Spotlight on Kate Geraghty

Sydney Morning Herald photojournalist Kate Geraghty won the Nikon Prize for Photo of the Year for her portrayal of a COVID-19 patient.

Kate Geraghty, The Sydney Morning Herald, “Fighting COVID-19 Delta”

“A photo can stop people in their tracks and tell people what is happening and how it feels and looks. It can evoke emotions that sometimes words can’t do.”

Sydney Morning Herald photojournalist Kate Geraghty won the Nikon Prize for Photo of the Year for her chilling portrayal of a COVID-19 patient in the Intensive Care Unit of St. Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney. She explains the delicate ethical boundaries photojournalists must navigate in an interview with the Walkley Foundation’s Kate Burgess.

Kate, congratulations on your win. Is this the first time you’ve won photo of the year? How did you react when you found out?

This is the first time I’ve won Photo of the Year. So yeah, it was a bit of a shock, but now I’m very honoured to have received it.

What made you enter this particular image out of all the images that you’ve taken this year?

Well, for me, it just summed up COVID and the response to COVID-19. It’s a photograph of a patient in the Intensive Care Uni. He has the Delta strain and the patient is isolated, yet being cared for round the clock by incredible staff.

I thought it was a powerful image that summed up what it looks like in an ICU, because most people would never go into an ICU ward. But the most important reason why I took it and this is why the St. Vincent’s Hospital’s management and the ICU team allowed me in is because everyone was in lockdown and his loved ones or those of any patient with COVID couldn’t have their family members come and visit.

This is what it looks like when you get COVID for some: tubes, ventilators, all machinery around, you’re by yourself. I entered it because I thought it was a powerful image but I think anyone could have taken that picture, if they got access.

So how does one get access to COVID patients in ICU?

Basically, I asked St. Vincent’s Hospital. To give a bit of background, when COVID first came to Australia in February 2020, I started documenting St. Vincent’s Hospital’s response to the pandemic. I photographed their emergency department red and green zones, red being for suspected COVID patients.

During a pandemic, they do pandemic training, basically I had a very good working relationship with them. Because the photo was taken in July, over a year they’d seen well how I respected patients, how I respected the staff and they’d seen our work published.

It wasn’t a flippant decision to grant access. It was under careful consideration and they trusted me and they also knew that ethically we asked the patients before we photograph them, for consent. All photo journalists in Australia are bound by or work to very high ethics.

Was it difficult to hold a camera and to physically take the shot and do what you need with all of that PPE on and the mask on your face?

First of all, I had to have what they call a fit test. That’s a test for your mask to show and you have to get a score over a certain amount to prove that you’ve got complete sealage. You had to do that and then I was monitored putting on all the PPE. It was foot covering and then there’s a procedure for donning on and that was monitored the whole way through.

I was only allowed to take in very limited equipment so that was the camera and the lens. No flash, no lighting because even though you’ve got all the PPE on and all the camera gear had to be sterilized in a separate room on leaving. One of the biggest concerns was bringing Delta out of ICU.

For that particular shoot, how long were you in the ward for? How long from start to finish and how much time did you have to build trust and ask the consent of people?

I didn’t touch anything. When I was escorted to the door, the other staff went into another room and watched through the window and then I opened the ward door into the ICU, because there was several COVID Delta patients. We asked three patients. One said no, they didn’t want to be photographed, so you have to respect their wishes.

The other two patients agreed. It was a very limited amount of time there but as a photojournalist, one of the things that we do is we explain to the patient or to the person what we’re doing, where we’re from, who we are and also being mindful that they are in a distressed situation. When we asked permission and consent was given.

The patient had to be anonymous. We weren’t allowed to ask their name and the journalists weren’t allowed to interview them.

How did you adjust the lighting for the shoot?

I photographed the patients with both their lights on and off, and being treated by the nurses and the medical staff. For that frame we turned the surgical or the overhead light on and then that provided a shaft of light that glowed over him and I thought that visually worked.

Why is it crucial that we have photojournalism in our news media? Why is that in some ways more powerful than words or how, how does it complement a written story?

A photo can stop people in their tracks and tell people what is happening and how it feels and looks. It can evoke emotions that sometimes words can’t do. The importance of photojournalism is crucial… because it shows everyone what’s happening, be it joy or sorrow. With the ethics of a photojournalist there’s no doubt that what you are seeing has happened.

Besides COVID what other big stories interest you at the moment? You must need a bit of a distraction, right? This is a really serious topic. Are there other topics that are keeping you interested that maybe provide a bit of balance here?

Well, basically we’ve just rolled from bush fires to COVID. I’ve been very lucky at the Herald that I’ve been able to focus for most of the past 20 years on what I love covering and what I think is really important. The impact of conflict and disasters or crises on citizens and the aftermath of conflict. So the pandemic really, and covering bush fires is no different in the sense that it impacts society. We’ve been covering COVID nonstop. It’s pretty much dominated our news, the type of assignments we’ve had. And until the start of November, we couldn’t leave the country without doing serious quarantining.

What’s on your photojournalism bucket list? Where do you want to go? What do you want to do next year?

Afghanistan. And Iraq I’d love to go back to Mosul and see the rebuilding of the city after it was liberated from Islamic State, continue the stories on refugees or civilians impacted by conflict. I’d love to go to Yemen, cover issues in the Pacific, obviously climate change related issues. But mainly I’ve focused a lot of my career on conflict or life after conflict and humanitarian crises.

What do you think the most interesting stories are with respect to climate change and the cultures that are being impacted most?

Obviously the Pacific nations who are directly under threat and also the Torres Strait islands, who have submitted a claim against the UN Commission on Human Rights for inaction on climate change. I think how climate change is impacting human rights is quite important.

What advice do you have for photographers aspiring to enter the industry? Where should they start? What should they do?

Society needs young passionate photographers. So my advice for anyone who wants to become a photojournalist would be to take photographs, just start photographing what you’re passionate about and just keep going and going.

Kate Geraghty is a photographer with the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, covering daily news and feature projects in both Australia and overseas. Her career focus has been on the aftermath of conflicts and the plight of those societies caught in the violence.

Kate has covered the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the war in Afghanistan and wars in Lebanon, East Ukraine and the downing of MH17. She has also documented Syrian refugees in Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan and the independence of South Sudan and the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia. Kate has won multiple Walkley Awards for her photography, and in 2017 was the recipient of the Gold Walkley and the Nikon-Walkley Press Photographer of the Year.

The 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 the 66th Walkley Awards, check out this virtual tour or see the photographs in person at NSW Parliament House between November 26 and December 14, 2021.

The Nikon Photo of the Year prize is supported by Nikon.

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