Beauty of a city in grief

The Bulletin - - News Photographers Of Year -

THE first thing that hit Toby Zerna as he looked out onto the sea of flow­ers at Martin Place was the smell. Stand­ing on the rooftop of the Com­mer­cial Trav­eller’s As­so­ci­a­tion club, Zerna had full view of the flo­ral trib­ute for the vic­tims of the 2014 Lindt Cafe siege but was struck by the aroma that filled his nos­trils.

“When I got out the door and looked over the edge, the smell was just the world’s big­gest open air florist. The smell from all the bou­quets com­ing up was in­cred­i­ble,” he says.

It was here the News Corp Aus­tralia pho­tog­ra­pher took the photo that won him the PANPA News Pho­tog­ra­pher of the Year (na­tional/metropoli­tan), in a tie with Si­mon Maude from North Shore

Times in New Zealand. His photo, taken on the third day of the lay­ing of trib­utes by a city im­mersed in grief, is awash with the reds, yel­lows and pur­ples of the flow­ers in mem­ory of the two vic­tims – cafe man­ager Tori John­son and bar­ris­ter Katrina Daw­son.

How­ever, there is more to the pic­ture than first meets the eye.

“If you look in close, it’s not easy to see ini­tially, but there’s ac­tu­ally a love heart in the mid­dle of the flow­ers,” Zerna says. “I think that’s what drew me to it.

“There’s also a per­son walk­ing down the stairs to give the pic­ture scale, but it’s also what he is car­ry­ing.”

Zerna zoomed into the photo sev­eral times to con­firm that the man was car­ry­ing a box con­tain­ing A4 print­ing pa­per. “Life still goes on ev­ery day, and peo­ple still have to do mun­dane things like go and pur­chase pa­per for the of­fice sup­plies,” he said.

“It’s got al­most all those con­tra­dic­tions to it, or jux­ta­po­si­tions, where ev­ery­day life is go­ing on while there’s this huge out­pour­ing of grief.”

Zerna scouted sev­eral lo­ca­tions be­fore set­tling on the Com­mer­cial Trav­eller’s As­so­ci­a­tion club, be­cause of its el­e­va­tion. Ini­tially, he planned to do a time-lapse of the flow­ers, but no place al­lowed him to leave a GoPro for that length of time.

On the day of the siege, De­cem­ber 15, 2014, Zerna had a job at the Syd­ney Po­lice Cen­tre in Surry Hills to pho­to­graph po­lice­men and their dogs. As he met with the me­dia per­son, he was in­formed of a sit­u­a­tion at Martin Place, with re­ports of a “guy with a sawn-off shot­gun hold­ing up a cafe”.

As they stood talk­ing, Zerna saw po­lice cars rush­ing off. Im­me­di­ately, he and his team jumped into a cab and headed down town. At that point, El­iz­a­beth St had al­ready been blocked off, with Mac­quarie St shut­ting down, and perime­ters be­ing set up. Zerna landed on Philip St, look­ing straight into the glass doors of the Lindt Café.

“I could see peo­ple in­side, hold­ing the flags up against the win­dows,” Zerna says. “And I could see peo­ple at the front desk hold­ing their hands up.”

To Zerna, win­ning the PANPA award for his photo was bit­ter­sweet. It was great to be recog­nised for his work, but the friends and fam­i­lies of the two vic­tims had suf­fered a loss.

“I guess the flip­side would be that it still shows the best side of hu­man­ity, that some­thing so beau­ti­ful could come … from a tragic event like that,” he says.

Zerna first took an in­ter­est in pho­tog­ra­phy while tak­ing pho­tos at fam­ily gath­er­ings. “It starts with my mum. She was al­ways out at fam­ily events with a cam­era. Just hav­ing some­one in the fam­ily al­ways out with the cam­era was the first ex­po­sure I had to it,” he says.

“Then I’d start to take over and ask if I could have a go, and I’d end up tak­ing more pho­tos than she would. This was back in the film days, so you had to be quite con­ser­va­tive, you get 24 or 36 ex­po­sures, so you didn’t want to waste any­thing.”

Although chal­lenges abound, Zerna en­joys work­ing as a news pho­tog­ra­pher. He has been par­tic­u­larly fond of the peo­ple he has met. “I love peo­ple, I love pho­tograph­ing their per­son­al­i­ties, and get­ting a bit of who they are in the photo, and record­ing his­tory as well. It’s such an amaz­ing priv­i­lege to be able to do that,” he says.

It al­ways amazes him to see the amount of trust given to him. “You have to build it as well, but so many doors open when you say you’re from the

Tele­graph, or any other me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tion.

“Peo­ple open up their doors, in­vite you into their homes, in­vite you into their of­fices, into their lives, and you get a priv­i­leged po­si­tion to doc­u­ment who they are.”

Still, there are har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ences. In 2010, Zerna was sent to Christ­mas Is­land. A boat car­ry­ing 90 asy­lum seek­ers had crashed into the rocks, killing 48 peo­ple. He landed straight af­ter the dis­as­ter oc­curred, and spent about a week on the is­land.

He re­calls watch­ing sur­vivors ap­proach the makeshift morgue to iden­tity the peo­ple re­cov­ered. The looks on their faces still haunts him. “You feel for them, and you feel for the sit­u­a­tion they’re in. And, you still have to doc­u­ment the event it­self, so that’s quite chal­leng­ing,” he says.

Zerna’s Twit­ter bio says that he is “al­ways chas­ing THE ca­reer defin­ing photo”. When asked if his photo ‘Syd­ney Sea of Love’ is it, he says it may be for now.

“Per­haps for the mo­ment it might be one that de­fines my ca­reer up un­til this point but, you never know, there’s al­ways some­thing – who knows what’s around the cor­ner?”

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