Spotlight on Brian Cassey

Winner of the 2021 Nikon Portrait Prize.

Mother Shaylene Yarrick beds down five of the children who sleep in the lounge of her two-bedroom house, which regularly sleeps up to 22 members of her extended family.

This image, depicting an overcrowded living situation on Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, won the 2021 Nikon Portrait Prize. Entries for the Nikon Portrait Prize reveal aspects of the human condition by showing people from all walks of life.

Award-winning photographer Brian Cassey spoke with the Walkley Foundation’s Kate Burgess about the story behind the image.

Brian, congratulations on your win. What does this prize mean to you and how did you react?

Normally there is an event where the prize is announced but due to Covid-19, I received an email at 8am one morning which I didn’t even see until the phone started ringing with people congratulating me. I was shocked, I didn’t expect this photo would win the award.

It’s always tough entering the Nikon-Walkley Prizes prizes because you’re only able to enter one shot and there is no finalist round — they pick a winner straight away. I’ve won this award twice before, in 2011 and 2016. So it seems I’m running on a five-year cycle.

You make it sound a little like a Chinese government five-year plan. So why this image in particular? Of all the photos you’ve taken on assignment in the past year.

I chose this image because I feel it adequately represents crowded conditions that some remote Indigenous communities face. And it not only shows the conditions, and it’s a beautiful painterly image, I feel. So this one is a stand out one for me.

Tell us more about the context in which the image was taken and the story behind it.

I was on an assignment with Michael McKenna, journalist from The Australian. We were doing a quick fly in fly out visit to Mornington Island, which is in remote far north Queensland in the Gulf of Carpentaria. We only had a few hours on the ground to put together a story on the massive overcrowding that the community is experiencing. We were fortunate in that the new young driven Mayor of Mornington, Kyle Yanner, would do anything to get issues brought to the forefront that affect his community.

We were shown a few houses where overcrowding was an issue. This was one of them. I took various photographs of the mum and father outside the home. And then we asked if we could actually see what they experienced inside the home. I took this picture in the lounge room where these children do sleep at night time, because the two bedrooms are occupied by several adults. Up to 22 people can sleep in this house at any one time — they are extended members of the family.

What do you do when you get to a house like this? How do you behave? You’re dealing with a different culture, which you do have experience in photographing, but talk me through how you build trust and allow yourself to be a part of their lives, briefly.

Patience is a virtue in these situations. It’s never productive to race in and say, “I’m here to take your picture.” You have to have patience. You have to listen to them first, tell their side of the story. I know that’s a bit of cliche, but yeah. Tell their side of the story. Listen, try and understand, and eventually you gain a certain degree of acceptance. And obviously when people are in a situation which they’d like to see changed, they do tend to want the world to see what’s relevant.

How did you and Michael, the journalist, work together on the story?

It really helps to have a journalist that understands your work and we have a great rapport. When I made that image, Michael was outside talking to the father, which gave me a bit of freedom to explore an image.

The story about overcrowding on Mornington Island ran on page one of The Australian on December 3, 2020 with the headline “Remote overcrowding: (Indigenous) gap won’t close”. Ironically, the headline for the story above was talking about how house prices in Sydney and Melbourne were taking off, which was unfortunate but does illustrate the divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Australia.

How did you set up the shoot and what equipment did you use?

I used a very basic lighting kit to bounce a bit of light around the room, which was very dark — almost pitch black. But I didn’t want to overexpose it. I wanted to keep the atmosphere of the room. So I underexposed a bit. I used a Nikon D5 and my favourite 28–300mm Nikkor lens, which is not a Pro lens as such, but has great versatility and good image quality.

Tell me about your other work when you’re working with remote Indigenous communities. What are some of the other assignments you’ve done this year?

This particular visit to Mornington, a small island in the Gulf of Carpentaria far north Queensland, was the first of three I’ve made in the last year. The two subsequent visits were for the Courier-Mail and the Sunday Mail. They were stories on a variety of other issues in Mornington, different social ills that are adversely impacting the community.

How did you originally begin your photojournalism career in the UK and how did you make your start in Australia?

I began photographing football matches in England for the local newspaper when I was a young teen. The editor of the Lewisham Borough News in Southeast London was also my football coach. I expressed an interest in taking football pictures and he said, “Well, off you go then”. That’s what I did, and it all grew from there.

When I moved to Brisbane it was in 1976 around the time of the massive flooding event. I rang The Australian and the Courier-Mail and said, “I’ve just arrived from England”. They basically said, “Well, if you can get in, we’ll use you”. So I found myself very quickly taking pictures for The Aus and the Courier. The first picture I had published was one I made of a cow being pulled out of the river under the Story Bridge.

That was a bit of a baptism of fire then? Natural disaster in Australia. You being in the right place at the right time, I guess, is a good thing.

Yes I was pretty lucky. I suppose it goes back to the mid eighties, when I made a photograph that won the Kodak/Adidas Australian Sports Photo of the Year — a massive shock. The pic was one of a slalom water skier in Cairns. The presentation night was in Melbourne, as part of the Australian Sports Star of the Year awards. I had to buy a flipping suit to go down there because I didn’t even own one. I got down there and I didn’t expect anything, but it was announced the winner, in front of second and third placed photographers from The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

The little guy from remote Cairns that no one from ‘down south’ had ever heard of. But there you go. That was the catalyst for various things. My work came to the attention of Russ McPhedran, who was the legendary photographic boss of Associated Press in Australia. He picked me up and I’m very grateful to him. He gave me some fabulous rewarding work.”

When I say fabulous work, it was invariably depressing but meaningful work, big stories like the tsunami in Sissano in Papua New Guinea and how it affected PNG, the departure of refugees from East Timor and George Speight’s coup in Fiji, which I spent a couple of months covering. Also I had many contacts in the UK because of my British experience. I did a lot of work based in Australia for the UK press. All the tabloids including the Mirror, The Daily Mail and even The Sun and some of the more prestigious broadsheets such as The Times.

I covered the Asian tsunami for The Sunday Mirror in Banda Aceh and in Thailand, Phuket. We even did a little trip in Myanmar, but that’s a long story.

Do you use Cairns as a base to do some assignments in Southeast Asia, as well as Cairns?

I’d like to think it was a tactical move to come to Cairns. It likely wasn’t intentional. In the long-term, it’s a great place to be based as you’re in closer proximity to Southeast Asia and much of the Pacific where many stories were happening.

I do prefer pure photojournalism work and creating photographic essays. The continuing demise of our industry now means that because of the lack of available funding, if I want to do that work, I have to finance it myself. That has been the case over the last decade or so.

For example, the last one before the pandemic reared its head was a self-funded trip to India where I travelled to Chhattisgarh with an Indian former picture editor mate. I mentioned the story I was after and he offered his assistance, local knowledge and companionship. The particular story concerned Adani and their operation of open cut mines in a pristine forest that is home to the Gond, a tribal people who are losing their beloved forest and traditional livelihood. It was a fabulous story to travel to uncover. That story is continuing during the pandemic and I wish I could get back there again now to document what is happening.

When it’s a creative project, you need to fund that yourself. What mediums do you use to get that kind of stuff published?

Once upon a time you could cover your expenses and make some cream on top out of it. But that is getting questionable. About 12 years ago I came across an inkling of a story about cage homes in Hong Kong. Where people were living in wire cages, six foot by two and a half foot wire cages and paying for the privilege. These cages were stacked 20 to a room. This was another self-funded adventure that was relatively easy to sell, make back your expenses and a little bit extra.

The Adani/Gond story was published in The Guardian, CNN, Italian newspapers and elsewhere and the possibility of another publication in a British magazine.

Tell me about why you think photojournalism continues to be important. Obviously we are in the media facing budget cuts. There’s a lot more journalists being sent out with iPhones to take pictures on the side.

We are progressively getting a smaller and smaller slice of the pie, that’s for sure, along with tumbling rates, which is pretty disastrous.

Photojournalism’s role is to tell the truth of what is happening in this world. It’s a visual and generally accurate representation of the ills that befall the planet, both natural and man-made.

Brian, thanks so much for your time and for sharing the image and what was behind it and your thoughts on photojournalism. That’s been really exciting and illuminating.

Brian Cassey is a Cairns-based photographer who documents a range of humanitarian and social issues, particularly about indigenous communities in Far North Queensland and the Top End. Originally from the UK, Brian’s multi-decade photojournalism career has taken him to many parts of Asia and the Pacific where he has reported on social issues and natural disasters for dozens of international media outlets.

The Nikon-Walkley Awards for Excellence in Photojournalism recognise the work of photographers across a range of genres — from news and sport to portraiture and photographic essays. This exhibition lets us reflect on the year in news through the individual worldviews and skilled lenses of Australia’s best photographers.

In selecting three finalists in each category, from more than 3000 images entered in 2021, the Walkley judges looked for newsworthiness, impact, creativity and technical skill. This exhibition, showcasing the 2021 finalists, encompasses a range of stories — from politicians to everyday folk, from our backyards to the furthest corners of the globe.

To view the work of other prize winners and finalists for the photography categories in the 66th Walkley Awards, read this article or visit our website.

The Nikon Portrait Prize is supported by Nikon.




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