His photography archive speaks of the dirt, blood and the grit of war, but also many unexpected moments of solidarity and tenderness, including:
- A malnourished baby in the arms of a soldier;
- An innocent child’s hand pressed to a window as soldiers marching by;
- A soldier and his dog sleeping together on the ground for warmth.
These are the juxtapositions which make Gary’s photographs so memorable.
After five years as an infantry soldier, Gary transferred to the Australian Army public affairs service and trained as a military photographer with the photographic public affairs unit.
He learnt stills photography using the wet process which was favoured in those days for its portability and quick production in the field, as well as black and white film, colour negative film and colour transparency film.
He then did short trade detachments with television networks and he is now the News Limited Group’s chief photographer at the National Press Gallery in Parliament House in Canberra.
“I’ve been very lucky with the access to the Australian soldiers and American soldiers I have embedded with in Afghanistan,” Gary said.
“I think it’s helped that I’m a former soldier … being with the guys on the ground they seem to relax and be very comfortable with me in their presence, which is great because it frees me up to earn their trust and get close to them, which then gives me better access and better photographs for people back home to see what those boys are doing out there.”
Gary won the Walkley Award last year for best broadcast camerawork for a three minute video piece on a battle he photographed between Australian soldiers and Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan. Even as explosions went off nearby and rocks flew past, Gary held firm.
“With the camera up at your eye when you’re photographing difficult situations and with bullets flying around, I more or less just concentrate on what I’m doing, which is to try and capture the best image I can,” he said.
It’s only after a major battle, when Gary is reviewing the images, that he realises he’s lucky to be alive.
“I have a bad habit of switching off to concentrate on the task at hand,” he said. “I’d be no good to anybody over there if I was a basket case trying to take photographs.”
But Gary admits the experiences have taken an emotional toll. He avoids noisy and crowded social situations and doesn’t generally talk about his experiences with anyone other than his wife.
“When you’re over there and you’ve seen this death everyday you sort of close it all out.”
Halfway through his career, digital photography kicked in. Decades on and the photography landscape couldn’t be more different.
Gary now finds himself surrounded by wannabe photographers who often understand little about the techniques of traditional photography, as well as professional photographers who have embraced smart phones over cameras.
Gary says: “I wouldn’t say it undermines the art of photography. I think what the technology does, especially for a professional photographer trying to make a living form their craft, is it’s taken a lot of the skill away from the art form we’ve trained in.”
“I don’t think it’s really the art which is suffering, I think it’s the professional photographers who are going to suffer in the long run.”
When Gary works for News Ltd he uses the new Canon 1D X and a Mark IV and outside of work hours he has several DSLR Canon 5D Mark II and Mark III camera bodies in his bag.
Commenting on his dramatic switch from the battlefields of Afghanistan to the halls of parliament in Canberra, Gary says shooting political pictures for every major daily newspaper provides both plenty of creative freedom and challenges.
“I have to shoot to each newspaper’s style which can be challenging at times,” Gary said. “I consider myself very lucky to be able to go each day with a camera in my hand and capture photographs that will end up in the paper.”
“Working in the press gallery is quite a challenge for us.
“We’re always trying to find new angles and new pictures because we photograph the same politicians every day. Trying to find something innovative that will make the reader sit up and go ‘what a nice picture’ is the challenge that I set myself every day.”
However, the Afghani memories will always be top on mind.
“Everything’s so raw and emotional and you’re capturing imagery that defines part of history,” he said.
“I consider myself quite lucky and privileged to have worked with some brilliant people who have obviously looked after me and saved my life on numerous occasions.
“Without them I wouldn’t be here today and also I wouldn’t have some of the photographs I’ve been able to capture without their help.”