Photographing beauty in the aftermath of Sydney Siege

Photographing beauty in the aftermath of Sydney SiegeToby Zerna's winning photograph 'Sydney Sea of Love'.

News Corp’s Toby Zerna iconic photo ‘Sydney Sea of Love’ captured the sea of floral tributes left in Martin Place in the aftermath of the Lindt Cafe siege in 2014. AMY CHENG speaks to Zerna about capturing the beauty of a city in grief and winner the News Photographer of the Year.

The first thing that hit Toby Zerna as he looked out onto the sea of flowers at Martin Place was the smell. Standing on the rooftop of the Commercial Traveller’s Association club, Zerna had full view of the floral tribute for the victims of the 2014 Lindt Cafe siege but was struck by the aroma that filled his nostrils.

“When I got out the door and looked over the edge, the smell was just the world’s biggest open air florist. The smell from all the bouquets coming up was incredible,” he says.

It was here the News Corp Australia photographer took the photo that won him the PANPA News Photographer of the Year (national/metropolitan), in a tie with Simon Maude from North Shore Times in New Zealand.

His photo, taken on the third day of the laying of tributes by a city immersed in grief, is awash with the reds, yellows and purples of the flowers in memory of the two victims – cafe manager Tori Johnson and barrister Katrina Dawson.

However, there is more to the picture than first meets the eye.

“If you look in close, it’s not easy to see initially, but there’s actually a love heart in the middle of the flowers,” Zerna says. “I think that’s what drew me to it.

“There’s also a person walking own the stairs to give the picture scale, but it’s also what he is carrying.”

Zerna zoomed into the photo several times to confirm that the man was carrying a box containing A4 printing paper. “Life still goes on every day, and people still have to do mundane things like go and purchase paper for the office supplies,” he said.

“It’s got almost all those contradictions to it, or juxtapositions, where everyday life is going on while there’s this huge outpouring of grief.”

‘It’s got almost all those contradictions to it, or juxtapositions, where everyday life is going on while there’s this huge outpouring of grief.’

Zerna scouted several locations before settling on the Commercial Traveller’s Association club, because of its elevation. Initially, he planned to do a time-lapse of the flowers, but no place allowed him to leave a GoPro for that length of time.

On the day of the siege, December 15, 2014, Zerna had a job at the Sydney Police Centre in Surry Hills to photograph policemen and their dogs. As he met with the media person, he was informed of a situation at Martin Place, with reports of a “guy with a sawn-off shotgun holding up a cafe”.

As they stood talking, Zerna saw police cars rushing off. Immediately, he and his team jumped into a cab and headed down town. At that point, Elizabeth St had already been blocked off, with Macquarie St shutting down, and perimeters being set up. Zerna landed on Philip St, looking straight into the glass doors of the Lindt Café.

“I could see people inside, holding the flags up against the windows,” Zerna says. “And I could see people at the front desk holding their hands up.”

To Zerna, winning the PANPA award for his photo was bittersweet. It was great to be recognised for his work, but the friends and families of the two victims had suffered a loss.

“I guess the flipside would be that it still shows the best side of humanity, that something so beautiful could come … from a tragic event like that,” he says.

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Zerna first took an interest in photography while taking photos at family gatherings. “It starts with my mum. She was always out at family events with a camera. Just having someone in the family always out with the camera was the first exposure I had to it,” he says.

“Then I’d start to take over and ask if I could have a go, and I’d end up taking more photos than she would. This was back in the film days, so you had to be quite conservative, you get 24 or 36 exposures, so you didn’t want to waste anything.”

Although challenges abound, Zerna enjoys working as a news photographer. He has been particularly fond of the people he has met. “I love people, I love photographing their personalities, and getting a bit of who they are in the photo, and recording history as well. It’s such an amazing privilege to be able to do that,” he says.

It always amazes him to see the amount of trust given to him. “You have to build it as well, but so many doors open when you say you’re from the Telegraph, or any other media organisation.

‘People open up their doors, invite you into their homes, invite you into their offices, into their lives’

“People open up their doors, invite you into their homes, invite you into their offices, into their lives, and you get a privileged position to document who they are.”

Still, there are harrowing experiences. In 2010, Zerna was sent to Christmas Island. A boat carrying 90 asylum seekers had crashed into the rocks, killing 48 people. He landed straight after the disaster occurred, and spent about a week on the island.

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The latest boatload of asylum seekers arrive at Christmas Island after being intercepted near Ashmore Reef. PHOTO: Toby Zerna

He recalls watching survivors approach the makeshift morgue to identity the people recovered. The looks on their faces still haunts him. “You feel for them, and you feel for the situation they’re in. And, you still have to document the event itself, so that’s quite challenging,” he says.

Zerna’s Twitter bio says that he is “always chasing THE career defining photo”. When asked if his photo ‘Sydney Sea of Love’ is it, he says it may be for now.

“Perhaps for the moment it might be one that defines my career up until this point but, you never know, there’s always something – who knows what’s around the corner?”

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