No cheap shots

Michael Coyne photographed this man standing at the edge of the crowd while waiting for  the pope to appear at an outdoor service in New  Guinea in 1984Michael Coyne isn’t a flash photographer, in any sense of the term.

Getting to the truth of the matter always takes precedence over the impulse to startle or shock, the stock-in-trade of quotidian newspaper photographers. Shock sells.

The most distinguishing characteristic of Coyne’s photography is a palpable respect for his subjects—even the dead ones.

A case in point is his 1995 image of skeletal corpses in a church in Rwanda, following the massacres. The scene is sufficiently awful not to require the kind of compositional gimcrackery that a less sensitive eye might have enlisted. We feel the eerie silence and ineffable sorrow of the scene in muted monochrome. Coyne refuses to use these poor souls as horror show props.

There are no cheap shots in his canon. They have all been achieved through a combination of technical skill, a clear empathy with humanity and a willingness to get to the heart of the matter, rather than skim over the surface.

(Coyne himself has said it’s as much about having the required combination of qualities—equal parts nous, charm and determination—to get to the place where the photo actually is, unaided by photo agency helicopters, or Faustian deals. He is one of the last of the genuinely independent photojournalists.)

Coyne’s work is featured in the most recent of the Contemporary Photographers: Australia series of monographs, joining the distinguished company of Lewis Morley, Wolfgang Sievers, David Moore and Graham McCarter.

This series is not for coffee-table ornamentation, but rather for lovers and students of great photography, and in Coyne’s case, humanist fellow travellers. It’s modestly priced, soft-covered, and slightly under A4 format. Non-glossy paper stock and pleasing reproduction, especially of the black-and-white work, complete the photo-friendly presentation.

Coyne is no less distinguished than the other photographers in the series, but rather less well known in Australia than he is in the world of international photojournalism. In his early twenties he went directly from the arcane challenges of photographing ice-cream in suburban Melbourne in summer to being embedded with the Moro Liberation Army in the Philippines.

He is one of an élite group of photojournalists invited to join the renowned New York-based Black Star photo agency.

Early in his career he was commissioned by National Geographic to cover the Iran–Iraq War, the outcome being an unprecedented 28-page picture spread—and ‘please explains’ to the publisher from the United States government.

His simple image of a row of callipers parked under a portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini at a rehabilitation centre tells a complex story about tyrants and loyalty, and the inglorious nature of war, but more subversively it informs us that they look after their fallen soldiers over at the Axis of Evil. Who would have thought?

Coyne spent seven years travelling back and forth from the Iran–Iraq conflict. Later he was accepted into Yasser Arafat’s inner sanctum for an assignment for Life magazine. His access to ‘the other side of the story’ during these years was unmatched by other photographers from the West. Needless to say, his life was at acute risk many times.

For his work in the Middle East he was recognised with awards from the American National Press Photographers Association and the Overseas Press Club of Australia.

But this publication bears testament to the fact that Coyne’s work is more than a relentless regime of shooting—and being shot at—in conflict zones. In the early ’90s he produced a wonderful volume, A World of Australians, featuring 70 large environmental portraits of first-generation Australians, accompanied by short biographies. There is probably no other single document that better underscores the reciprocal value of migration to Australia, and Australia to migrants.

At a time when our prime minister finds himself affronted by exotic forms of clothing, we are sorely in need of a reprint!

Another of his major assignments to feature here is Second Spring: The Story of the Jesuits, documenting the extraordinary diversity and value of the work of the Jesuit order around the world. He spent four years living with Jesuit communities ‘quietly working away in the slums, deserts and jungles of the world’, as he describes them. The Rwandan massacre image referred to earlier is from this series.

The day to that image’s grim night is a shot of Fr Brian McCoy sj enjoying a swim with some Aboriginal kids in central Australia.

‘This project was not just about the Jesuits,’ he explains. ‘It is my attempt to capture and document … the human struggle to affirm life, to live it to the full.’

The text Coyne adds to his images is a real bonus. He is almost as literate with words as he is with images. His short essay ‘Their stories are my stories’ is as fine an insight into the world of a socially committed photographer as you are likely to encounter in 3000 words or less.

There is more: the playful portraits of colourful behind-the-scenes characters at the Sydney Olympics, for instance, or the somewhat otherworldly series in East Timor, captured with a $50 ‘toy’ camera.

It’s a book of pictures that rewards multiple visits. Familiarity breeds not contempt, but even greater respect for a fine photographer, whose signature is a love of humanity. 

Michael Coyne. Contemporary Photographers: Australia series. WriteLight Pty Ltd, 2005. ISBN 0 975 24507 4, RRP $27.95

Keith Shipton has been immersed in the world of photography and photographers for over two decades as an editor and contributor to magazines such as Australian Photography, Australian Art Review and Photo Review. For the past four years he has also curated Australia’s largest annual photographic exhibition, this year held at the Sydney Exhibition Centre in April.


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