Two of Australia’s foremost photojournalists have joined forces to conduct workshops to help aspiring documentary photographers and promote the critical importance of independent story-telling. Tim Anger attended the first event in Sydney.

Legendary photojournalist Tim Page was one of the guest tutors at the first Documentary Photography workshop run by Jack Picone and Stephen Dupont.

Jack Picone and Stephen Dupont are photographers who share a friendship developed over two decades. It’s a friendship forged in the surreal experience of war zones – bloody conflicts on many continents. But it’s their mutual passion for imagery and storytelling, and deep respect for each other’s talent with a camera that has bound them together for so long.

Picone, who is based in Bangkok, and Dupont, who is now based in Sydney, are two of Australia’s most accomplished and experienced documentary photographers. Over a period of more than 20 years they have endured scenes of violence, witnessed acts of terrorism and the resulting carnage, coming close to death many times in the process. “Not that you dwell on it,” says Picone, “but I should have been dead at least six times.”

Despite the very real dangers, they see a beauty in the darkness of it all. This is, in part, why these multiaward winning masters of the medium have teamed up to offer courses on documentary photography.

Just How Dangerous Is This Gig?

Journalists and photographers in conflict zones are commonly portrayed in popular culture as hardliving danger hounds. In fact, one of the tutors at the Documentary Photography course run by Picone and Dupont in Sydney at the end of 2009 was the legendary photojournalist Tim Page. He cut his teeth in Vietnam as a 20-year-old and is reported to have inspired the photojournalist character in the film Apocalypse Now. The danger of the craft is graphically conveyed by Page’s story of dying on the battlefield after encountering an exploding mine.

Students watching a presentation by Fairfax photographer and guest tutor Dean Sewell. Taliban Burning, by Stephen Dupont, copyright 2010.

“I lost this much of my brain”, said Page holding up a clenched fist. He was resuscitated three times in the evacuation helicopter on his way to hospital. Page also openly talked about the drug use which became synonymous with the Vietnam War culture as a way of deadening the daily horror. Asked whether the situation had changed much in the past 30 years, Stephen Dupont, whose first photojournalism assignment was to cover the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia in 1989 said, “I think it has got a lot more dangerous than it has ever been.

“Wars are more high-tech now and you’re no longer dealing with just land mines and snipers, you’re dealing with suicide bombers, car bombers and kidnapping as well – it’s huge”.

Dupont explained that, traditionally, photographers held a neutral status on the battle field which permitted them to cross lines and report all sides of the story in relative safety. But now, and mainly as a result of the practice of ‘embedding’, he says “…photographers and journalists are considered legitimate targets”.

In the case of the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Dupont added that the Australians are seen as being on the side of the Americans, consequently “…we are the enemy and so we are a target”.

And he knows this from first-hand experience. In 2008 he was very fortunate to have walked away from a suicide bomber’s attack during an assignment in Afghanistan. He was with the Sydney-based journalist Paul Raffaele who was working with him to document the Afghan government’s efforts to stem the poppy trade when a suicide bomber set off his deadly payload. As the dust settled and the fire fight with the Taliban sparked up, Dupont was able to capture some incredibly powerful and compelling still images and video, including a piece to camera, describing his feelings, injuries and what had happened. Fortunately, both Dupont and Raffaele have now essentially recovered from the physical injuries. But for Dupont, with a young daughter and partner in his life now, there’s a sense that this increasing level of danger within conflict zones is something he is less and less willing to risk.