The volatility of Australian politics in recent years was a baptism of fire for award-winning press gallery photographer Alex Ellinghausen.

MP Bob Katter addresses the media at Parliament House in Canberra, September 2018.

When Fairfax Media’s Alex Ellinghausen was named Canberra Press Gallery Journalist of the Year in 2018, it was the first time a photographer had won Australia’s most prestigious award for political journalism.

“Alex’s work consistently captures the fine detail and drama of political events,” commented the judging panel, comprised of press gallery peers. “It often does as much – and often more – than any piece of writing to analyse, break news, highlight the atmosphere and expose the unvarnished truth of a story.”

Ellinghausen, who was born and grew up in Singapore, and did three years of military service in the Singapore Army, moved to Australia in 2006 when he was 23. He was a photographer at the Bendigo Advertiser in Victoria for three years before taking up his current role in 2011, shooting for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Australian Financial Review.

Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke congratulates former Prime Minister John Howard after his address the National Press Club of Australia in Canberra, June 2014.

Your career in political photojournalism has spanned a very volatile period in Australian politics – basically, eight years of leadership challenges and spills. How has that been for you?

Like strapping myself into a rollercoaster and hanging on for the ride.

Politics wasn’t a round I sought out. When the opening came up at Fairfax’s Canberra bureau, I was interested but apprehensive. But I’ve come to really enjoy it.

A common misconception is that most of the time we’re photographing boring, middle-aged people behind lecterns. Which is partly true – there are a lot of press conferences. But covering politics is much more than that. It’s a study of body language, human behaviour and ambition, and it has taken me to places I otherwise wouldn’t have visited. Such as the Oval Office at the White House, various G20s and summits around the world. It has been an incredible experience.

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull meets with United States of America President Donald Trump in the Oval Office at the White House during the Prime Minister’s official visit to Washington DC, United States of America, February 2018.

Press gallery photographers need to understand the political subtleties and personal interactions behind what’s going on, and you’re recognised for being very adept at that. Is it something you had from the start, or how did you develop it? 

It’s like covering sport. If you’re not familiar with the rules of the game and don’t know much about the players, it reflects in your photography. It’s not something that can be learnt overnight. It takes years to build upon.

I was very inexperienced in politics at first, but the SMH and The Age have been wonderful in giving me time to learn on the job. I’ve also been fortunate that photographers I’ve worked with have mentored me, not just photographically, but in understanding politics as well. Two in particular – [recently retired senior Fairfax photographer] Andrew Meares and The Guardian’s Mike Bowers. Mike’s one of my fiercest competitors because he’s so good at his job, but he has also been incredibly generous with his time and knowledge. He genuinely wants to see political photojournalism thrive. I enjoy working with that strong competition because we’re constantly pushing each other to get the better shot.

Nino Barbaro kneels before former Opposition Leader Tony Abbott before rising to kiss his forehead, at the Sydney Markets, September 2013.

What’s a typical day for you when parliament is sitting?

It has changed since I started in the press gallery. Back then, I could usually come in around 8 or 9am, when the news cycle tended to kick off with press conferences. But we’ve seen a 24/7 news cycle creep in and every year the political day has started a little bit earlier, to the point where it’s now between 6 and 7am. The MPs want to start off the conversation early in the day and dominate the news cycle.

With 150 members in the lower house and 76 in the upper house, there’s always something going on in the building and it’s virtually impossible to cover everything. You prioritise the most important story of the day, the most important legislation being debated in the chamber, and it tends to lead into Question Time at 2pm. After that finishes at 3.30pm, things usually slow down a bit, especially after the six o’clock news. That being said, when government is trying to push legislation through, I can be in the chamber until 2 or 3am. An average day would be around 6am to 6pm, and a 14-hour day is quite normal.

When parliament’s not sitting, everybody flies out of Canberra and I move around. For example, last week I was in Argentina at the G20, covering Putin and Donald Trump. Next week I’ll be at the Labor Party’s conference in Adelaide.

Labor MP Warren Snowdon comforts domestic violence victims advocate Shirleen Campbell from the Tangentyere Women’s Family Safety Group from Alice Springs, visiting Parliament House to discuss combatting family violence, in Canberra, March 2018.

How many photographers tend to be at any particular event in Parliament House?

Five or six photographers and eight to 10 TV cameras. Factor in the reporters and you’re looking at scrums of at least 15 to 20 people.

Magda Szubanski embraces Anna Brown, co-chair of the Equality campaign, during a rally on the front lawn on the day the same-sex marriage bill pass the House of Representatives, at Parliament House in Canberra, December 2017.

It must be difficult to get a shot that no-one else gets.

Where you should be and where to stand is a bit of a lottery sometimes, and sometimes it doesn’t work out at all.

After the leadership spill in August, when [new PM] Scott Morrison and [new deputy PM] Josh Frydenberg walked out of the party room, we all rushed to the ministerial corridor, and I went to the wrong end. The camera flashes were going off at the other end and I got that sinking feeling in my gut, thinking I’d missed whatever the shot was. In fact, nothing really happened. But by the time Morrison and Frydenberg walked to where I was, one of the cleaners, who had known Frydenberg since the John Howard days, had come out of an office, and she stopped pushing her trolley to give Frydenberg a big hug and a kiss. It was just luck, but I got the shot. Sometimes it pays to stray away from the pack, sometimes it doesn’t.

How has the rise of Facebook and other social media affected your work?

I file my best work to the photo desks, but I also put it on Twitter, and I put some of the more quirky, behind-the-scenes material on Instagram. I have 5,000 Instagram followers and 30,000 on Twitter.

Also, from the politicians’ point of view, social media has allowed them to bypass traditional media to get their message out there. I guess they sometimes feel they don’t get the news coverage they would like and want to communicate directly with their party’s membership base and the wider audience. Tony Abbott was probably the first Australian PM to have an official full-time photographer on staff and it has now become normalised. Malcolm Turnbull had one, Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten have one.

I see those vetted administration images as the visual equivalent of a press release, whereas we [as news media photographers] are trying to distil the message of what’s newsworthy that day. They are trying to present themselves as favourably as they can, on their own terms, and we’re trying to tell the real story. (See related articles on Inside Imaging, The Guardian, and satirical news site The Shovel.)

What attitude do the politicians have to you as a photographer? Do they regard you as the enemy to some extent?
Most of them have thick enough skins and are used to being photographed, and I’d like to think they don’t regard us as the enemy. But they’re all a little bit different. Some love the camera, some are quite camera shy. I don’t have favourites, but some are more expressive and fun to photograph, such as Barnaby Joyce, Bob Katter, Christopher Pyne… They have poor poker faces. You can read what they’re thinking.

Crossbench MP Bob Katter addresses the media while holding a shovel during a doorstop interview at Parliament House in Canberra, September 2018.

In a visual sense, how important is the Parliament House building to you as a photographer?

It can be quite sterile, but it can also be fantastic. There’s a lot of glass and marble, a lot of physical elements to play with. A boring press conference can look quite dramatic at 3pm, with sunlight streaming through a glass ceiling.

Liberal MP Julie Bishop addresses the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra on Tuesday 28 August 2018.

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott arrives for Question Time at Parliament House in Canberra, October 2017.

It’s a very large building. Is physical fitness important in your job?

An activity tracker I wore at one time showed that on parliamentary sitting days, I walk 20,000 to 30,000 steps. I used to go running every morning before work, but since Morrison became PM, it has impacted on my morning ritual. He hits the morning news cycle hard – for example, doing a farm visit at 7.45am, 45 kilometres from Canberra, which means I’m on the road by 5am.

I’ve covered two election campaigns. In 2013, I went with Tony Abbott. And in 2016, with Bill Shorten, which meant being on the road for 56 days in a row. Abbott runs and cycles, and I covered that. Shorten ran 10km five or six days a week on the campaign. I’d sprint ahead, maybe take a photo, then catch up with the group and sprint ahead again. On election campaigns, you want to document every spontaneous interaction with people you can, and you can never tell when that might happen.

The players comb their hair after removing their caps for a team photo with former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for the Prime Minister’s XI cricket match vs Sri Lanka at Manuka Oval in Canberra, February 2017.

What do you carry in your camera kit?

I carry two Canon 1DX Mark II camera bodies. The lenses I use the most are 24-70, 20-200 and 200-400mm zooms. Prime lenses are wonderful, but there has to be a tradeoff with weight. I have a waist pouch instead of a bag. It weighs about 2.5 kilos and contains a camera flash, an iPad, a power bank for my iPhone, a spare camera battery and a wide-angle lens. I push everything out [to the photo editors] via my iPad and iPhone.

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard during an address to survivors in the Great Hall after the National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse in the House of Representatives, at Parliament House in Canberra, October 2018.

Do you ever have the time to photograph anything apart from politics?
When parliament’s not sitting, I get to do an incredible variety of jobs. I try to shoot tennis at the Australian Open every January, and in the past few years I’ve covered Australian military operations in Afghanistan, the Uighur Muslim community in Adelaide, refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island, Aboriginal issues in Arnhem Land…

Gumatj clan ceremonial leaders performing the Gurtha ceremony at the opening ceremony of the First Nations National Convention held in Uluru, at the Mutitjulu community, on Tuesday 23 May 2017. 

Roger Federer in action. Richard Gasquet vs Roger Federer at the Rod Laver Arena Australian Open 2018 tennis tournament in Melbourne on Saturday 20 January 2018. 

Twitter: @ellinghausen

Instagram: @alexellinghausen

Article by Steve Packer

Excerpt from  Photo Review Issue 79  

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