Brett Phibbs’ career has seen him photograph the East Antarctic ice flows, capture the excitement of international sporting events and the devastation of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. However this photo-journalist gets the same buzz whether he’s shooting in- ternational news or capturing local stories for the New Zealand Herald.
“It’s kind of like you’re recording history on any given day,” explains Phibbs. “You’re getting people at their best and their worst and at their most beautiful and their most ugly.”
The past 23 years Phibbs spent working for the New Zealand Herald have given him reverence of the power of great, newspaper photography – especially in a social media age saturated by millions of iPhone pictures.
“It’s got the impact. It’s making something mortal, immortal.”
“It can be brutal. It’s in your face. It’s a millisecond in time that you’re never going to recreate again.”
Phibbs was not interested in photography before he fell into it around 1986 after leaving school. He was working at a camera shop on the South Is- land to save money for a surfing trip to Australia.
He freelanced for a number of local mastheads before joining the Christchurch Star, and then moving to The New Zealand Herald where he has been ever since.
Phibbs was named Photographer of the Year in the Canon Media Awards this year, and in 2011 was awarded the same honour by New Zealand Geographic, but he says awards mean less as he gets older.
“You don’t do it for the awards,” he said. “I don’t take it too seriously, to be honest, but it’s nice, I suppose, for the bosses.”
Certainly the bosses have taken notice. “Brett is a guy you can really rely on to not only get the job done, but also to get that extra dimension that makes our pages stand out,” says New Zealand Herald’s deputy picture editor Alex Robertson. “His genius is to see the potential in a picture and then to work really hard to make that idea come to fruition.”
Robertson believes Phibbs is one of the best photographers he has worked with. The paper will often come up with new angles on sports stories just so they can use more of Brett’s pictures, he says.
One of Phibbs’ most internationally well-known shots is from 1995. It features police dragging activist Sue Bradford by the ears away from a protest outside the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
“Sometimes you just sense things happening around you, and you just put yourself in a position to get the best possible chance of getting that shot. That comes with experience,” Phibbs said.
“That Sue Bradford shot was one of them – I knew she was going to get hauled away eventually.
“You just have to keep calm and know what you’re shooting, know your subject, there’s no recipe.”
Sometimes it’s what’s happening on the sidelines that makes the best story, as he experienced shooting the FIFA World Cup in 2010. The New Zealand team was training at a field in Daveyton, South Africa.
“Right next to the stadium, there was this dusty old patch with all these kids playing on it.
“I went back the next day and the sun was going down and got some really memorable images and that’s what gets you going. Those moments that come together.”
Phibbs loves working and experimenting with natural light but sometimes it’s the more destructive forces of nature that dominate his work, like in 2004 when he walked the Thai beaches following the Boxing Day tsunami.
“It’s a surreal thing,” Phibbs said. “I’m walking around in shorts and a T-shirt, and there’s a sea of bodies you’re stepping over, and dogs chewing on legs, and it’s pretty horrific.
“I might laugh, but it’s just the way I probably get through it. You can hide behind your camera a little bit.”
Only five years later, Phibbs found himself on assignment in Samoa in the wake of another devastating tsunami.
“You have to be a realist in a way, and treat your subjects with integrity, and record it the best you can. You’re doing your job,” he said. Upon returning home, “you have to put it to one side.”
Phibbs says the variety of being a newspaper photographer is what makes it better than any other photography job, and says he would like to get another 20 years in. But despite his love for the work, he doesn’t consider it a hobby – “I’m not a gadget man, I just use what I use and that’s it.”
Nor will he revisit old territory – once he has filed, he rarely thinks about past work. “Probably what I do dwell on are the ones that I missed. That’s what gives you nightmares sometimes,” he said.
There’s a lot of change in his line of work, he said, including a greater emphasis on video content. The camera he uses, a Canon EOS-1D X, can shoot high-definition footage.
“I’m working on video features as we speak,” Phibbs said. One of his videos is about “a wakeboarding horse, which is quite cool”.
However, he doesn’t see video becoming part of working on a major, high-profile assignment anytime soon – shooting video takes too much time away from documenting major events, and newspaper photographs are still the most powerful way of reaching people.
However Phibbs’ is concerned about the rise of journalists using mobile cameras saying it can cheapen his art form if people ignore the value of a well composed, thoughtful photograph.
“News agencies are dropping photographers just because they think it’s easy to drop them and it’s a cost. But photojournalists in their own right are news gatherers.
“A journalist crafts a story with word. A great photo-journalist looks beyond the words and in between the lines to get the essence of a story.”
TITLE CARD CAPTIONS:
1. Colonel Yugala, chief of Royal Thai Army Chemical Department Task Force, who was in charge of spraying disinfectant over bodies at Takuapa, on Phuket, following the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004.
2.England winger Chris Ashton swan dives for his try during a match between England and Georgia in the 2011 Rugby World Cup at Dunedin.
3. Resort in Khao Lok, Thailand devastated in the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami.