Spotlight on: Dean Lewins
“I started work in the darkroom, and that was it. I fell in love with the whole process. All interest in TV camerawork was gone, and the focus was photography.”
2018 Nikon-Walkley Press Photographer of the Year
Dean Lewins, Australian Associated Press, NBCnews.com, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, The Australian and Time
Dean Lewins’ winning portfolio featured a selection of images from the year’s major sporting events, including the Commonwealth Games, the FIFA World Cup, the Australian Open tennis tournament, the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race and the Ashes. He covers news as well, including the poignant moment at the funeral of AC/DC founder Malcolm Young when his brother and co-founder Angus Young stepped to the back of the hearse carrying Malcolm’s prized Gretsch guitar.
We talked with Dean about covering the drought, the images that make a splash internationally, and how he became a photojournalist almost by accident.
How did you find this story — shall we focus on the drought images?
The drought pictures in the entry were part of a larger body of work. The drought was taking full hold on NSW. The story and gravity of the situation was starting to gain traction with governments and the media, AAP decided we needed to get out there and focus on it ourselves. So myself and AAP journalist Tom Rabe jumped in a car and headed west. We decided to head into the Parkes area, it was close enough to Sydney to access without having to fly. Having our own wheels meant we had the freedom to stay as long as we needed to, or to move to other parts of the state. As we traveled out there we saw people we could meet with and talk to, and went from there.
Did you always intend to use a drone? How did you decide how to cover the story?
The thing with covering something like drought, and floods are another example, is that while it’s a devastating scene at ground level, it’s not until you get above it that you really get to see the effects on the land, the enormity of the situation.
So I’d always intended to take the drone out there, but I wasn’t sure how much I was going to use it. It was the first time I’d ever shot with a drone.
The first property we went to we spent the whole day with the farmer, traveling around his property, hand feeding sheep, he showed us some failed crops. I thought I’d bite the bullet and put the drone up. Seeing what I was seeing through the phone (operating the drone) just changed the whole look of the scene. Having those drone pictures alongside stuff shot at ground level, it just really worked well together, I thought.
What time and resources did it take to get this story up?
I worked closely together with Tom in the 2–3 weeks leading up to heading out there. Discussing what we were looking for, what sort of stories he wanted to tell, and how best I could help illustrate those stories. The drought was having a huge effect on livestock farmers, on crop farmers, and also on the small towns that service those farmers. So our plan was always to source a livestock farmer, source a crop farmer, and Tom wanted to talk to some townsfolk, people who run local businesses.
Once we got out there, it was always going to be huge long days. We left Sydney at 3.30am with the aim of getting to Parkes by 9am to meet our first farmer. We were with him until 7 or 8pm that night. We got back to our accommodation for the night, slept pretty quickly, and then we were up at 5 or 6am the next morning to do it all again. We did that for about five days straight.
I bet you had a lot of sleepy counter meals at the pub!
There were a lot of counter meals, and only one or two beers because the sleep had to be had as well! Once we were out there, talking to people, you hear about other people with other stories. We’d heard about the sale yards, the livestock sales numbers were looking huge. We had to make that part of our story. Again, I got the drone up above the sale yards which they kindly allowed me to do. The day we were there more than 45,000 head of sheep came through the yard, just massive. Getting the drone up above it just before the sale started, when those yards were full, made for a pretty compelling picture.
What impact did the story have?
The coverage went international rather quickly. And also locally. The News Limited papers had been slowly building their drought coverage and they picked up a number of our stories and ran pictures. Those pictures ran widely in Europe and North America. A lot of the web-based news organisations like NBC ran big galleries of pictures. So there was certainly not only nationally but internationally huge interest in what was happening in Australia with the drought.
Did you want to talk about any of the other images in your winning body of work?
One of the favourites that came up by a lot from people who view the work is the yacht race. It was shot from a helicopter. I’ve worked at AAP now for 20 years; I haven’t covered every single Sydney to Hobart race but I’ve covered a good number of them. Working from a helicopter is difficult, there’s a lot of other aircraft in the air at the time. You’re looking down on top of the race and trying to gauge not just who’s leading, and telling the story of the start, but also trying to make a nice big picture that will have not only national but international interest.
That picture was once they passed through the heads and Black Jack started to take its lead. All the spectator craft were chasing it or moving with it. It was a picture I nearly didn’t file. I was in the air for 2.5 hours, there were so many pictures. I try to edit on the back of the camera as I’m working. I overlooked that one initially. Once back on the ground I went back through my cards again to it and I really liked it, I’m glad I didn’t miss it!
It’s easy to overlook a picture sometimes. Some people see something different to what the photographer sees, and vice versa. There’s pictures I’ve taken over the years that I purely loved and that got no traction whatsoever. It’s just the way it is with photography.
When you’re looking at that shot on a screen it’s easy to lose the yacht among everything else that’s going on in that picture. When you see it big — there’s some nice shape and movement there.
Working for an agency like AAP, are you always thinking about what will appeal to people outside of Australia, and is it different to what people pick up on locally?
It’s something that’s always in the back of your mind. At AAP we’re servicing people not just nationally, but internationally. Over time you learn to know what stories are going to have an international interest and what stories are purely national. But you never really know. You might cover a fire thinking it was really big and you got a nice picture that will go international, and it doesn’t. You might have a picture from a bushfire that you think tells a local story and all of a sudden it turns up everywhere.
What made you want to be a photojournalist?
I got into it by luck really. I had left high school with no idea what I was going to do. A friend of mine’s brother was a journalist at the local paper, the Gold Coast Bulletin. I’d done a bit of film and television in my last year at high school, and I thought I wanted to be a TV cameraman. They said the best way to get started is at a newspaper as a photographer. He helped me with a foot in the door there, I started work in the darkroom, and that was it. I fell in love with the whole process. All interest in TV camerawork was gone, and the focus was photography.
What are you most proud of about the stories you’ve told?
I’m very proud of the Angus Young picture. It’s a very recent one of course, and one that’s part of this body of work. But that was an amazing surreal day, a very sad day. I’m a big music fan, a big ACDC fan. So I was also very aware that Angus and the Young family are very private people. So I wanted to be very respectful of that, but at the same time I have to do my job. We weren’t sure whether we’d see any of the Young family at the funeral, we didn’t see them arrive, we thought they may just remain in the church which we weren’t given access to.
When Angus came out carrying the guitar, I immediately knew it was a pretty special moment. We were across the street, there was traffic moving and huge crowds around. For just a split second everything seemed to stop. Angus was just standing there all on his own. He looked so lost, so alone. I had one frame before a truck went past and blocked the next frame; and the moment was gone. So that’s a very proud picture.
Over the years I’ve covered a number of Olympics. They’re huge days working against the best photographers in the world. Coming away with pictures that tell the story and get run is not always easy with the numbers of photographers covering it — so I always walk away quite humbled but also proud of the work I’ve produced.
What’s your message to Australians about why quality journalism needs their support?
I think the whole “fake news” as it’s been perpetrated over the last five years has made it more important than ever. Not just for the readers and people of Australia, but those of us working in the industry.
It is now more important than ever that we make sure we are accurate, we are fair in our reporting, that our images are honest and truthful.
You didn’t actually get to accept your award in person. What would you say is the best thing about receiving this award, even if you didn’t get to touch it immediately?
It’s a massive honour. I’ve been a newspaper photojournalist now for 30 years. To actually win a Walkley and this Walkley in particular, the Press Photographer of the Year, is a massive, massive honour. I was so gutted that I couldn’t be there, I tried every way I could to get there and it wasn’t going to happen thanks to the weather and the dust storm on that day. I actually didn’t get my hands on the trophy until two weeks after the night! I had a crazy busy two weeks and couldn’t get to the office at Rhodes to collect it. But AAP put on a very nice dinner for me and presented it to me at the dinner, so that was wonderful. I’m very proud and lucky to work at AAP. It’s a superb media company with exceptional people working there.
Dean Lewins has been a photojournalist for 30 years. He completed his cadetship with The Gold Coast Bulletin and began working for Australian Associated Press in 1999. At AAP, Lewins has covered six Olympic Games, four Commonwealth Games, the Ashes, the Football World Cup and the Rugby World Cup. This is his first Walkley Award.
Nikon supports the Walkley Award for News Photography