Spotlight on: Chris Hopkins
“It’s a bit of a cliche but it’s a big privilege: people let you into their life and you can tell a story to hopefully change perceptions, or do some good, or raise awareness.”
Winner of Feature/Photographic Essay category, 2018 Walkley Awards
Chris Hopkins, SBS Online Documentaries, “My Name is Yunus”
Chris Hopkins captured moments in the new life of a Rohingyan refugee in Australia for SBS’s innovative Instagram documentary She Called Me Red. In an urban gothic style, Hopkins’ photographic essay introduces us to Mohamad Yunus, who has fled genocide for the relative safety of suburban Melbourne, where he encounters a whole new set of challenges.
How did you find Yunus and his story?
I was commissioned by SBS Online Documentaries, led by Kylie Boltin. They met Yunus during a previous project and thought ‘we gotta get his story down’. They needed a photographer straight away and gave me a ring. The rest is history!
After Kylie met Yunus, the first shoot was within a week. I went down to a local Rohingyan cafe/pool-hall to make some portraits of the community living in Springvale and one of the guys was Yunus. It just evolved from there. I would work around Yunus’ timeframe and the needs of the project.
As a photojournalist, had you worked like that before — within a bigger multimedia project?
Not specifically, no. Working for an Instagram project was initially difficult for me to get my head around. I had always worked reasonably traditionally in terms of a photographic essay. Initially I was thinking, oh God, Instagram, it’s got to be big and bright and bold, and jump off the phone screen. But as the project evolved I found the images that were working. I just basically stuck to what I know.
I hadn’t until this point worked with a team. I’d always do my projects individually and have them published after pitching. So it was a little bit confronting at the start, knowing there would be someone overseeing and editing what I was submitting. But as it turned out, visually we were all heading in the same direction.
The images that were submitted for the Walkleys were my selection. Most were published as part of the project but they weren’t necessarily the lead picture. For me Yunus’ story is twofold. He is this strong, intelligent public figure, this voice of the Rohingyan community in Melbourne. But he also has an inner turmoil because of what’s going on with his family back in the camps and a concern, or guilt maybe, that he can’t help them due to his absence.
He’s trying to make a stand here and do what’s best for him, but he’s also trying to do what’s best for his family in Bangladesh. And he also wants to be a community leader and he’s got the smarts and the knowhow to do that, and the persistence. But all that sort of weighs him down. So that was the angle I was trying to show visually with what was submitted. Obviously the doco had a much broader scope to the story it was telling.
It’s a side of the immigrant/refugee story we don’t always get to see; the intimacy of it is very powerful.
Thankyou. Having that intimacy is vital to telling the entire story. I’ve worked with refugees in Australia a lot and that’s always a big thing when telling the fuller picture. The mainstream media has this view of what they’re doing and why they are here, but they don’t really get into the personal depths of what they are going through.
That’s why longform journalism, and the intimacy it helps create, really is an essential part of the industry. Showing Yunus awake with worry on his bed till the early hours of the morning is a feeling we all can relate to, but as a stand alone image some might see it as just a dude looking at his phone.
I’m not a real big believer in ‘the picture tells the story’. If you are a storyteller, you use any avenue you can to get that story across. That’s what our job is. So to combine these images, which were made over an extended period, with well-written extended captions was one of the reasons I think Yunus’ story resonated.
What did it take to get this story up?
The whole project was driven by the team. The approach was very organic. Sometimes the journalist Michael Green would interview Yunus then that background would get pushed across to Kylie and Ella Rubeli to work with when creating the look of each post, then I would have to visually illustrate it. I would take that information and with it in the back of my mind photograph Yunus’ daily life with a visual representation already in my mind. I hadn’t worked like that before. It was a little piecemeal way of gathering images. But Yunus and Ibuilt up a good relationship, he’s quite an affable guy, so he was very open with me. Then other times like Eid, where it was all off-the-cuff.
It was a huge day for the community so it was going to be a massive part of the story. I knew what I wanted to get visually as part of that day but I just had to go with the flow. That was difficult in the sense that we were posting and documenting in real time. So I would film prayer and then go quickly edit the video and shoot it through to Sydney to post, and then follow Yunus to the cafe where he was meeting some pals to do something, and photograph that, then we would end up in someone’s backyard where they were cutting up a cow! It was a big day but it was vital to the story.
But generally there were no real time constraints, it wasn’t like working for a daily where they need the picture within a couple of hours. So I’d have a day or two to get that sort of imagery. I photographed across the course of two and a half months, maybe three months.
It wasn’t that difficult in terms of photographing. Yunus really wants his story told and wants awareness around the Rohingyan issue so he was quite giving with his time.
What impact did the story have?
It did have a positive effect on that (Rohyingan) community. It gave them a platform to be heard and seen. It’s a huge thing for a lot of refugee communities when they arrive and are trying to make their way, they don’t have that sense of inclusion. So to be able to get on Instagram and see familiar faces and also read positive, empathetic comments from strangers about the situation, I was told that that was the most positive thing they went through as part of the story. And that was always Yunus’ intention.
Have you stayed in touch with Yunus? He was at the Walkleys with you!
He was in Brisbane by chance that week! We got in touch to let him know we were nominated and he said “hey, I’m in Brisbane!” So Kylie invited him. Michael brought his suit up and we dropped it off, an hour later there he was. It was good to share it with him. He’s over the moon! He’s still posting pictures from that night on social media. He’s just really appreciative. That’s why we do it.
What made you want to be a photojournalist?
I guess it was a vehicle to tell people’s stories. I’ve always been interested in different cultures and storytelling, always loved reading and writing, but getting to do it visually just sort of fit me. I’m reasonably new to it and a late starter, I’ve only been in the industry for eight years after travelling and being a bit wayward in my earlier years!
It’s a bit of a cliche but it’s a big privilege: people let you into their life and you can tell a story to hopefully change perceptions, do some good, or raise awareness.
What are you most proud of about the stories you’ve told?
I’m pretty proud that I’m trusted to be let in to people’s lives. That’s a big thing — letting an almost complete stranger into your life and letting them document you and your situation visually — you really don’t know how it will end up, what the end product’s going to look like. Being in that position holds a massive responsibility. Not a lot of people get to do it.
What’s your message to Australians about why quality journalism needs their support?
I’d like people to sit down and close their eyes and think what the world be like without quality journalism. No one to hold people to account. No one telling anyone else’s stories. It would be a pretty miserable existence. It’s fundamental to society, to keep checks and balances. How much would be we be getting ripped off in five years’ time if we didn’t have the royal commission into banking?
The best thing about receiving this award?
When you’re a “Walkley Award-winning photojournalist”, that’s a huge thing. Everyone in Australian journalism knows what that is. And it’s very nice to have that behind your name. I am hoping that it can open some doors to future projects or collaborations with new clients which is vital as a freelancer.
Personally though, my father is fighting cancer. The night when I won I sent him a message to let him know, and he didn’t get it for a couple of hours. Eventually I heard from him. He said “I was just getting some painkillers and I checked this and now I don’t need them, so well done.” That was nice to get from him.
What are you working on next?
I’ve just finished a portraiture project with Australian Defence Force veterans who have acquired brain injuries or mental health issues. The story concerns perceived links between TBI and dementia and/or PTSD. I am also trying my damnedest to get back to Uganda with a follow up on the mental health/disability crisis in that country which I reported on a few years ago.
Chris Hopkins is a freelance photojournalist based in Melbourne. He has covered humanitarian issues for a variety of publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, UNHCR, SBS and Amnesty International.
Nikon supports the Walkley Award for Feature/Photographic Essay.