Last july, the zeitgeist descended on Genoa for the G-8 Summit. Free-trade champions Bush and Berlusconi had recently swept to power in the U.S. and Italy, and some 200,000 people gathered in the northern Italian city's barricaded center to protest against globalization. "It was a perfect storm," recalls Paris-based Australian photojournalist Paul Blackmore. "You had choppers overhead, the tear gas, no one knew what was happening. Word got out that somebody had been shot in the head. People were pretty scared. For me, the imagery of the old streets and the burning cars was like nothing I've ever experienced."
Blackmore's lyrical black-and-white photographs-showing police marching like Star Wars troopers past fin-de-si?cle shopfronts, and protesters in jerry-built armor setting fire to a carabinieri van-lent poetry to the scene of apocalypse. Surreal but humane, the images showed a freshness of vision that's winning a new breed of Australian photojournalists acclaim around the world. In recent years, Michael Amendolia, Narelle Autio, Craig Golding, Trent Parke and Dean Sewell have become regular winners at the World Press Photo competition in Amsterdam, the Olympics of photography. But their magazine and newspaper work has too often been consigned to the recycle bin by the wider public. "It's a genre of photography that is very easily ignored because of its transient nature," says Robyn Johnston, curator of "Witness: An Exhibition of Australian Photojournalism," which opened at the Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney last week. "We wanted to celebrate the work in a different environment."
At first glance, all that seems to bind this group of photographers together is an adventurous eye. Autio and Parke's shots of outback races are as quirkily artful as David Dare Parker's images of East Timor are grittily artless. Amendolia's snapshot of life in the Chinese city of Kashgar, as a young boy sells a Chairman Mao rug alongside a mosque, makes what is foreign seem oddly familiar; Ashley Gilbertson's record of Middle Eastern asylum seekers in Australia and their families left behind in Indonesia takes a familiar issue into foreign territory. Sewell brings the immensity of Sydney's Christmas bushfires to a human scale; in Glenn Hunt's vision, Aboriginal dancers at the Yeperenye Festival loom monumental against the desert sky. In Afghanistan, Stephen Dupont finds private moments in the most public of war zones; documenting a young man's fight with aids, Jack Picone illuminates a more private battlefield. But the fervency of the photographers' engagement with their subjects unites their work in a powerful show. "It has a political immediacy and a poetic lyricism that are unique," says curator Johnston.
These Australian photojournalists might look back to the rough-and-ready template of Robert Frank, godfather of American photoreportage, but they're following their own distinct paths. "I don't think any of these guys buy into the objective reporter thing," says photojournalist Blackmore. "Everyone photographs with their heart or their politics or their own aesthetic." In turbulent times, it's reassuring to follow these idiosyncratic eyes through the storm.