Interview With Bob Barker, Photographer
When did you start taking photos?
I started taking photos as a youngster in primary school when my Dad won a little plastic camera on the Lion’s Club raffle wheel at Gymea shopping centre. I don’t think any of those photos have survived, but when in high school I bought myself a Pentax SP1000 SLR. I would take the film to Alderson’s Camera Store in Caringbah to be processed, and they gave me positive feedback.
How did you become a cadet at News Limited?
My cadetship was thanks to a friend of my Dad putting in a good word for me to become a ‘copy boy’ with News Ltd. So that is starting at the bottom, getting breakfasts and lunches, taking multiple copies of stories to the respective sub-editor’s in-trays, and sending the hard copy to other floors via the network of vacuum tubes throughout the building.
After a year of being a ‘copy boy’ I was offered a four-year cadetship with the Daily Mirror, which entailed two years of part-time study at technical college and darkroom work, then gradually starting to shooting jobs … and more darkroom.
What type of work did you do as a photojournalist for The Daily Telegraph newspaper?
In the role of a photojournalist I was required to shoot almost every situation imaginable – breaking crime, sport, red carpet, celebrity, bushfires, car accidents, murders, politicians, real estate, features, food, business, death knocks etc.
Did you specialise in a particular field for the media?
In my later years at the newspaper I gravitated towards more feature-related jobs such as portraits of artists, musicians, actors, food, homes, studio shoots and more in-depth assignments.
What experiences have you had working in the media that you treasure the most?
One of my earliest favourite jobs was flying from Sydney in a small jet with a TV crew and landing on a US aircraft carrier off the NSW/Victorian border. It was a demonstration put on for us as the US Navy was to visit Sydney. We toured the ship and were treated to a display of take-off and landing manoeuvres by the aircraft. We then flew back to Sydney from the carrier.
The second best assignment was covering the first Quiksilver Pro Surfing Competition in the jungles of Java, Indonesia. Surfing comps, apart from in Hawaii, had always been held in cities for the exposure, but so often the waves were terrible, and so the surfing wasn’t very spectacular for riders and spectators alike. Quiksilver took the competition to a legendary wave called Garajagan in a remote National Park in Java where perfect waves were almost guaranteed. Two weeks hand-processing film in the steamy jungle and getting it to the machines to be wired to Australia was a challenge, not to mention almost drowning while shooting from the water.
In 2005 Bob was asked to cover The Great Peking to Paris Expedition, a recreation of a madcap motoring adventure originally taken in 1907. This two-month long trip resulted in a four-part mini-series for the ABC and a book showcasing Bob’s images from the journey.
The best assignment was a two-month trip by road from Beijing through Mongolia and Siberia to Moscow and St Petersburg, then on through Europe to Paris. We travelled 16,000 km in five genuine 100-year-old cars, faithful to the route, to commemorate the first long distance car race back in 1907. I was photographing the journey for a book which was being compiled as we travelled, so when possible I was sending photos back via satellite phone – often there was no coverage due to weather conditions, so when possible I’d be up ’til three in the morning editing and transmitting, then back on the road at six. It was a tough trip, but a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The book is called The Great Peking to Paris Expedition and was made into a four-part adventure documentary for the ABC.
You must have seen some sights and worked with many characters in the media industry. Is there any one story that stands out to you?
One great character was journalist Jack Darmody. The newspaper industry was a hard-living profession way back before accountants began calling the shots. Working with hard-drinking, heavy-smoking Jack on the 5am shift was an education in early opening pubs, how to get your foot in the door, police and political connections, and life in The Cross.
The early days were obviously very different from today. In your line of work, how does using digital technology differ from film?
It took me a while to convert to digital in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. I wasn’t convinced the quality was good enough in the early days, and it wasn’t. However now it is much better than film. There are many ‘art’ photographers who would disagree, but the quality, versatility and speed of delivery of digital make it an absolute must for professional photographers today.
Is there ever a time you prefer one technology over the other?
To be honest I haven’t shot film for many years, so obviously digital is the preferred technology.
Do you have a favourite camera or piece of equipment?
The piece of equipment I would most like to have, but don’t, is a water housing for my Canon 1DX. However my favourite camera, for ease of use, accessibility, immediacy and features has to be my iPhone. As with any camera, the skill lies in knowing what you are doing and how to use it. Just owning a camera – even the most expensive camera – doesn’t make you a photographer.
How do you see the role of the photojournalist evolving in today’s environment?
Photojournalism is just as important today as it ever was, perhaps even more so. In this age of fake news and faked photos the truth of photojournalism is essential – because it is the truth.
Do you have any tips for young people looking to work in this field?
If you are looking for photography work you have to build a portfolio. Keep shooting and experimenting and improving your work. NEVER set the camera to automatic or you will learn nothing.