Think Piece – When a picture paints a 1000 words
On 8 February 1988, I stepped aboard HMAS CERBERUS to start what would be my 15-year career with the Royal Australian Navy. Little did I know, or appreciate at the time, the positive impact this step would have on my life.
I am often asked why I joined the Navy, and would like to say it was because of a long family tradition in naval careers. Truth is I joined because I saw a recruitment ad in “New Idea”. True story! I had recently completed high school and was working as a McDonald’s Manager at their Cross Road’s restaurant, when between shifts I found myself flicking through this popular women’s magazine while sitting in the back garden with my Mum. A Navy recruitment ad jumped out at me and I immediately said to Mum, “I’m going to join the Navy” to which she replied, “what a great idea!” A few days later, there I was, sitting in the Navy recruitment office in Adelaide on Grenfell Street, being interviewed by Chief Petty Officer, Phil Beck. Don’t ask me how I remember his name but I do!
I had ‘no idea’ about anything to do with the Navy, let alone what was involved in military service. But I knew it offered me a life I had never imagined and fed a desire I had to explore ‘unchartered waters’! (groan) . Perhaps this zest for adventure was something I acquired from my days as a youngster travelling with my family between Denmark and England, before we came to Australia. I like to think it was.
Chief Beck asked what I knew about the Navy, who I knew in the Navy, and what job I wanted to do in the Navy. My answers to which were… nothing, nada, no idea! I can only imagine what he must have thought. Nonetheless he proceeded to recruit me undaunted.
Next came the form-filling, testing and medicals before a 12-month wait was followed by 5-days’ notice to pack my bags for recruit school training. I swore my oath, said goodbye to family and friends and somewhat ironically boarded the plane for Victoria, before being welcomed aboard HMAS CERBERUS.
Two people I met in the RAN whom I will always rate highly are Commodore RANR Syd Lemon AM, and Rear Admiral Nigel Coates AM. (Actually there are three if you count my husband whom I met whilst serving and who definitely rates a mention!)
Commodore RANR Syd Lemon AM was my first ‘boss’. After completing my basic category training, I was posted to the Navy Office in Canberra. This was common for most ‘Writers’ straight out of Category School; a Writer being what the Navy used to call Admin personnel. Syd is a very tall man with a commanding voice and keen intellect. At the time he was a Commander, and Director of Navy Logistic Planning. He was the head of DNLP; a small directorate that I was to learn consisted of Syd, Lieutenant Peter Barns and now me. To this day Syd and I remain in contact, and I will always value his wonderful friendship and professional support.
Rear Admiral Nigel Coates AM was my Commanding Officer during my first 12 months of service on board the Guided Missile Frigate, HMAS CANBERRA. This was my second sea posting but my first on a war ship, and as a Petty Officer in the role of Commanding Officer’s Secretary (COSEC). Under RADM Coates I worked hard and we developed a mutual respect. Nigel always encouraged me to take the lead, not only as COSEC, but as a Senior Sailor. He was respected by all he commanded and had a management style that was tough, yet fair. Sadly Nigel passed away in June 2010, following a short and very aggressive illness. I will always remember him with great fondness and admiration.
Both Syd and Nigel taught me to take the lead and to take charge of whatever situation I was faced with. Whilst not always giving me the answer, they both guided me to make my own decisions.
I never once gave a second thought to my decision to join the Navy. It exceeded my expectations; became my dream job – and gave me a career where no other alternative ever crossed my mind. It took me to Sydney and Melbourne, to postings on board HMAS WESTRALIA, HMAS STIRLING and HMAS CANBERRA in Western Australia. My navy career came to a sudden end in 2003 when I was medically discharged due to a spinal injury.
On 20th of April 2015, I captured my first portrait for the AIPP “Reflections” Project. Little did I imagine what an effect this would have on me personally or professionally, but like the impulse I had to enlist in the Navy, there was no doubt I had to be involved in this nationwide project as soon as I first heard about it. I saw it as my duty, and it will definitely go down as a highlight of my career as a professional photographer.
Nothing could have prepared me for the impact photographing South Australia’s living World War II veterans would have on me. To meet these men and women in their homes, to hear their stories, meet their families and to capture their portraits was both a privilege and an absolute pleasure.
These veterans were an extension of my naval community that had been my life for 15 years. I learned that I had never really left that community – you know how it goes, you can take the girl out of the Navy…yadah, yadah, yadah…
I felt at home with these servicemen and women and they felt at home with me. We spoke a common language. Many of them had seen active service. They had given everything asked of them, fighting in far distant places that included Tobruk and El Alemien in Northern Africa, in Syria in the Middle East, in France, Belgium and England in Europe, and in the Pacific and Northern Australia. They had stories you won’t believe. Stories of courage and determination, told with humility and that laconic Australian ‘well someone’s gotta do it – may as well be me’ attitude, personifying what it means to be part of our great Anzac tradition.
One of the most engaging veterans I photographed, who has become the poster boy of the ‘Wish me luck’ exhibition (on now at Flinders University Art Museum) is 98 year old Clifford Brice, a true Rat of Tobruk! Clifford is a living legend. He represents everything that is remarkable about the unsung heroes of our communities. The shy, humble and unassuming servicemen and women who walk amongst us every day, whose stories of service are incredible, and whom we would never know had served because their humility prevents them from sharing this fact with us. In Clifford’s case he showed me the diary he kept during his time in Tobruk, in Libya. Written on toilet paper, using lead pencil, it is about the size of an A6 notebook, wrapped in the same protective tissue that has held it together for more than 70 years. These are the precious moments in life that no-one can imagine or anticipate, and which will forever be cherished by me. Another was meeting Rex Lipman AO, just ten days before he died; an absolute gentleman to the last, and an absolute honour and privilege for me.
To date, AIPP has collected over 5,500 portraits, of which more than 1050 are of South Australian World War II veterans. While the Anzac Centenary encourages us to look at the Great War it also encourages us to consider a century of service, reflecting on all the servicemen and women who have gone before us, as well as those who currently serve. I am proud to be one of these, and to have played a small part in bringing the stories of our World War II veterans into the public view through being involved in a project to take their photographic portrait. I hope these portraits help to ensure they will always be remembered, and that their stories will be recorded for future generations to learn from and appreciate. They gave much for their country and for this we must always be grateful.
Just as lives can be lost in an instant, photographers know it is the power of a quality photographic portrait that will live on, capturing a person, a moment in time and preserving them and that moment forever. Please see ‘Wish me luck’ while you can.
Lest we forget.
For more information about Wish me luck, including exhibition dates and times click here.
Louise Bagger became a professional photographer in 2009, following a 15-year career with the Royal Australian Navy. Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, Louise emigrated to Adelaide with her family in 1979, aged 10. Her introduction to photography came at 15yrs of age after studying photography as a school elective. It is a passion that has never waned. Training under the guidance of respected Adelaide photographer, Norman Weedall from the Gainsborough School of Professional Photography, Louise graduated in 2010, and achieved her Australian Institute for Professional Photography (AIPP) accreditation in 2011. In 2015, Louise volunteered to be the State Coordinator of the “AIPP Reflections” project, where she was able to combine her background in the navy with her passion for photography. She was recently appointed National Coordinator for this nationwide project, devised specially by AIPP for the Anzac Centenary. Louise co-curated ‘Wish me luck” which features 100 portrait photographs of World War II veterans taken by 30 of South Australia’s professional photographers. Wish me luck is currently on exhibition at the Flinders University City Gallery until 11 September. Louise lives in the Adelaide Hills with her husband Stephen, and their 15 year old daughter Emma. A portfolio of Louise’s work can be viewed at www.louisebagger.com.au