From bushfires to COVID-19, an exhibition of Herald photographs chronicles an extraordinary year

From bushfires to COVID-19, an exhibition of Herald photographs chronicles an extraordinary year

January 15, 2021

In a year like no other, photographers from The Sydney Morning Herald were out capturing compelling images every day.

And some have already become iconic, like the shot of two firefighters racing for safety as the Green Wattle Creek fire exploded from the bush in a cloud of sparks.

Then there is the memorable photo of a Sydney Boys High student and his grandmother touching their hands on opposite sides of a window during COVID isolation. And the pic of a young Indigenous man wearing an "I Can't Breathe" T-shirt taking a moment for quiet reflection during a Black Lives Matter march.

Firefighters run for safety as the Green Wattle Creek fire explodes into a sudden ember storm in Orangeville.Credit:Nick Moir

More than 200 Herald photographs – some that never even made the paper when they were taken – are included in the annual Photos1440 exhibition that opens at the State Library of NSW on Saturday.

In the 10th year of an exhibition named for the number of minutes in a day, there is a retrospective of key moments captured by Herald photographers during the past decade.

Reaching out during isolation: Sydney Boys High School student William Winter with his elderly grandmother at their Georges Hall family home.Credit:James Alcock

And if many of these photographs document crises, turmoil and heartbreak, others capture history.

There is a character-filled portrait of former prime minister Bob Hawke, whose death was a major story in 2019. Prime minister Scott Morrison shaking hands with US president Donald Trump in the Oval Office. And former High Court justice Dyson Heydon, who an independent inquiry found sexually harassed six young female associates, quietly walking his dog.

Herald managing photo editor Mags King, who curated the exhibition, calls it a celebration of photojournalism that has the power to inspire, educate and influence opinion.

"The year started off with the most extraordinary environmental catastrophe – the bushfires – which we covered for over three months from the tail end of the drought," she says.

Rather than just being a first draft of history, many images capture the emotion around that traumatic fire season then the pandemic.

Memorable portrait: former prime minister Bob Hawke in 2016.Credit:Nic Walker

"They are very evocative of the emotions that everyone was feeling at the time," King says. "These pictures really are captivating."

As well as the traditional deadline pressures, a team led by chief photographer Nick Moir and Gold Walkley Award winner Kate Geraghty often risked their own safety – donning personal protective equipment – to take photos for online and print stories.

King says they were considered essential workers, closely following bushfire and COVID safety protocols. And essential they proved to be in chronicling the character of the times, including the political dramas, sporting moments, personal stories and scenes from city life.

A moment of sombre reflection during a Black Lives Matter march.Credit:James Brickwood

"Most of us were in lockdown but they had to continue doing their jobs," she says.

Photos1440 is at the State Library of NSW from January 16 to April 25, with admission free.

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