Spotlight on: Jenny Evans
“People allow us into their lives and their stories. It is crucial as photographers that we tell their story to the best of our abilities.”
Winner of News Photography category, 2018 Walkley Awards
Jenny Evans, Getty Images and The Daily Telegraph, “Life Saver”
Jenny Evans’ Walkley-winning series of photos shows a swimmer in dire trouble at Bronte Beach. It’s a classic news narrative and quintessentially Australian, and yet something that is captured by photojournalists extraordinarily rarely. Evans was also nominated in the Feature/Photographic Essay category for her series on the Louth Races. Here she shares why time is a photojournalist’s greatest luxury, and the rivalry of having a partner who’s also a photographer.
How did you find this story?
My husband Mark and I (we call him Evo) we love getting up early in the morning and going for a swim or taking photos. For a while we’d get up every single morning for sunrise. Any reports of wild weather conditions would get us out of bed, there was always a chance to get a great image of surfers flying through the air.
This particular morning we went to Bronte Beach, there weren’t even any surfers in the water, it was so treacherous. We thought we’d get some pictures of waves. Next thing, I heard a scream. I thought there was a child being dragged out to sea, I couldn’t tell if it was male or female, just a tiny little figure being swept out.
Your first reaction is ‘oh my goodness, what can I do? I can’t jump in.’ I’m an ok swimmer, but not that good. I was speechless. Automatically, I started taking photos. I went through a wave of emotions: ‘Is this right? Should I be taking photos? Why aren’t I helping?’ But something just kicks in because it’s what you do, and what you love is documenting life, the good and the bad. So I just started shooting the whole thing. It was quite harrowing. There was a point where all you could see was tiny fingers coming out of the water. You think, ‘Is this it? Is this girl going to die?’
Only afterwards when I saw the images, and a little bit more awareness came out around drowning, it’s such a big killer, did I feel like I’d done the right thing. It brought awareness for me too. What I thought was a safe area of the beach, the bogey hole at Bronte, it turns out that in certain conditions it’s quite dangerous. I was just hoping through that set of images it would bring a better awareness of surf safety.
Did you have any contact with the woman in the photos?
We tried to get in contact with her. At the time I was working for the Daily Telegraph and they were really keen to get in contact with the lady. They did track her down, but she didn’t want to be interviewed. She’s lucky to be alive, that the guys were there to save her that day.
You’ve spoken about the moral concerns you felt, but did you face any technical challenges to shoot this story?
The only thing I was fighting was bad light. It was severely back lit. There was no risk to safety. We had all the gear with us because we drag it around everywhere!
What impact did the story have?
People asked if it was set up — they thought it might be a Bondi Rescue stunt. I was there first hand and saw everything, and it was quite distressing seeing someone nearly die. So it was a mix of amusement and disbelief to have it questioned.
What made you want to be a photographer?
I became a photographer quite late in life — in my 30s. I came across a book from Black Star (the photo agency) in a bookshop, and I remember feeling so taken by the images. I thought, what a wonderful thing to do — to take a photo and get an emotional reaction from someone on the other side of the world!
I was studying graphic design and they had a little course on photography. I remember thinking at the time, I don’t even have a camera, I’ve only ever used a cardboard, disposable one. I bought a fully manual camera from Fletchers.
I remember the feeling of picking up the camera and just never being able to put it down. I had no idea what I was doing, just walked around taking photos. A lot of them didn’t work, but it woke something up in me. I still haven’t been able to put the camera down.
Have you ever had to compete with your husband on the same job?
It’s a friendly rivalry, it’s very funny and very good but it’s always there. Now we both do freelance work for Getty Images, we’ve both drifted around different papers. There was one occasion where we said goodbye, went our separate ways and ended up on the same job! Another time we went out separately to do weather photos. We both took photos and later realised we were about 50 metres apart in the same area taking the same photo, of a rainbow at Maroubra.
What are you most proud of about the stories you’ve told?
Being able to give it some time. Not so much with the lifesaver story; with that it was being able to get a strong message across. I believe in it and feel that it’s crucial to be able to tell stories like that where there’s a strong message involved.
But with the Louth Races series [nominated for the Walkley Award for Feature/Photographic Essay in 2018] I loved letting it unfold, having the time to be an observer. We spent a week in Louth. It took two days to drive up. The town itself has a population of about 43. We took a tent and camped on the racecourse, soaked up the atmosphere. As serious as the drought is, [the races] gave everyone from the area a chance to unwind and forget about their woes. We did befriend one of the girls in the photos and keep in contact with her. And I’ve kept in contact with Kath Barnes who owns the pub, Shindy’s Inn, it’s the only pub in Louth. They’re really good people.
I’ve just come back from my second trip to Louth. I went back because of the issues with the Murray Darling River, and spent three or four days back there.
What’s your message to Australians about why quality journalism needs their support?
As a press photographer we are given sometimes a very short time to tell someone’s story, to show their pain suffering, for example. When you meet someone for the first time they don’t always show their true self, they show you what they want you to see. When I photographed Louth for the races, I saw how dry the country was but I didn’t really see what the locals were going through with the drought. I knew they were doing it tough and I formed my own picture in my head of what that was like. But the reality was, I had no idea.
It wasn’t until I witnessed it first hand that I formed a basic understanding of the situation. It wasn’t until then that I fully comprehended what hand-feeding 4000 sheep to keep them alive was like. It wasn’t until I saw first hand what relying on the river water was really like for everyday living. I saw the strain in peoples faces, holding it together with humour and whatever else they could cling on to. I saw the strength, the character, the frustration.
Telling this kind of story is a bit of a luxury these days, to go in for longer than a couple of hours to tell a story, to honour the people you are photographing, to be truthful. To do them justice. People allow us into their lives and their stories. It is crucial as photographers that we tell their story to the best of our abilities. After all, it is their life and it is important.
What’s the best thing about receiving this award?
I felt a lot of pride with both the stories that were nominated. It was great to be recognised with the Walkley. I think more than anything it gave me confidence to go and do more stories. Winning a Walkley has reignited my passion for storytelling with photos.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Evo and I did a story together in 2005 on horse racing that won a World Press award. That was a real buzz to win that as a couple. So we’ve got a Walkley each, separately, and a World Press that we won together. We’ve got one each now, so god forbid if one of us wins another there will be chaos in the Evans household!
Jenny Evans’ successful career as a freelance photographer has spanned 18 years. She specialises in breaking news and sport, but her passion lies in visual storytelling. She won first place in the World Press Photo awards for sport feature stories, in a joint entry with her husband Mark Evans. This is her first Walkley Award.
Nikon supports the Walkley Award for News Photography