She’s photographed everyone from the Pope and prime ministers to the Queen, and the King of Pop. But it is the less conspicuous characters in her impressive portfolio that have made a lasting impression on Renee Nowytarger.
“It’s funny, people say, ‘What celebrities have you met?’,” the award-winning photojournalist from The Australian newspaper told Macleay College students this week.
“I’ve photographed Kate Blanchett, Kylie Minogue, Michael Jackson… other actors, but to me the people that are important are, like, the refugees. Them telling their story is just amazing.
“I don’t get that excited about celebrities. I love people.
“I spent seven months in a four-wheel drive with a swag and a reporter, and we just travelled around the Northern Territory and did stories on indigenous communities. It was awesome.”
It’s this genuine curiosity and passion for humanity that has seen Renee chosen to cover some of the most challenging news events of the past two decades – the Tampa crisis in Nauru, the Tsunami in Banda Aceh, the two Bali bombings, both Fiji coups and the bloodshed in East Timor.
Her street-smart demeanour and innate news sense have helped her deliver striking and powerful images, recording history across the front pages of Australia’s News Corp publications. And although she is unjustly humble about her work, the privilege of her profession is not lost on her.
“In all honesty, my life, with my job, has been absolutely fucking amazing,” she said.
“I have seen and experienced the most amazing things. I could probably say that I have experienced sometimes more in one week than people see in their entire lives.
“All the adventurous things you could think of, I get paid to do. I’ve gone on fishing trawlers to get around … I’ve hiked up mountains in East Timor, I’ve gone in tanks, planes, helicopters…”
A triple Walkley-award winner, Renee was the first female photographer to be awarded the Nikon Press Photographer of the Year in 2005. She has also more recently featured on the judging panel.
It was during the Fiji Coup of 2000 that Renee had a coup of her own. Following a tip off that Prime Minister Mahendra Choudry and his government ministers were about to released after being held hostage by rebels for 56 days she camped outside the parliamentary complex in her car for two days.
“It was aweful … but it paid off,” she said.
“It was a world exclusive. I was the only person to get photographs of Choudry and the other ministers in the back of the truck. And I put it down to (the fact that) when I was a kid I was a really fast sprinter. And I chased this truck and I jumped in.
“The funny thing was I took a couple of photos but then everybody was just hugging me .. and I was like, ‘This is awesome’, and then I didn’t take any more photos.”
The Prime Minister told Renee she could stay with him and photograph his reunion with his wife and family.
“So I sat there thinking this is going to be amazing … mind blowing.
“But we’re driving along and the van stops. I thought this is not good. And this soldier gets out from the front, comes around the gun, points the gun at my stomach and literally pushes me out of the van. I was pleading with him to let me stay in there: ‘The Prime Minister says it’s OK!’ And he said, ‘Get out’.”
But later with the media pack outside the gates of his home, the prime minister came out to meet Renee and invite her into the house to meet his wife: “So it was a pretty amazing experience.”
But for all its rewards her career has not without its costs. A work roster at the mercy of natural disasters meant Renee could never make plans or buy tickets to anything in advance and, in 20 years, she has only made one friend’s wedding. It was actually several hours into a friend’s hens’ night in 2005 when she checked her phone and saw 55 missed calls from the newsroom – the second Bali bombings.
“It was 11 o’clock at night and I’d just come off the dance floor… I checked my phone. The last message was from my editor-in-chief: ‘Renee, where the fuck are you?’,” she recalled.
“So they booked me on a flight for 6 o’clock the next morning. I never made that wedding.
“Even things like the Fiji Coup, I had two hours’ notice and I came back two-and-a-half months later. The (2002) Bali bombings, I thought I was going for three or four weeks; I came back 11 months later.”
Renee has escaped death on more than one occasion, been shot at and threatened, she’s lost colleagues in danger zones and seen trauma and suffering that even looking through a lens could not temper.
And although many of her colleagues have suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, something she takes “very seriously”, Renee admitted she had only seen a counsellor once.
“The counsellor told me I have the perfect temperament (for the work) because I have the idea that I’m lucky because I get to come home. I think that what I go through to take the photographs is nothing compared to the people I photograph.” – Fiona West