Eyes on the world

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Crowds gather in Lviv in western Ukraine of people preparing to escape into Poland on 8 March, 2022. Photos: ABC/Brendan Esposito
Crowds gather in Lviv in western Ukraine of people preparing to escape into Poland on 8 March, 2022. Photos: ABC/Brendan Esposito

One of Australia’s leading news photographers Brendan Esposito has built a career out of running head-on into mayhem, and says much of what makes it possible is the support of his family and his Catholic faith.

The chief photographer at the ABC and the only one on the national broadcaster’s Specialist Reporting Team has seen it all, from the glitz and grit of Olympic Games, royal tours and fashion shows, to daily life, news and sport, and the destruction of crime, violence and war.

His wife Cherie says he has a gift of “being comfortable in uncomfortable situations”, but he admits that the latter kind of assignments do take a toll. He relies on a gentle routine including rest, scripture reading, prayer and the Mass to restore his equilibrium once he’s safely home.

” My faith is something I’ve been able to cling onto to support and ground me.”

And he’s never without rosary beads in his pocket whether he’s covering the aftermath of the mosque killings in Christchurch, navigating winding underground tunnels at Cobar, or grabbing a bullet-proof vest to record life under fire in Lviv.

“I’ve been to a lot of conflict including war in Timor and now Ukraine, but conflict comes in so many forms and that could be domestic violence, gang situations, drug situations, in places where there are problems with trafficking and you are confronted with gangs of people with knives and machetes, in riots with people carrying guns,” he said.

“I don’t want to be boastful, but it takes a special type of character to go into those environments. Are you charismatic and a communicator? Are you courageous, are you hyper vigilant? I have a lot of those characteristics that have allowed me to work in those environments.

Award-winning ABC photographer, Brendan Esposito at his home. Photo: Alphonsus Fok
Award-winning ABC photographer, Brendan Esposito at his home. Photo: Alphonsus Fok

“That doesn’t mean I’ve never been scared. Ninety five per cent of the time I’m in those situations I have an elevated sense of fear, but I’ve had the ability to control and suppress it.

“There are other environments where I struggle, with youth for instance because someone who is 14 or 15 doesn’t relate to me and it’s difficult for me to relate to them. So you would send a younger photographer [for those assignments].

“Photography is all about trust, it’s about being at ease with that subject and getting the best out of that subject.”

At 57 Brendan is a youthful father of five adult children and grandfather of 10 with an ever-growing and close-knit family. He and Cherie have been together since they were teenagers, and are parishioners at All Saints’, Liverpool, and St Anthony of Padua, Austral.

“I had flashbacks to all the pictures that I’d seen from World War II…seeing these things unfold in front of my eyes was extraordinary.”

He began his career in newspapers at the Liverpool Champion and has worked for The Sydney Morning HeraldThe Daily TelegraphAPAAP, and the National Rugby League.

Three years ago he joined the national broadcaster’s special multi-platform team reporting on programs such as Four Corners, 7.30 Report, Australian Story and on special international assignments. His speciality is long-form photo essays which might involve several days working with a journalist or a whole team in what he calls odysseys.

In March, in the early weeks of the war in Ukraine, he joined a number of journalists and producers, camera operators, interpreters and a driver. Spending time in the western city of Lviv and then in Poland, and documenting anxiety-ridden Ukrainian women, children and elderly pouring across the border, Brendan had a profound sense of seeing history repeat itself.

“For me at that stage it was about the humanitarian crisis, the evacuation of the war zone.

Part of the action at a rodeo in Mt Isa in 2019. Photo: ABC/Brendan Esposito
Part of the action at a rodeo in Mt Isa in 2019. Photo: ABC/Brendan Esposito

“There were literally millions of people crossing the border, and I had flashbacks to all the pictures that I’d seen from World War II and that have stuck with me over the years,” he said. “I was seeing these things unfold in front of my eyes which was extraordinary.”

‘All eyes on us’, Brendan’s black and white series of portraits of refugees arriving overnight by train to Lviv enroute to Poland has been nominated as a finalist in this month’s annual national Kennedy Awards for Excellence in Journalism.

If he wins the Outstanding Portrait Photography category it will be the latest in a string of awards including the prestigious Head On Photo Award in 2008 for his powerful portrait of street children held captive to glue-sniffing in Cambodia.

“I’m in a unique position where I have a responsibility be a witness and report what I see as it happens …”

“In some places where there is extreme poverty, such as in Uttar Pradesh in India, seeing things like children dying in front of me is awfully confronting and of course I want to run away from that,” he said.

“But if I don’t take the pictures and tell the world what’s happening in those situations the message may not get out. I’m in a unique position where I have a responsibility to be a witness and report what I see as it happens, to be very ethical and controlled and I take it very seriously.

Some of the devastation wreaked by the early 2020 bushfires in the NSW southern highlands. Photo: ABC/Brendan Esposito

“When I come home from something like that I’m exhausted and angry but I’m surrounded by grandkids here and I have no choice to sit and wallow. I’ve got to get on with my life.

“I’m so blessed in that I come home to Cherie who is very grounded. And we together worked out a system to allow me three or four days to decompress and then I get back into life, I go to church and we both sit together in the mornings and read scripture.

“Photojournalism has made me a better man, and because I have Christian faith and an awareness of something higher I’ve been able to navigate life and I am grateful to be a witness to all the things that I’ve seen.

Children sleeping under a mosquito net in Cambodia, affected by glue sniffing. The portrait won Brendan a national Head On Photography prize in 2008. PHOTO: Brendan Esposito

“I was raised a Catholic, that’s the religion I was exposed to. I could have been raised in a different faith but Christianity has been steadfast for me. My faith is something I’ve been able to cling onto to support and ground me, it’s allowed me to question, allowed me to grow as a Christian, to wonder and look at all these atrocities and think about life.

“Having that constantly underpinning my life has allowed me to function, allowed me to look at things in a very open-minded way and make assessments in my life and have clarity about who I am as a person.”

Cherie and Brendan Esposito

Brendan believes that his best work is still to come and that his marriage to Cherie along with “everything that comes with putting the ring on the finger” has helped him to mature as a person and in his career.

“I think it takes many years to be the right person, the right journalist and witness, to have the empathy and understanding about life that’s required to put your own ego aside, and to know when to go forward and when to pull back,” he said.

“And what I feel very strongly about is ‘thou shalt not judge’. I’ve held true to that in my photography all these years.

“The world is made up of many different types of people and it’s not for me to judge anybody. I may not live your life or want to live your life but that doesn’t mean I don’t have to give you respect and time, and that’s what photography has taught me.”