of your own health is vital, he says. “It’s okay to have a cry every now and then,” he says. “I’ve learned that over the years – it’s really okay. “Some subject matter has brought me to tears, but it’s better than keeping it in.”
Esposito has witnessed bloodied bodies of troops in a morgue in East Timor. A woman in Papua New Guinea revealed to him the scars on her torso, inflicted by her own family members, who accused her of witchcraft. On isolated Victory Island in The Philippines, in the aftermath of the typhoon, he was overcome by a local woman’s strength – click on the player below to hear his recount of the moment.
Taking these powerful experiences home can be enormously difficult.
“It is very difficult to be away and come back to a normal situation,” the father of five says.
“Taking that photojournalist hat off and coming home to domestic life and being a father, a husband, the contrast is enormous.”
Hear how he deals with the mental and emotional toll of tough assignments:
Having got his start in Fairfax Community Newspapers, aside from four years at News Corp Australia’s The Daily Telegraph and a stint as a freelancer for Associated Press, Esposito also values the support from his “family” of colleagues at Fairfax, and has great faith in the medium that has supported much of his career.
His grounding in film photography – he studied at Glebe TAFE – gave Esposito a reverence for the power of light, which he says young photographers today miss out on, relying instead on post-production technology now widely available.
“All they think about is post-production – put the camera on rapid fire and hoping to get something out of that, rather than putting it on single frame, looking at your subject, looking at your light, taking one or two frames and getting it right in camera. That’s taking away from the skill or the craft of taking a good picture.”
Still, it took Esposito “a good 15 years before I truly understood about light – looking at my subject, looking at the light and then working and combining the technical craft of producing a lovely picture in really beautiful light – the light that compliments the subject,” he says.
He holds black and white photography in high regard; as the photography in its purest form, the staple of photojournalists he admires including Sebastião Salgado and James Nachtwey and evident in his stark and evocative Tacloban series.
Hear why he holds so much reverence for black and white:
“Cartier-Bresson spoke about a zen moment when it all came together – all the elements were there to have that one beautiful frame, that one beautiful moment,” Esposito says.
“I try to have zen moments every day of the week, but if I get one zen moment a year,” he laughs, “fantastic.”
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Check out more Bulletin features, including past photographer profiles, here.
All photos supplied by Brendan Esposito except for title photo taken by Lucas Jarvis.